Interest in traditional Chinese furniture has increased in recent decades as we in the west have become more familiar with the beauty and craftsmanship of Chinese design. As China has opened its doors to tourism and foreign enterprise, so more and more westerners have started to appreciate the elegance and artistry of these beautiful pieces.
Initially interest was in the hardwood pieces – cabinets, chairs and altar tables in Huanghuali, Zitan and Jichimu wood, which were popular among the Chinese elite during the Ming and Qing dynasties. More recently though more and more collectors have learned to appreciate the beauty and value of furniture from China’s regions – painted red and black lacquer cabinets from Shanxi, walnut furniture from Gansu and the brightly coloured furniture of Tibet and Mongolia.
These pages have been developed as a resource for collectors of Chinese antiques or for those with a general interest in Chinese furniture. We have tried to provide enough detail to satisfy the enthusiast, but for further information we would recommend that you see our resources section for a list of recommend books and publications.
As in other Asian cultures, the custom in China was at first to sit or kneel at floor level, with furniture being restricted to low level tables and dividing screens. However some time during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) higher seating started to be used by the elite classes and its use quickly spread to all levels of society, developing over centuries from simple folding stools to the beautifully crafted ‘Yoke-Back’ and ‘Horseshoe Back’ chairs that were common by the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). With this higher seating developed higher level tables for serving food or for writing or painting, while cabinets and trunks were used to store clothes and household items.
The Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) saw the first use of mortise and tenon joinery and the development of this technique over hundreds of years, reaching its peak with the extraordinarily intricate joinery of the late Ming and early Qing periods, is the main distinguishing feature of Chinese furniture compared to Western.
Such complex joinery was a result in part of the use of fine tropical hardwoods such as Huanghuali and Zitan, mostly imported from South-East Asia after a lifting of a ban on imports in 1567. Before this period indigenous woods such as elm, pine, poplar and walnut were most common and indeed these continued to be used in the majority or regions away from China’s ruling classes up until the present day.
By the late Ming Dynasty Chinese furniture had reached its golden age in terms of design and craftsmanship. China had become extremely prosperous, particularly its coastal cities, and fine furniture was sought after along with other luxury items. Imperial workshops in Beijing created high quality pieces which were clean and simple in style, with the emphasis on the beauty of the wood grain and quality of material. Rigid rules were used regarding the size and proportion of individual pieces and craftsmen perfected minimal designs to give the greatest functionality and pleasure to the eye.
Although these hardwood pieces were not painted or lacquered, they would often include carvings of auspicious symbols such as scrolling dragons or calligraphaphic designs. Away from the court and particularly in central and western provinces such as Shanxi and Qinghai, furniture would be finished in black or red lacquer and decorated with paintings of flowers, landscapes or animals, again symbolising good luck, prosperity or happiness.
Furniture of the later Qing Dynasty moved away from the minimal styles of the Ming, with the heavy styles and ornate carvings reflecting the tastes of the ruling Emperor. Towards the end of this period China had become more politically unstable and perhaps as a result the craftsmanship seen in earlier furniture had started to wane. The early 20th century saw the arrival of greater western influence and the production of many pieces for export made to suit western tastes. There then followed Communist rule and the Cultural Revolution, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of antiques across the country. The more remote and cut off regions, such as Shanxi, were less badly affected, and it is from these areas that much of the Chinese antique furniture available on the market today originates.
For further information on Chinese Furniture you make like to visit www.chinese-furniture.com – a similar online resource provided by Curtis Evarts, a leading authority in this field.