What is a Folding Screen?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

Folding screens are unique furnishings that, much like ornate carpets and vases, are actually pieces of functional artwork. In their basic functions, carpeting serves as insulation and vases serve as containers. Highly-crafted and ornate examples of these two home wares, however, are often elevated in our consideration to the level of artwork. Folding screens are comprised of multiple vertical panels that are conjoined with hinges. Typically, these screens are decorated with beautiful paintings or prints that depict ornate images or scenes.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

The purpose of a folding screen is to separate a space and create privacy. For example, a folding screen might be used in a bedroom to create a space near the closet or dresser where one might disrobe or dress in privacy from others who share or frequent the room. Folding screens are very useful because they stand alone and are generally not attached the the floor, ceiling, or wall. Therefore, they are mobile and can be used for numerous purposes within the home or business. Furthermore, the hinges in folding screens give them an amorphous shape; the number of possible shapes that can be made with a folding screen grow exponentially as the number of panels increase.

In addition to their uses within sleeping quarters, folding screens are also used in hospital wards to separate the space between patient beds, in restaurants to conceal the waiter’s station, and in studio spaces to carve out rooms, just to name a few functions. While folding screens that are used in restaurants and homes are generally both pretty and purposeful, those that are used in hospitals and medical offices are generally quite plain.

Perhaps we have found so many uses for folding screens because they have been around for such a long period of time. Historians widely agree that the folding screens were first created in Asia. In fact, prototypes of folding screens have been dated back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC- 220 AD). Although they were first developed in China, folding screens are generally considered to be a Japanese craft as they have been in frequent use in Japan for many hundreds of years.

The word for folding screen in Japan is byōbu, a term which figuratively means “protection from the wind.” They were introduced to Japan in the eighth century and have been designed and manufactured there ever since. In days of old, many of the folding screens that were produced were beautiful and sturdy. While it is still possible to procure special handmade folding screens, many screens that are produced today rather flimsy.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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Discussion Comments


I am all about taking and displaying photos, so I was thrilled to find a photo folding screen. It has slots for various sizes, from 8"x10" photos to 3"x5" ones, and I had enough to fill them all.

It has four panels, and each can hold several photos. The spacing of the sizes is varied, so I might have a big one next to a small one, but it all works out to be balanced and look good.

Some of the panels are slightly shorter than others, but this goes well with the staggered size effect. This is the single best way to display a ton of photos in one location without overwhelming and crowding an area with multiple frames.


@StarJo - I think that Chinese folding screens differ from Japanese in their subject matter. Most Chinese screens that I have seen have artwork that is a bit more complex, and they always feature people in traditional Chinese garb doing something.

Like you said, Japanese folding screens tend to have simple branches and flowers. I’ve seen quite a few with both trees and birds on them.

I lean more toward the Japanese ones, because to me, there is just too much going on in the Chinese artwork. Screens are best kept simple, in my opinion.


My sister and I shared a room growing up, and we used a folding screen as a room divider once we hit our teenage years. It didn’t offer total privacy, but it was better than nothing.

Sometimes, we would have arguments and go without speaking for days. The room divider made this a bit less awkward.

Also, once you become an adolescent, you really don’t want to change clothes in front of anyone. We both got privacy for this from the screen.

It wasn’t beautiful, but I think my mother got it for a good price. It was a dusty blue color with big gold roses on it here and there. It looked like something my grandmother would have liked.


I think of Asian art whenever someone mentions folding screens. This is probably because of the folding fans I had years ago that were made in Japan. They all had a beautiful yet simple design of one or two flowers or tree branches.

My friend has a Japanese folding screen that I really love. It is white with black wood and it has a tree with cherry blossoms on it spreading across the screen. The black trunk is on the bottom right, and the black branches spread upward and outward, each featuring several flowers and little red cherries.

This screen was rather expensive. I would love one, but I just don’t have the money for it.

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