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.
From the late Ming Dynasty until the late Qing dynasty – a period of some three hundred years – furniture changed very little in China, other than some very subtle changes in style. It is as though the artisans realised it was not possible to improve on the wonderfully balanced, beautifully crafted pieces that had already been perfected. The late Qing dynasty saw a move to much more ostentatious, heavily carved furniture but the classic features of Ming design still remained in much of the furniture produced outside the imperial court, and these are the styles still seen in the majority of antique furniture available today.
Because styles changed so little over time and were fairly limited in number, it is possible to quite easily classify the furniture that appeared according to type:
The Chinese would never hang clothes vertically but instead would fold and keep them in cabinets and trunks. Cabinets were also used to store everything from food in the kitchen to a scholar’s scrolls and documents in the study. They were usually placed in a reception room, often in pairs, or in a lady’s quarters. Two distinct styles had developed by the Ming Dynasty and continue to be seen today.
Square Corner Cabinets (‘fangjiaogui’) are box-like in shape, with a heavy frame. Doors were mounted on the frame usually with metal hinges, particularly in north eastern China, but sometimes on wooden pegs. The cabinets were almost always produced in pairs and set along a wall or at opposite ends of the room to give a sense of balance. The simple shape and large flat surface of the doors was an ideal canvas for artists, and so particularly in regions such as Shanxi and Fujian, the doors would be lavishly decorated with landscapes, scenes from nature or scenes from Chinese legend.
In north eastern provinces such as Shandong and around Beijing where the emphasis was more on function than decoration, the finish was usually much plainer. A removable central stile was sometimes included which could be taken out to make it easier to place clothes inside. A further, smaller two door chest was sometimes stacked on top of the larger cabinet and used to store hats or out of season clothing. These pieces are referred to as compound cabinets. Usually made from elm or Huanghuali wood, they would have heavy brass hinges and circular lock plates.
Smaller versions of the larger Square Corner Cabinets also appeared later on, while wider, lower cabinets with two compartments were common particularly in Shanxi. In the colder parts of China wide, low cabinets were placed on the heated ‘kang’ platform and used to store everyday items.
One other variation used all over China was the Medicine Cabinet (or ‘yao chu’). These pieces were produced using the same ‘square cornered’ design, but in the place of doors were many small drawers used to store the herbs used in Chinese medicine.
Round Corner Cabinets (‘maintiaogui’) are also often referred to as Tapered Cabinets. They were found all over China and used in various sizes. Larger versions were used to store clothes or bedding, while shorter versions were used for scrolls and documents and so became known as Scholar Cabinets.
The shape of the Round Corner Cabinet is slightly tapered, giving an A frame outline. As their name suggests the frames were rounded rather than square, and they were topped by a rounded overhang. Rather than using metal hinges, the doors would be fitted directly into the cabinet frame on wooden dowels, while the door furniture was usually subtler and less decorative than the large circular hardware found on Square Cornered Cabinets. The overall result was a beautifully elegant shape, with a certain sense of movement suggested by the upwardly tapering silhouette. The emphasis was on the purity of shape and balanced proportions and so these pieces were usually kept free of paintings and other decoration.
From the late Ming period a central stile would often be fitted between the two doors, which could be removed to allow easier access to the inside. In southern provinces such as Fujian, the cabinet was sometimes fitted on top of a wooden stand, providing an additional shelf below the main cabinet.
Bookshelves (‘jaige’) became an important part of a scholar’s library as printing developed. By the late Ming Dynasty these pieces had become something of a status symbol. The shelves were in the most part fairly simple, based on a ‘Square Cornered’ design and usually with one deep shelf containing drawers and other shelves above and below. Carved railings were sometimes added at the side and rear of the shelves. Books would be stacked one on top of the other rather than placed upright and as a result Chinese bookshelves tend to be deeper than their western counterparts.
Display Cabinets (‘wanli gui’), effectively a cross between a ‘square cornered cabinet’ and a bookshelf, became popular during the Qing Dynasty and were used for both storage and display of prized possessions. They would include usually one shelf at the top, either enclosed or with railings, to show antiques and curios, and a cabinet below for books and documents. A variation developed later on which included shelves divided into compartments to show specific objects. These were often made with the compartments sized to order to house favoured porcelains or jade items.
