Pictorial Table Screen, Mongol & Mandarin, 22.25cm

22.25cm by 12.75cm


22.25cm by 12.75cm

Ellen Johnston Laing was the first scholar to publish research on the genre of  ‘pictorial jades’ or jade as a canvas upon which to carve a sequence of narrative scenes, similar to a scroll painting or a wood-cut book of illustrations.  Had it not been for her, this writer may have continued looking at the trees without seeing the forest – the fascinating tout ensemble of all of the scenes, symbols, and metaphors.  With this genre of jade carving, the connotation of permanence given by ‘written in stone’ takes on a pictorial narrative dimension relatively unrecognized  before Dr. Laing.

This double faced tablet or table screen has as main subject on its first side of the pictorial narrative a Mongol on horseback before a bridge  and on the obverse side a noble Chinese man standing before a bridge.  The poem and the imagery storyline read right to left, front to back tells the repeating story of ‘illiterate’ Mongols, then Manchus persecution of the Han Chinese ‘Literati’ for offenses seen in their poems and paintings.  The story, for example, of this poem: “清风不识字,何故乱翻.", which means  “the light breeze is illiterate, why bother turning the pages of a book”. The poet who wrote this poem was reported to have been executed for this harmless sounding poem because the Qing dynasty’s “Qing” is the same chinese character as the “light” which describe the breeze.   The Mongols seemed more inclined to exile, as told in this table screen, than to execute.  A final application for engraved or pictorial stele and table screen sized tablets is as the first multiple copying ‘press’, with the ‘press’ or pressure coming in the form of rubbings on rice paper.


The pictorial narrative on this double faced tablet or table screen begins on the ‘horseman side’ and continues on the opposite side with a man of noble appearance and young man behind him.  The imagery should be view from right to left on both sides.  The story it tells is of a Mongolian official on horseback approaching a wooden bridge that leads to a sleepy hamlet surrounded by trees with mist rising and a Lingzhi shaped cloud in bold relief is rolling across.  He turns to address a peasant laden with large containers at each end of a pole across his shoulder.  The horseman represents the Mongolian conquerors, who became the Yuan dynasty of China.  The dormant village is the domain of the vanquished So. Song people and the overloaded man is the defeated and economic deprived Han people of the So. Song.  The mission of the Mongolian horseman may be to arrest the aristocratic Literati who stands in contemplation on the opposite side.  Carved with handsome impressionistic features and bearded face, he stands before a stone bridge without handrails, crossing a narrow chasm of water with strong currents.  On the other side of the bridge he faces the challenge of a steeply inclined terrain with acute outcroppings of rock.  He represents one of the Han Chinese aristocrats formally educated for government positions, but exiled to lives of poverty in the provinces for political reasons as well as  ethnic discrimination in the Yuan period.   Some were known as Literati and taught themselves the art of the poet and the painter, producing art styles new and creatively  unrestricted by formal academic education and oversight.   As banished to the countryside wanderers, many subsisted on meager sales and handouts.  The poem, in full relief characters above the standing man, describes one of these, or perhaps, all of these lonely and growing old men. He could be the Song poet, Su Shi, or the Yuan painter, Gong Kai.  Behind him, with left foot raised taking a step forward as if about to walk into the body of the stationary old man is a young man carrying a double gourd, symbolic of magic, memories and dreams, on the end of a bamboo pole.  He could be an apparition of the old man in his youth, with the double gourd encapsulating the idealism and dreams from the past.  We leave him with those thoughts as he pauses at a bridge, perhaps considering the hardships of even older age on the other side – while the Mongol official, not far behind, is about to cross another bridge to find him.

