Falling in Love with Ping Feng

Chopin (1873) Oil painting by Albert von Keller

“I’ve loved Chinese screens since I was eighteen years old. I nearly fainted with joy when, entering a Chinese shop, I saw a Coromandel for the first time. Screens were the first thing I bought.”

Coco Chanel

Ping, 屏, literally means ‘screen’; Feng, 风, literally means ‘wind’ in Chinese. Ping Feng or Screen was originated from China in as early as the Western Zhou period (1046 – 771 BC).

12 Panel Screen with Palace Scenes, Ming Dynasty

The earliest recorded screen is a one-panel screen called ‘dǐ’. It was made exclusively for the Zhou emperor and placed right behind the throne at ceremonial rituals. Folding screens were subsequently invented in the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).

During the Tang dynasty, the popularity of Ping Feng reached to a new height, they were often used as ornamental framed panels for artists to display their paintings or calligraphy either on paper or silk. The artistic expressions would become an instant attraction and a focal point in a room.

Qianlong Enamel Screen with Throne

The most prized Ping Feng would include wood panels coated with polished lacquer, providing a perfect surface for painting and decorations. A combination of highly skillful techniques were applied on lacquer screens since the Song dynasty, including incised gold, incised colors, mother of pearl inlays, carving, painting, relief, etc. The intricate designs and dazzling effects were breathtakingly beautiful and glamorous.

Chinese Coromandel Hand Painted Lacquer Vintage 6 Panel Screen

The Europeans were completely enthralled by the so-called coromandel lacquer screens as they were first imported from China in the 17th century via the Coromandel coast of south-east India. Chinese iconography and Chinoiserie swept across Europe overnight. The iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel with impeccable taste and discerning eyes was also an avid collector of Chinese folding screens, having owned 32 folding screens or so in her lifetime.

Chinese screen at Austrian imperial court, 18th century

Ping Feng travelled to Korea and Japan in the 7th century and found its widespread popularity throughout Asia. Japanese craftsmen started to study and emulate the patterns and techniques of Ping Feng brought to Japan from China during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD).

Ping Feng’s timeless appeal could also lie upon the fact that it would magically bestow a sense of privacy and quiet ambience in interior designs. Long favored by artists and poets, Ping Feng was a frequent object and subject in Chinese classical paintings and poems.

云母屏风烛影深,
长河渐落晓星沉。(1)

On the mica screen is reflected the dark candle shadow,
The Milky Way inclines and the morning stars hang low.

The Milky Way and the mica screen, Coco would’ve loved it.

(1) The poem was titled ‘Chang’e-the Moon goddess’, written by Li Shangyin of Tang dynasty (813-858 AD).