Higher level seating first appeared in China in the form of portable stools used by commanders on the battlefield. Its use rapidly spread to the home, used by all classes and sections of society. By the early Ming dynasty various styles had developed which then changed little for several hundred years. A certain hierarchy developed from early on, so that different styles of chair were associated with different ranks in society.
Yoke-Back Armchairs were one of the earliest and most enduring designs to emerge in China and were very popular from as early as the Song Dynasty ( 960 to 1279 AD). The head rail is curved in such a way that it resembles the brimmed hats of Chinese government officials and so these chairs are also often referred to as Official’s Hat Armchairs (‘guanmaoyi’). At first this type of chair was used by royalty but then spread to the elite classes. The curves of the back splat and the arms give dynamism and an aura of power and energy to the design, while stretchers added strength to the legs. The apron below the seat would sometimes be decorated with carvings, while the back splat would often include a painting or carving of an auspicious symbol such as a dragon or bat to symbolise, for example, good luck or prosperity.
Southern Official’s Armchairs (‘nanguanmaoyi’) developed from the Official’s Hat Armchair, and were similar in style with the important difference that the head rail was joined to the two rear stiles rather than extending over them. This gave a more subtle, fluid, less imposing appearance. The term ‘Southern Official’s Armchair’ came about because this style of chair is thought to have originated in the southern province of Jiangsu, from where it spread across China.
Lamphanger Chairs (‘dengguayi’) or Side Chairs were effectively Yoke-Back Armchairs but without the arms. They were lighter and more manoeuvrable than the armchairs and so were often placed in rows along a wall and used around the house as and when required, or used for banquets.
Horseshoe Back Armchairs (‘quanyi’) were a symbol of power and status, used in ceremonies or reserved for important guests to the Chinese home. The curved backrest gives the chair its name, and would usually be made from 5 pieces of curved wood joined together with pegged joints. The chair would have a curved back splat, again often decorated in carved relief with a Chinese symbol for wealth, good luck or long life. A later development was the continuous arm horseshoe back chair, where the curved backrest would continue right down to the seat rather than protruding over the supporting posts.
Folding Armchairs (jiaoyi) were similar to Horseshoe Back Armchairs (although ‘Yoke-Back’ versions are also seen), but would be made with a woven seat. The legs would cross and would be fixed on metal pivots so that they could be folded. This meant that the chair could easily be stored away and was more portable for travelling.
Rose Chairs (‘meiguiyi’) were similar to Southern Official’s Archairs but tended to have a low back and more refined, feminine appearance. Again they were light and portable, and were often used in bedrooms. In southern China they were referred to as writing chairs (‘wenyi’) as they were favoured by scholars and artists. Rather than a single solid back splat, rose chairs would have either spindles at the back or a carved panel.
Qing Style Armchairs appeared from around the 18th century, when the prevailing taste was for heavier, more elaborate furniture. The chairs were effectively made in two parts, with the lower section being similar to a ‘waisted’ stool and the upper part being similar to a screen panel, usually either heavily carved or fitted with marble insets. These chairs were again designed to show the importance and status of the owner, and were usually set in pairs in a main reception room, often with a tea table in between.
Stools (‘wudeng’) were not only used by the lower classes in China or considered inferior to chairs, but were also produced for the wealthier classes in hardwoods or lacquer finishes. The size of the stool would usually determine the class of the person using it, with lower stools being used by servants. Much more portable than the heavier chairs, stools would be pulled up for use at mealtimes or used in an outside courtyard or garden.
Rounded stools were common during the Ming Dynasty but it is the rectangular and square shaped versions that are more commonly seen on the market today. The two most common styles were stools with recessed, tapered legs, like small versions of the classic wine table, and stools with a ‘waisted’ apron. Drum shaped stools were also common, particularly for use outdoors, and in the countryside stools would also be made from large, knotted roots.
Benches (‘changdeng’) were also common in China, used at mealtimes, by craftsmen or for sitting outside to watch performances of plays or music. They were usually wider versions of rectangular stools, either with recessed legs or with ‘waisted’ aprons.