Description – pointing out metaphor and symbolism:

This rectangular yellow tone ‘table screen’ jade plaque has a relief script carved date with a ‘free hand’ incised name and a seal or colophon.  Chinese dates before the modern Chinese calendar was formed in 1645 is very difficult.  The modern calendar is much more accurate than all others. And in 1911, the Chinese Government abolished the traditional practice of counting years from the accession of an emperor and started using the Gregorian calendar as Chinese general calendar. Prior to Jesuit priests introducing this new concept of recording months and years, an emperor might also declare a new era at various times within his reign, no only at his accession.  And given that superstition based astrological influences were included, there is little wonder that translating early Chinese recorded dates is most often guesswork more than science based.  The date on this table screen has had two interpretations, one Song and one Yuan, both preceding the modern calendar, which perhaps accounts for the difference.  It is quite rare to find a calendar date, name, signature and seal or colophon on a jade carving, but without further further research, it is but one of several clues to finding an attribution for this piece.  Other clues will be discussed in the following text. For more Calendar info, link: Chinese Calendar

Based on the Mongolian apparel, accessories,  symbolism and narrative suggestions of the composition – all point to this work belonging to the Yuan dynasty.  There is an incised signature, Jing Ai (?), which may belong to the artist/artisan who carved the piece or one of the owners through whose hands it passed.

The main character on this date/signature side that begins the total narrative is a horseman with a typical Mongol cap with apron draping over  back of neck.  Kublai Khan with such a head-dress: .  The same style head-dress is often seen in pictures of Genghis Khan, which, of course, attest more to the attire being Mongolian than the face being Genghis Khan.

The profile view of the table screen horseman’s face shows long slanted eyes, craggy featured face, beard and mustache.

The horseman turns to his left, his whip raised with right hand.  Mongol horsewhip:   “The Mongols preferred to use a whip to urge their horses on during battle, while their European opponents preferred pointed heels or spurs. The whip provided them with a tactical advantage because it was safer and more acceptable by the horse than spurs: a whip can be long enough to reach around armor and gives a superficial stinging signal rather than a rib bruising pain for the horse. (ref. Swietoslawski, W. “A confrontation between two worlds: the arms and armor of Central European and Mongol forces in the first half of the Thirteenth century”).  The Mongolian horsewhip, in this picture, raised high is an obvious symbol of authority and, in the hands of the Mongolian conquerors and their relationship with the vanquished native Han people it was a metaphor for oppression.

The horseman may represent a Mongol government tax collector or someone with policing and arresting authority.  Perhaps he is seeking the noble countenanced man on the obverse side.  He turns in the saddle and looks back at a man heavily burdened by cargo at each end of a pole that is carried across his shoulders and downward bending at each end from the weight.  Attached to the cargo on the left side is a shovel, with handle pointed downward.  The standing man has his back to the viewer and looks up and to his left toward the horseman as if he may be giving directions or answering questions;  he wears a loose fitting, long sleeved tunic and pant and a rounded head-dress or cap.  He may symbolize the Han Chinese, subservient to the Yuan Mongol overlords who profited from their labor and taxes.

THE HORSE – in balking, apprehensive posture, leaning back, he extends his left leg in testing fashion as a horse will do in fear of crossing a small, wooden bridge.  His right leg is up and ready to jump backward if necessary.  Of the horse’s tack, only the nose strap and reigns of the bridle and the loose fitting crupper strap along the flank and under the tail are shown, and the hair of the horse’s tail appears to have been shaved down to the bare, full length dock, as was done with horses subject to harness and/or armor to prevent entanglement from the long strands of hair.  The horse was often used as a metaphor of humans, especially artists, under control of government authorities.  This suspicious and reluctant horse shows fear of the bridge that will take his rider, a Mongol, across the narrow, no backing out bridge into the pacific, perhaps hibernating hamlet that may symbolize the provincial heartland of the Southern Song Han people.

