The origin of the Japanese screen

04 April 2018

Japanese screens, known as byōbu, is a folding screen that is literally translated to “protection from the wind”. The original purpose of the screen was to block drafts in traditional open-layout Japanese homes.

Although most people think that byōbu screens are unique to Japanese culture, these screens actually came from a concept that developed in China. Folding screens have been found inside tombs from the Han Dynasty, dating back to 200 B.C.  The Chinese folding screens were originally used as partitions and made from wood frames with leather hinges. When the Chinese folding screens traveled to Japan, only then was the modern form of the Japanese byōbu screen created.

The innovation started as the screens became more popular and common in the Muromachi Period (1392-1568). Japanese screens were made from paper which is why they are so lightweight and easy to transport. It is an object easily transferred from one room to another due to its lightness and compactness when folded. For this reason, the screens survived much more often than fusuma (sliding doors) to fires and earthquakes, catastrophes that are closely related to Japan.
After a while, the folding screens were used for many different purposes. They were used during tea ceremonies, as backgrounds for concerts and dances, and as enclosures during Buddhist rites. In the later Periods, the popularity of byōbu continued to increase, and samurai lords displayed screens in their homes as symbols of wealth and power.

As a result, the screens began to be made with using ornaments like striking gold leaf backgrounds and more colorful painting techniques. The paintings on Japanese screens typically started at the bottom of the screen. This is because it is customary for people to sit on the floor in Japanese culture. Artwork centered on the bottom of the screen so that it would be at eye level.






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