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The history of Chinese window screens

WANG DAN | 2021-01-06
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A still from the 1987 TV adaptation of The Dream of the Red Chamber reveals the style of ancient window screen and latticework. Photo: FILE

Gauzy window screens provide popular imagery in Chinese classical poetry. The soft dimness created by window screens perfectly appeals to the subtle and introverted expressions of the Chinese literati. 
The earliest use of window screens recorded in archival documents dates to the Han Dynasty (202 BCE—220 CE). The Hanwu Dongming Ji, a novel which describes supernatural phenomena written by the Eastern Han writer Guo Xian, depicts Emperor Wudi of Han requesting the presence of Dongfang Shuo, a court official, in front of window screens in the imperial chambers. A detail in this chapter suggests that there were pieces of silk cloth hung on the window as curtains. Since the production of silk improved greatly during the Han Dynasty, together with the common use of indoor and outdoor draperies, it was possible for the Han-Dynasty people to use silk cloth to veil windows. When it came to the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420—589), the term shachuang, or gauze window screens, often appeared in literary works. This proves that window screens were commonly used during the Southern Dynasties. 
A window screen refers to mesh designed to obscure a window. Nongsang Jiyao (Compiled Essentials of Agriculture And Sericulture), compiled during the Yuan Dynasty (1271—1368), describes how window screens were used in the cultivation of silkworms: In summer and autumn, obscuring the windows of the rearing rooms with paper can keep flying insects out, but it also blocks fresh airflow; Covering the windows with gauze panels can keep flying insects from entering the rearing rooms while maintaining airflow. Though it is an instruction for silkworm cultivation, the advantages of gauze window screens are clear to see: it serves to prevent the entry of insects, block the view, and bring in fresh air. 
Modern window screens are usually mesh constructed from metal or plastic wire, which are stronger and more durable. The ancient people also made window screens with fine bamboo strings. However, their favorite material for window screens was sha, or plain gauze. Sha is a type of light, soft, loosely structured fabric with tiny holes in it, which improves ventilation. With larger holes than other fabrics, sha might be the best material for window screens in ancient China. 
A popular material of window screens in ancient China was luo, a silk fabric of open structure made by crossing warp and weft yarns. Hence, shachuang was sometimes called luochuang. A reference to luochuang can be found from a poem by the Tang poet Li Shangyin (c. 813—c. 858), in which Li portrayed a licentiate who goes to visit his beloved but was shut out of her abode. This man winds around, looking through her window (luochuang) in hope of seeing her beautiful face. 
Window screens made of jin silk, a polychrome woven textile and the most expensive textile in ancient China, were found in the literary works of the Song poet Lu You (1125—1210). It proves the existence of the window screens made of this gorgeous jin silk in history. People probably chose different materials for window screens based on their personal preferences. Before the sha textile was widely used for window screens, people must have tried various materials. The origin of window screens is speculated to date to the Han Dynasty or earlier, but this date still needs confirmation via decisive archaeological evidence. 
The Sui (581—618), Tang (618—907), and the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms (907—960), represented the height of Chinese classical poetry. Window screens became a frequent imagery in the literary works of this period. For example, the Tang poet Lu Guimeng (?—c. 881) wrote in his poems, "The window gauze under the moonlit steps is thin,/ and how much fragrance permeates into it." 
In addition to ventilation, window screens had another important function. Because window screens allowed less light in, the inside of a house became darker than the outside. Thus, window screens made it easy to see out of a house, while hard to see in from the outside. Therefore, the ancient Chinese women, who usually remained indoors due to social stipulations, gained access to the outside world through window screens. According to Cefu Yuangui (The Prime Tortoise of the Record Bureau), the largest political and military encyclopedia compiled during the Song Dynasty (960—1279), when Emperor Taizong of Tang was discussing potential candidates to the throne with his court officials, many concubines listened to their discussion behind the gauze window screens. 
It seems that for long periods of time the preferred color of window screens was aquamarine. Scholars speculate that the aquamarine color is calming and soothing. Window screens were often used in summer, and aquamarine could evoke feelings of coolness and refreshment. Moreover, the daylight through aquamarine gauze screens seems brighter than usual. Perhaps ancient people already noticed these features. It may explain why shachuang was often called bi shachuang (green window screens) in ancient texts. Most window screens of the Forbidden City, apart from those used as interior partitions, are aquamarine. 
Occasionally, the ancient Chinese used different colors for window screens. The most famous one may be the screen descried in Honglou Meng (The Dream of the Red Chamber), a novel by the Qing writer Cao Xueqin (c. 1715—1763). In one memorable chapter, the Lady Dowager enters her granddaughter Lin Daiyu's room, and notices that the gauze on the window of Lin's room, which used to be of "vivid emerald color," has faded. She decides to change it with a type of textile known as "soft-mist silk."This textile comes in four colors only: light blue, russet, pine-green, and pink. From a distance it looked like smoke or mist. The one she gives Lin for window screens is pink, which is also called "rosy-cloud gauze." 
During the Ming (1368—1644) and Qing (1644—1911) dynasties, literati and nobles developed more decorative window screens, including gilding or painting on the screens. Li Yu (1611—1680), a renowned playwright and novelist of the Qing Dynasty, described a design of window screen in his work, Xianqing Ouji (Leisure Notes). The window he describes is a fan-shaped hole in the wall that frames the world outside, converting everything seen through it into art—a framing device. On the window screen are images of flowers and birds. At night time, with indoor light on, the window was turned into a fan-shaped lantern when viewed from the outside. During the daytime, looking at the window from the inside was also like appreciating a lantern, since daylight was brighter than the interior lights. 
Some Qing-Dynasty window screens are preserved in the Forbidden City. The golden window screen in the Palace of Tranquil Longevity (Ningshougong) is extremely elaborate. An analysis conducted by the Palace Museum on the window screen reveals its complicated design: the screen is made of silk, coated in an urushiol-based lacquer. The lacquer is then gold-leafed. In the center of the screen are various artistic patterns coated with lacquer and gold. The window screen's design and craftmanship in the Palace of Tranquil Longevity may represent the highest level of ancient window screening in China. 
Wang Dan is an assistant research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.