Perhaps the most famous of all horse metaphor painting was the Emaciated Horse by Gong Kai, 1222-1307.  Gong.Kai was one of many well educated Song Dynasty loyalist, who were discriminated against by the Yuan government and found themselves unemployable and in self or government dictated exile to wander the countryside from one rural town to another as traveling mendicant poets and painters, self taught rather than having formal training.  Not having to please and depend on the court or the government officialdom for consignments, they felt the freedom to express political criticism and develop original artistic styles full of metaphor and symbolism.  They were self-taught and sometimes known as Literati artists.  The Emaciated Horse painting, showed a mistreated, skin and bones horse in an advanced stage of starvation, metaphorically recognizable by Song loyalist as themselves and symbolizing the condition of Han people in China under the Mongols.  Gong Kai was said to have been an imposing figure: tall, stately, dignified, and strong.  And these characteristics were thought to have been conveyed through his bold brushstrokes that captured essence and impression rather than detail and exactitude.  Not unlike this table screen style of carving.  The pictorial narrative of the horse approaching the sleepy, mist rising and cloud enveloping cottages, with all the noted symbolism and metaphor could have been inspired by Gong Kai, as it could by the life and work of Su Shi, or several other of the politically banned, wandering painters and poets.   Click link to see the Emaciated Horse painting and more on Gong Kai: Gong Kai & Horse symbol

In the landscape at the upper part of the horseman side of the table screen, the placid lake borders a dense forest on the left and the foot of  a steep mountain beyond.  The plain faced mountain is cleverly defined by a steep diagonal line that utilized a natural fissure in the original, uncarved stone.  It extends downward to meet and form an acute angle with another, carved in relief, straight and less steep line of a second mountain ridge, with the sky opening in the slightly recessed space between the two raised lines.  The calm water of the lake changes to short ripples along the banks of two cottages with high pitched roofs and apparently part of a village nestled among trees.  Scalloped formations of rising mist and lingzhi shaped clouds trailed by twisting stalks roll in front of the houses and trees, and the hovering mist and low  clouds rolling in reflect the early morning cooler air from the lake moving over the sunlight warming land and trees.  It may be interpreted as giving an ominous feeling of bad things to come from the approaching horseman.   This mood is furthered by the bare, pitchfork like branches and stems of the gnarled, twisted tree trunk on the picture’s right border and the leafless and growth-stunted tree on the foreground water’s bank.  The sharply forked branches point to the left or west, as if forced in that direction by a prevailing, relentless wind.  These leaf-barren trees, along with the full sleeved and head covered dress of the two men, suggest the season is Winter and the day is cold.  The forked branches and stems are sinister and add to the overall sense of foreboding the scene conveys.

At the bottom of the screen the lake has an outlet channel that must be crossed by the wooden bridge that is balking the horse.  Under the bridge the water changes from placid to rapidly flowing currents the cascade around the bridge pilings and the projecting contours of the banks.  The carving of these, like the jui or lingzhi cloud formation above is stylistically as if by quick chops of an axe or hammer strikes to a chisel rather than fastidiously abraded by treadle driven small wheels .  And on a much smaller scale of facial features even, this technique of sculpting with broad, bold and relatively deep beveled cuts, seems quite contrary to the lapidary abrading of lines finely and precisely incised or raised in relief with the techniques most often seen in jade carving.  These, again, are more like strokes of the brush of a bold and arrogantly assured calligrapher or the lines cut into woodcut plates, which are known to have influenced pictorial art in jade carvings.  The left to right progression of scroll paintings is also known to have influenced the picture sequence of pictorial narratives, as with that on our ‘Palatial’ vase.  And in the case of this jade screen, the opening page, or side, would be the horseman, followed by the obverse featuring the statuesque Literati and double gourd bearing attendant.  These axe or chisel notched cuts used in this double faced,  pictorial narrative table screen are also unlike the other pictorial jade in our collection, the ‘Palatial’ vase with the ‘Boys at Play in an Urban Garden’ theme.  The carving style of this scroll type picture consists of fine incisions and nuanced, bevel defined, shallow layers, i.e.  “..beveling of clouds and contouring surface to give shadow or chiaroscuro effect, so much like the Yaozhou carved celadon ceramic.  

Note the difference in the style of pictorial jade carving above and that of the table screen.  Both styles of carving were inspired by two distinctly different brush stroke styles of ink painting.  The above described style of the boy’s playing carving contrasts greatly with the bold brushstroke type axe cuts of the table screen; these seem as impromptu and effortless as those of a master calligrapher.

