Longevity screens refer to a type multi-panel screen customized for (usually elderly) friends and relatives as birthday gifts. They often feature words of birthday wishes and carvings of poems and paintings.
In the Chinese language, offering birthday congratulations to an elderly person is “祝寿”[zhù shòu], literally celebrating longevity, which was to show respect to the elders or friends. According to archaeological evidences, the tradition of “celebrating longevity” dates back to before the Xia Dynasty, and the written records of offering birthday gifts emerged in the Zhou Dynasty. After the Tang Dynasty, paintings, calligraphy and carvings representing longevity were often given as birthday gifts for the elderly.
Functioning as both partition and decoration, screens also served as a valuable gift for the elderly.
The number of the pieces in the screen typically range from 6 to 14 sections. More pieces often indicates higher social status of the recipient.
The congratulatory messages are mostly written in gold leaf on the front side of the screen which may also be decorated with longevity-related carvings.
During birthday celebrations, huge screens would be displayed in the memorial hall and the dinner table would be set with a screen as a backdrop for the jubilant atmosphere.The small sized screens would be placed on tables as decoration after the ceremony.
Since longevity screens mostly belonged to wealthy families, people commissioned skilled expensive artisans to make custom screens.
In addition, they would often invite noble people to write the preface of the congratulations, which might even cost more than the carvings on the screen. The preface, year of inscription and the signature are precious historic records, serving as proof for future study of the screen and leaving important information and clues related to the period.
The congratulatory messages on the longevity screens on display in the Six Arts Museum’s Longevity Screen Gallery on the second floor indicate the social status of the receivers and the respect from the givers. There are also many other types of small screens in this gallery, the elaborate carvings on them are also worth seeing.
Wood Carved Longevity Screen, Guangxu Emperor’s reign, Qing Dynasty
Zhu Yifan, a teacher of Emperor Guang Xu, presented this longevity screen to his brother and sister in-law as a gift for his 60th birthday. The front side of the screen features a golden colored congratulatory message written by Zhu Yifan, who had considerable expertise in calligraphy. The lower part is carved with the patterns of flowers and the Eight Immortals. Divided into 12 sections, the whole screen is magnificent in appearance.