This eight-fold table screen which is currently displayed at Lotherton Hall is one of the most interesting yet trickiest objects from the Chinese collections. It is believed to be a present to someone, possibly an official or a prestigious scholar, on his 80th birthday some 200 years ago.
I am trying to unravel the full meaning of the cursive scripts which appear on the square panels of each side. They used many symbolic and old Chinese words, however, making them hard to read. At first, I thought they were two poems consisting of 8 lines and 7 syllables each, which described the painted scenes of figures and mountain views respectively.
After spending some time researching the words and the contexts in which they have been used, I am now hesitating to suggest that the two poems seem to address completely different topics. The poems allude to the story of the Heavenly Peach Garden owned by the Queen Mother of the West (王母 pinyin pronunciation: wang2 mu3) who is the Daoist Goddess of Immortality.
Yet some of the lines reveal the role of the owner of this present in relation to the politics at that time, while some share similarities with the Chinese couplets (对联 pinyin pronunciation: dui4 lian2), which are still used on the occasion of birthdays nowadays. Here is my translation of some of the scripts:
五湖太老方傾 ? (荦)
wu3 hu2 tai4 lao3 fang1 qing1 ?(luo4)
si4 hai3 gao1 ren2 jin4 fu4 shi1
And scholars from the Four Seas gather to improvise
Notes: Five Lakes, Four Seas mean all corners of the world
Notes: Fang Shuo served as an attendant then the Superior Master of the Palace under Han Emperor Wu (140-87 BC). His brash confidence and ready wit were favoured by the emperor. This led Fang to become a prominent figure in the Daoist legends. One famous story about him was that he thrice stole and ate the peaches of immortality from the Queen Mother of the West.