THE OBVERSE SIDE  of the table screen focuses on a bearded, mustachioed,  stately looking man in robed apparel, with his right arm held across his chest.  He is followed by someone with a double gourd vessel suspended from one end of a pole leaning on his shoulder.  In contrast to the heavily burdened peasant on the horseman side,  this individual appears to be a young man with a bear head of short, straight hair.  He looks down at the ground in contrast to the man immediately before him  Could he be an apparition of the old man in his youth, with the double gourd encapsulating his idealism and holding his dreams.  The double gourd is associated with the fantasy world, used by legendary figures to carry medicines with magic power.  The robed man stands tall, looking straight forward with dignity and stoicism, as he seems to contemplate the bridge before him covering a narrow but torrential current of water.  Unlike the bridge crossing on the opposite side, however, this bridge is of thick, overlapping, solid stone, not wood.  And with no support side rails.  With balance here, however, there is no danger of breaking.  The ordeal will be after passage over the bridge to the side of the steep mountain incline with sharp rock outcropping.  Is this the passage into yet more of the life of exile, the punishing life of the traveling painters and poets?  Or is it to an even more demanding struggle with an ignominious existence?  The other major symbol of this side’s right to left narration is the tall, pine that canopies this stately man, this regal, long-lived pine “considered as the ultimate test of time, symbolizing a wise and brave old person who has withstood and experienced many difficulties.”  It is a positive symbol for the noble under persecution artist.  It is shade and shelter giving and stands in full evergreen contrast to the weather beaten tree on the other side.

‘In Chinese thought, the always green and fragrant pine, though bearing twisting branches, reaches up to the skies with its straight and powerful trunk like an upright person imbued with the strength and virtue to overcome all adversities. In The Analects of Confucius (551-479 BC), it is written, “In winter, the pine and cypress are known as the last to fade away (歲寒,然後知松柏之後凋也).” Consequently, the pine became considered as the ultimate test of time, symbolizing a wise and brave old person who has withstood and experienced many difficulties. Therefore, in Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (司馬遷, 145-86 BC), the pine was already known as the “Chief of the Trees (百木之長).” ‘

The poem in strong relief script above the stoically erect standing man sings softly of acceptance of age and loneliness and the doleful plight of the highly educated and talented man put to pasture, as the favorite old horse metaphor, without knowing of the recognition that future generations will bestow on them.  The words describe the landscape, the wind, the falling water, the fresh after shower feeling, the losses and changes to the hair from aging.  And there is a sense of peace and resignation and appreciation for the absence of conflict.  


Su Shi (aka Su Dongpo), 1037-1101, whose story of banishment to the provinces without stipend from his high civil service position because of his political criticism was like so many others in the Song-Yuan period.  He had been banned to the provinces  for writing satirical poems critical of official policies that were unfavorable to workers, such as those in the manufacture of iron and salt.  Posthumously, he is recognized as one of China’s greatest poets and calligraphers.  His advanced years in exile were spent walking about lost in poetic contemplation about nature, life and feelings of an old man, and his limited time left.  Similarly to Gong Kai, the mood and symbolism of picture and poem was often cold, misty and brooding, but with graceful resignation of what fate had wrought for his last years

The translation is here:

No.1.  天涯游侠。 甲戍年(jiashu)with an intaglio signature and seal or colophon

“Roaming chevalier on the edge of the land.  The year of Jiashu”.

No。 2 。 新淋览(?)(日日+见?)身轻, 新沐感发稀。风乎悬 (?)瀑(?)下,《X》开咏而归。

Just after the shower, I feel my body is lighter.  I feel my hair is getting less. The wind is blowing under the hanging water fall, my mind (?) is open, I am chanting a poem and returning.

The opinion of one scholar was that the poem and pictorial narrative of this table screen  was mindful of the life of the “famous Song poet, Su Shi, from Hui Zhou, who spent his last years in political exile, about which he wrote poems.   Su Shi made a high official angry and was punished by being sent to an insignificant post in Hui Zhou.  In one of his poems he presumably  describes his feeling old, but finding peace of mind and feeling relaxed because he was finally free from conflict, and he describes the landscape, the wind, and falling water.  

