Cixi: Gold Phoenix Table Screen
An extraordinary table screen made of gold, designed with a phoenix and a dragon at the bottom. The table screen itself is detachable from the stand. Each feather on the peacock's tail is designed with great detail. The leafs on the branch are also designed with an amount of detail which would require a highly skilled artisan to create. There is also a dragon placed in an insignificant manner at the base the of the screen, which is unusual for Chinese works of art.
In 1901, Cixi pushed for her New Policies, which were sweeping reforms to the education system, laws and taxes. Academies were converted into western style schools and military schools were established. Tax collection became an important process due to the payments to western powers over the boxer incident. Each region was affected differently but during this time period, or perhaps even years before, the imperial court adapted the use of certain western technologies. One of these technologies was early photography, which was used as early as 1860 in China. The picture below shows Prince Gong, one of Cixi's early supporters.
Another use of western technology at the time was electric power and applications. In his "Industrial Development in Pre-Communist China", John Key Chang noted that production by electric power accounted for 3% of overall production. However, this has been brought into debate by Tim Wright in his "Electric Power Production in Pre-1937 China", whom argues that there may have been more usage of electricity in pre-1937 China.
The use of electricity is highly relevant to this table screen, because certain areas of this intricately designed piece would have been far too difficult without primitive electric tools. Gold is difficult to sculpt with when making fine details, and to heat and reheat it for malleability would create room for many mistakes. So it is strongly evidenced that the creation process of the designs involved some sort of early eletric tools. The first use of electric tools was docmented a short period after 1885, when the German company C&E Fein created the world's first electric power drill from Thomas Edison's technologies.
The motif of the screen is also very interesting, because it depicts a phoenix in all it's glory perched on a branch. At first glance, this is not unusual because there are other examples of art which depicts phoenixes. What is noteworthy in this piece is the diminished status of the dragon. The dragon at the base of the table screen is so small that it can be mistaken for a tree branch.
This is something that was highly discouraged and likely to result in penalties, if any artist depicted a dragon in a more diminished form in comparison to something else on a piece of art. The emperor is seen as a dragon, and Chinese imperial rule has always been in accordance to the mandate of heaven. Dragon designs are often found on the clothing and art of men in the Chinese Imperial family. So to diminish the stature of dragons in art is considered highly offensive.
Even in modern China, such motifs are nowhere to be found, as the dragon is still an important symbol of power, especially for men of power. Women of the imperial family on the other hand, are often represented by phoenixes.
The only plausible explanation for this motif is that this piece was designed specifically as an accompanying piece for Cixi's tomb. Cixi was a powerful woman during her time, but even she was not foolish enough to present her power through art. It was only after her death, that such motifs would sprout due to the fact that Cixi was powerful enough in her own right. Her death in 1908 was also a time of turmoil, so little regard was given to the fact that such art which represented the phoenix over the dragon were commissioned.
The Tomb of Cixi is notable in its depiction of the phoenix looking down on the dragon, which is another symbolic representation of her power over the male emperors of her family.
Under these circumstances, this table screen is likely to have been made after Cixi's death, when her artists had access to tools as well as instructions to depict her burial items in a way which signified her power during her lifetime.
John Key Chang, Industrial Development in Pre-Communist China, 1969.
Tim Wright, China Quarterly: Electric Power Production in Pre-1937 China, June 1991.