As seating developed from floor to higher levels, so naturally tables were also produced to be used with them. By the 11th century a table height of around 80 to 90cm had become standard and the styles produced early on changed little for centuries to come. Tables had various uses, from dining or serving tea to carrying out artistic pursuits, and most had more than one purpose. They can broadly be categorised as either ‘an’, with recessed legs so that the table top extended over them, or ‘zhuo’ with legs flush to the corners of the table. Within these two main categories there are several other types of table, defined according to their use or style:
Painting Tables (‘pingtou’an’) were large and would usually have recessed legs. They appeared early on in China and would be found in every ‘elite’ home from as early as the Song Dynasty. They are referred to as painting tables as they would be used to carry out paintings or calligraphy, but in fact were multi-purpose work tables, used by scholars for various activities. Some were made from a single plank top but most would have a floating panel in the top set with a surrounding frame. This method is still seen in Chinese furniture today and allows for some expansion or shrinking in the table top as the seasons become more or less humid.
Side Tables (‘zhou’) were smaller versions of painted tables, usually with recessed legs. They were often used to serve food or wine and so are also commonly referred to as wine tables. Many of these tables were made with stone inserts in the top frame, which made them easier to clean. The weight of the stone would mean that the legs would need to be quite thick and sturdy, and that strong stretchers were normally fitted between them.
Side tables with legs that were flush with the table top, often also with a ‘waist’ below the top, were a little less common, but plenty in this style were still being produced into the 20th century. Early versions included ‘hump back’ shaped stretchers or arm braces to provide extra strength, but by the late Ming dynasty improvements in joinery meant that these were no longer essential.
Altar Tables (‘qiaotou’an’) were usually made with ‘everted flanges’ (carved pieces of wood at each end of the top), which denoted their religious use. They were large – often over two metres in length – and would be placed in the formal central hall of a house as a focal point, usually against the rear wall. These tables would hold the spiritual icons and incense used in ancestor worship, as well as being used for displaying prized possessions or heirlooms. Most altar tables were made with a recessed leg design, although other styles were seen. The spandrels at the top of the legs would usually be carved – a ‘cloud’ design being particularly common.
Square Tables (‘fangzhou’) were used in the Chinese home as dressing tables, for dining, for playing games and many other activities. They were often stored against a wall and pulled into the middle of a room when required. The Chinese believed the square shaped table to be ideal for eating as it was more sociable, allowing diners to sit in close proximity. The Western rectangular or oval shaped table was never adopted. The larger of these square tables would generally seat eight diners, and so were referred to as ‘Eight Immortals Tables’.
Coffers (‘menhuchu’) were cabinets or tables with usually one, two or three drawers. They were often used as altar tables for presenting offerings, but would also hold clothes and personal possessions. Most coffers also included ‘hidden’ compartments below the drawers, which would hold jewellery and other valuables. Many coffer tables were commissioned as part of a wedding dowry, and they would most likely have been placed in a lady’s chamber.
Round Tables were very rare until the mid Qing Dynasty, around the 19th century, although half moon shaped tables (‘yueyazhuo’), which would either be placed against a wall or used together to form a circle, were more common. They were used mainly in a reception room as a display for ornaments and their styles became more elaborate during the later Qing Dynasty.
Kang Tables (‘kangzhou’) were small, low tables placed on the ‘kang’ – the heated (usually brick) platform found in the colder regions of China. Household members would recline or sit on mats on the kang and so low level tables were used to serve food and wine, or for reading or gaming. Smaller versions were also used on daybeds for a similar purpose. These tables were rarely more than a foot high, often made with cabriole legs. Most kang tables were rectangular shaped, though some were square. Another type of low level table, shaped in the form of a scroll, was used specifically as a low work table for a scholar and also as a stand for playing musical instruments.
Tea Tables (‘huaji’) were higher and used not only for serving tea, when they would be placed between a pair of chairs, but also as stands for incense burners or vases of flowers. They were initially square shaped with straight legs but versions with curved cabriole legs, secured with a circular base, became popular in the Qing Dynasty.
Desks with drawers did not become common in China until the late Qing Dynasty, by which time western styles were having more of an influence on Chinese design. Until that time Chinese scholars would use more general purpose painting tables for their work. During the late Qing period many desks with drawers were produced particularly in the Southern province of Guangzhou and in Ningbo, either for western concessions or for export. The standard design was for the desk to be made in three parts, with two sets of drawers supporting each end of the upper part of the desk. It was common for the handles on drawers to be quite decorative, and a favourite motif was of a bat – a symbol in China for happiness and long life.