This double screen could be in honor of Su Shi or Yuan painter, Gong Kai, or both of them and all the other artists who dared used their art to express political criticism.

About the horse stance.  Horse riders know of the fear horses have of wooden flooring and bridges.  The extended forward leg and the pulling back of the body was totally appropriate because that is exactly what horses do at bridges unless they are plenty wide, very solid under foot, and have a familiar sound.  They always extend a leg very reluctantly, one step at a time, and hold the weight of the body back, as if to test the safety.

In the book, The Double Screen, Medium and Representation in Chinese Painting, by Wu Hung, I think you will find that the composition found on screens is different from a single painting in that often each panel of the screen is a segment of the total composition, and, as a result, can look like a cropped  view.  The same is true of woodcut book illustrations.  This jade double faced table screen, like jade mountain carvings, was influenced by the pictures, especially wood-cut prints, and poems of the time.

Su Shi reference:

Su Shi (simplified Chinese: 苏轼; traditional Chinese: 蘇軾; pinyin: Sū Shì) (January 8, 1037 – August 24, 1101) was a writer, poet, artist, calligrapher, pharmacologist, and statesman of the Song Dynasty, and one of the major poets of the Song era. His courtesy name was Zizhan (子瞻) and his pseudonym was Dongpo Jushi (東坡居士 “The Scholar in Retirement at Eastern Slope”), and he is often referred to as Su Dongpo (蘇東坡). Besides his renowned poetry, his other existent writings are of great value in the understanding of 11th century Chinese travel literature,

Su Shi’s first remote trip of exile (1080–1086) was to Huangzhou, Hubei. This post carried a nominal title, but no stipend, leaving Su in poverty. During this period, he began Buddhist meditation. With help from a friend, Su built a small residence on a parcel of land in 1081. Su Shi lived at a farm called Dongpo (‘Eastern Slope’), from which he took his literary pseudonym. While banished to Hubei province, he grew fond of the area he lived in; many of the poems considered his best were written in this period.[1] His most famous piece of calligraphy, Han Shi Tie, was also written there. In 1086, Su and all other banished statesmen were recalled to the capital due to the ascension of a new government.[6] However, Su was banished a second time (1094–1100) to Huizhou (now in Guangdong province) and Hainan island.[1] In 1098 the Dongpo Academy in Hainan was built on the site of his residence that was established while in exile.

After a long period of political exile, Su received a pardon in 1100 and was posted to Chengdu. However, he died in Changzhou, Jiangsu province after his period of exile and while he was en route to his new assignment in the year 1101.[1] Su Shi was 64 years old.[6] After his death he gained even greater popularity, as people sought to collect his calligraphy, paintings depicting him, stone inscriptions marking his visit to numerous places, and built shrines in his honor.[1] He was also depicted in artwork made posthumously, such as in Li Song’s (1190-1225) painting of Su traveling in a boat, known as Su Dongpo at Red Cliff, after Su Song’s poem written about a 3rd century Chinese battle.[1]

A side: the side with one riding figure and a man on foot carrying a heavy workload on both ends of a pole across his shoulders.

B side: An older man and a young man with left leg bent as if to take a step (Western looking?) and carrying a bamboo stick with  an hour-glass type gourd attached.

3. A. The writing says “Tianya Youxia” which means a horseman traveling across the horizon.   The seal or colophon appears to have been incised free hand, as is the signature.

The poem says: one feels refreshed after a shower, but feels his hair is getting thin (getting old). Stand under a tree (or waterfall?), citing a poem and return.

Usually the images are in the same theme or a similar range in one artifact. Jade works are highly symbolic. All motifs are carefully selected so it is very unlikely that the artist will put two images together if they are topics without inner relationship.

The modern Chinese calendar was formed in 1645, it is much more accurate than all others. In 1911, the Chinese Government abolished the traditional practice of counting years from the accession of an emperor and started using Gregorian calendar as Chinese general calendar.   For more info use this link: Chinese Calendar