An unusually large spinach green jade panel, mounted as a table screen. One side is worked all over in low relief, depicting a river scene with choppy water and a shoreline with trees and rocks. A figure is navigating the river in a shallow boat, which appears to be made from a gnarly tree trunk. The reverse is undecorated and mounted on a closed-back wooden panel, indicating it was meant to be viewed from only one side. The skilled carver of this panel, has created a sense of depth on a flat surface by carving the stone to varying levels of relief, using the way the light reflects on the surface to create depth. Large jade screens as this one, are very rare and were seldom created before the Qianlong period. To achieve the larger size, this screen utilizes multiple slabs of the same jade, the joins barely visibly through clever use of carved decoration. It is mounted in a later wooden frame and stand. The size and quality of the panel, could indicate it may have been created in the Palace workshops in Beijing.
The bearded gentleman depicted in the boat, is the explorer Zhang Qian (张骞). This legendary Han Dynasty traveller was immortalized in a Yuan-dynasty poem, that tells the romanticized version of his epic voyage. It recounts how he navigated his a log raft to the source of the Yellow River, only to have unwittingly made his way to the moon and float amongst the stars of the Milky Way. The actual Zhang Qian, (d.114 BC), was a renowned early Chinese statesman, explorer and chronicler. In 138 BC, Zhang was dispatched by the Han dynasty Emperor Wudi (141-87 BC), to establish relations with the countries bordering on China. After an epic 13 year journey, he came home and brought the Emperor the first reliable account of the lands to the West of China. These early contacts, were crucial for establishing diplomatic relations, leading to exchanges of envoys between the Central Asian States and the Han court. Zhang’s later missions, opened up the first trade routes between East and West leading to exchanges of products and ideas – effectively the beginning of trade along the Silk Road. These interactions, not only brought about the introduction of a new superior breed of horses and new crops - such as grapes and alfalfa; but also the early forms of Buddhism.
Confucian ideals particularly centred around the importance of scholarly pursuits. It was thought that a good and virtuous character, can be achieved through learning and writing. Other appropriate and elegant pursuits for the Chinese literati, could be activities such as making music, contemplating nature or studying ancient objects. Many items in a Chinese scholar’s studio were intended for writing and painting, such as brush pots, water droppers and ink stones. A table screen was also a popular object and could be made from a wide variety of materials. They were principally used for display, but would have also been useful as a wind screen or as a table divider. However, the scholar’s objects were not only functional, but often also conveyed symbolic meaning; perhaps highlighting scholarly virtue, telling a moral story or baring a wish for longevity. The shape or decoration of these items could also form a source of inspiration for the poetry and painting.
A pair of very similar screens, are on display in the Eastern Chamber of the Palace of Culture of the Mind in the Forbidden City. A smaller pair of spinach green screens with landscapes with scenes from the Four Pleasures, are also in the collection of the Forbidden City. Several round and rectangular paler jade screens with landscapes, are in the collection of Museé National du Chateau de Fontainebleau Palace (F1478C+1435C & F1490C). The National Palace Museun , Taipei, has a smaller pale green screen depicting a river scene with a boat. A slightly earlier Ming Dynasty jade wine cup in the shape of Zhang Qian on his log raft from the Avery Brundage Collection, is in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (acc.nr.B60J162). A very similar scene also appears on a cylindrical jade brush pot from The Summer Palace, Beijing. This Imperial connection is especially interesting since a wine cup in horn, also decorated with Zhang Qian’s Yellow River Journey, is known to have been inscribed with an Imperial Poem of the Qianlong Period. Therefore we might assume, that Chang's travels and diplomacy held a special significance for The Qianlong Emperor.