The traditional Chinese bed (chuang) was used not only for sleeping but for daytime activities as well, such as reading, meditation or music. For wealthy families it was the most important part of a dowry and would be installed in the newlyweds’ home on an auspicious date before the wedding.
During the Ming and early Qing Dynasties, houses were divided into male and female quarters, with women effectively being confined to the inner courtyards of the house. A lady’s bed therefore became the centre of her world, used to receive guests in the daytime. Men’s beds were far plainer in style – usually simple daybeds that could be easily moved around for sitting on during the day.
Daybeds (‘ta’) were the most popular item in a Chinese home for both sleeping at night and for sitting or reclining during the daytime. They originally developed from a low boxlike platform and later tended to be slightly higher, usually around 40cm off the floor. The style was very simple, without any back or side rails and by the Ming dynasty they were normally made with solid legs with ‘horse hoof’ shaped feet. Later versions would normally include a woven or rattan mat inlaid into the top frame to provide additional comfort. Daybeds were quite light and portable, allowing them to be carried from room to room during the day – often even being used outside. As well as being used for resting, they would act as platforms for playing musical instruments, reading or writing.
Couch Beds (‘luohanchuang’) developed from the plainer style daybeds, and differed in that they included back and side rests. These were originally added as solid pieces, most likely to keep away drafts. However they later became more decorative, with carved lattice railings or panels inlaid with marble.
Canopy Beds (‘babuchuang’) were made up from either 4 or 6 posts joined at the top with stretchers. During the night either silk brocades or other fabrics would be hung from the stretchers to provide privacy, and these would be pulled back and tied to the posts during the day. Larger beds would include a separate alcove in the front for sitting and receiving visitors, and would be enhanced with cushions and fabrics, with small ‘kang’ tables used for serving tea and refreshment. The canopy bed marked the social status of a woman, with superior craftsmanship, carved panels and materials such as mother of pearl all suggesting higher rank. Panels around the bed would be carved with symbols suggestive of intimacy or happiness, with common motifs being plum blossom (feminine beauty), dragons (male virility), clouds and rain (sexual intimacy).
Blanket Chests (‘yixiang’) were an essential means of storage in a culture that would always fold rather than hang clothes. Trunks and Chests were prevalent all over China, used to store everything from clothes, hats and bedding in a bedroom to food in the kitchen or documents and scrolls in a study. To save space they were often placed on top of cabinets or stacked one on top of the other, and would normally be placed in a lady’s bedroom or reception room. The earliest chests were produced with detachable or ‘half board’ lids that could be removed. Later on the lids would normally be hinged, and the front of the chest decorated with a circular or sometimes rectangular brass clasp.
Chests were commonly made from elm, pine and other common woods. In some areas, notably Beijing and Hebei, it was usual to make them from camphor as the wood’s aroma acts as a natural repellent against moths and wood boring insects.
Smaller chests (‘xioaxiang’), sometimes referred to as document boxes, were used to store jewellery or important documents. One particular type was made with a concaved lid, and doubled not only as a box to hold valuables but also as a pillow. Known as ‘pillow boxes’, the idea was that it would be impossible to steal the owner’s valuables without waking him.
Even when the Chinese sat at floor level, small screens would be used to keep away cold drafts. As the culture moved to higher seating so the size of the screens increased. From as early as the Tang Dynasty screens were not only considered functional but also decorative. Artists would paint on silk or paper and stretch these across a frame. The screens would be used for privacy, as room dividers or to segregate men’s and women’s quarters.
Single Panelled Screens (‘zuoping’) were the first type of screen to develop, consisting of a single marble, wood or stone panel mounted on a wooden stand. They were made up to 7 feet high and were used both for decoration and for either privacy or to exclude drafts. Large versions were usually placed inside the entrance of a reception room to provide privacy and were also believed to help keep out evil sprits. Single panel screens were also used as the backdrop to officials’ chairs, and as such conferred status to the owner.
Folding Panel Screens (‘weiping’) appeared later on but still date back to the 9th century in China. They were made in anything from four to twenty-four panels and would be decorated with paintings on silk or paper. The Europeans discovered them in the 18th century and during this time lacquered versions, often inlaid with mother of pearl, were imported as ‘chinoiserie’ into France and other European countries.