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Arts of Asia

The MFAH collections of art from China, India, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia reflect Houston’s diverse communities. Ancient and contemporary works are displayed together to create innovative juxtapositions.


Scholar's Table Screen
16th–17th century

22 7/8 x 19 7/8 x 7 3/8 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Meredith Long

Arts of Asia

This table screen from the Ming dynasty features decorative carvings on both surfaces. On one side, a qilin—a mythical beast similar to a unicorn—is positioned against a rocky landscape. The reverse side depicts court dignitaries engaged in various scholarly pursuits.

Qilins are found frequently in Chinese art, poetry, and mythology. They were associated with the desire to produce male heirs and were symbolic of high military ranking. The qilin was regarded as a benevolent creature representing good fortune, prosperity, and devotion to family. According to legend, a qilin appeared to the mother of the great sage Confucius shortly before he was born.

On the other side of the screen, members of the intellectual elite relax in an idyllic setting of gardens and pavilions framed by high trees and mountain peaks. The figures participate in the most important accomplishments of the Chinese scholar: poetry, painting, music, and chess.

Table screens were often among the furnishings of a scholar's studio before the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). This example, made of a kind of dark soapstone called steatite, is enclosed in a red sandalwood frame from the Qing dynasty.