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.
Styles of furniture varied greatly across different regions in China, so that certain pieces can be easily identified as originating from a particular province or even city. This was partly a result of the materials available – for example northern elm (‘yumu’) was commonly used in the north of China while further south furniture was more often made from fir (‘shanmu’), but also down to the cultural habits and preferences of the local population. Painted or carved designs, lacquer finishes and hardware also varied greatly from region to region.
In addition, furniture from certain regions survived the rigors of climate and social upheaval better than others. As an example the furniture from central regions such as Shanxi and Shaanxi, cut off from the rest of China by mountains and benefiting from a less humid climate, tended to survive the test of time better than furniture from some southern provinces. More remote areas were also less affected by the Cultural Revolution, during which hundreds of thousands of pieces were destroyed in an effort to remove associations with the past.
Beijing & Tianjin
The northern provinces of China have an extreme climate of very hot, dry summers and very cold winters. As a result the architecture tended to be plain and solid, with homes being built with thick walls to keep in the heat in the winter and to keep rooms cool in the summer. Furniture produced in the capital, and in the nearby port of Tianjin, also tended to be made for practicality rather than decoration, with simple, sturdy construction. Chunky, square cornered cabinets were commonplace, with minimal detail and heavy circular brassware.
To keep homes warm in the winter, they would include a heated ‘kang’ platform made from earth or brick. The Chinese would sit or recline on the kang on mats rather than chairs, which meant that low level tables and cabinets were also prevalent, placed on the kang and used for storage or for serving refreshments.
The furniture produced in Beijing, although fairly plain in style, often showed influences from neighbouring provinces. A system of taxation during the early Ming Dynasty meant that, rather than paying a proportion of their income, craftsmen would work at the imperial court for a certain period of the year. Local craftsmen would spend ten days of every month at the palace, while those from further afield would be obliged to spend three months in the capital every three years. This meant that craftsmen from all over China would bring their own expertise and particular styles to the capital. This system continued until the mid 15th century, and resulted in a great deal of cross-pollination of furniture styles in Beijing, as well as to the standardisation of many designs across China.
Furniture from Shandong province, north of Beijing, was also made to withstand the harsh climate and so would be made with thick, robust frames. The style was again quite plain, without the sophisticated detail or decoration of styles from central China. Furniture was normally made from northern elm (‘yumu’) as this was readily available, and was often covered with natural tree lacquer. Larger cabinets were normally made with an extended top, with either square or rounded edges, and the tapered ‘round cornered cabinet’ was a common design.
Shanxi province is located in central China and it is the pieces produced here during the Qing Dynasty that are considered to be the most finely crafted. Cut off from the surrounding regions by mountains, Shanxi was less influenced by other, newer styles, and so many of the pieces produced even up to the early 20th century still showed the same designs and clean lines as furniture from the much earlier Ming Dynasty.
Much of the antique Chinese furniture seen today originates from Shanxi, partly because it is considered to be amongst the finest produced, but also because the furniture itself survived better than pieces from other parts of China. There are a number of significant reasons for this. Firstly, because of its isolation, Shanxi was not as badly affected by the social upheaval and chaos of the Cultural Revolution as other areas. While hundreds of thousands of antiques were being destroyed elsewhere in the struggle against the ‘bourgeois’ past, many pieces from Shanxi remained untouched. Secondly, Shanxi is a region rich in natural resources, particularly coal. Again this meant that, while the Chinese in other provinces would literally burn their furniture in order to keep warm or to fuel back yard steel furnaces during the ‘Great Leap Forward’, this was rarely necessary in Shanxi. Lastly, the preservation of the wood was considered important to the Shanxi furniture maker. Techniques such as applying a layer of cloth or clay over the top to bind the joints before applying lacquer, helped to preserve the material and meant that furniture remained in good condition over generations.
There are a number of styles of furniture that Shanxi is particularly famous for. Foremost of these are the large red or black lacquer cabinets that many people associate with Chinese furniture and which would be given as part of a wedding dowry. Although sometimes left plain, the front surfaces of these pieces would very often be decorated with paintings of flora or fauna, landscapes, family antiques or scenes from Chinese legend. Different styles of decoration were associated with different areas, with cities such as Pingyao, Houma and Linfen being important centres for furniture making.
In addition to these larger cabinets, Shanxi is also well known for carved coffers, smaller painted cabinets, and ‘double chests’ – a type of cabinet similar in size to a modern day sideboard, with two sets of doors. Again, these pieces would normally be finished in either red or black lacquer and decorated. The city of Datong in the north of Shanxi was well known for a particular type of deep side cabinet, made with heavy, thick frames and hardware more similar to furniture from north eastern China.
Shaanxi province is located north of Shanxi in central China. It incorporates the ancient capital of China, the city of Xian, and is home to the famous terracotta warriors. Perhaps because of its importance as the ancient capital and cultural centre furniture from Shaanxi is traditionally more ornate and artistic than pieces from surrounding regions. In particular, pieces tended to have heavy carving and ornamental ironwork. Coffers and coffer tables, with high relief carving around the drawers, are particularly common pieces from the region, usually with secret compartments below the drawers designed to store valuables.
Gansu is a large province situated in northwest China. There are two distinctive styles of furniture that were produced in the region. The first of these was common in the eastern part of Gansu, and is very similar in style to neighbouring inner Mongolian furniture. These pieces include trunks and simple storage chests often made from fir or pine wood coloured in bold lacquers and decorated with bright paintings. A particular style often seen on the market today is a cabinet converted for modern use from a grain chest. These pieces were once used to store rice or grain and would be opened from lids at the top. They are almost always now converted to have front opening doors to make them more practical as modern day sideboards. The front of these pieces, often repainted, usually shows vases or flowers set against a white background within a red and black lacquer frame.
Furniture from the western part of Gansu is very different in style. Here a plainer style was popular and, being readily available in the area, walnut was the main material used for furniture making. Pieces tended to be solid and sturdy in construction, with typical pieces being simple cabinets with minimal decoration other than round brassware on the doors. One very distinctive feature of the cabinets produced in the region are the curved, protruding feet, like mini cabriole legs, that are seen particularly on pairs of low cabinets and on large, wide cabinets used to store clothing. Altar tables and painting tables were also quite different in design from similar pieces in the rest of China, having round corner legs and a simple, almost contemporary look which makes them ideal for blending into a modern setting.
Furniture from the remote province of Qinghai in far western China is quite similar in style to some of the painted furniture from nearby Gansu. Large, wide cabinets with doors at the bottom and shelf space above are particular to the region, but are often cut down by workshops in China to remove the upper shelf, leaving only a sideboard sized cabinet that is more practical for a modern day home. Typically, Qinghai cabinet doors would be small and set centrally with a panel either side. This made it more difficult to access the furthest parts of the inside of the cabinet, supposedly acting as a deterrent to would be thieves. In a nod to modern day practicality, the panels either side of these doors are often reset by antique restorers in China so that they too can be opened.
Beautifully painted blanket chests are also popular pieces from Qinghai. These are usually decorated with paintings of family valuables such as vases and other antiques, denoting the owner’s wealth and status. They were often given as part of a wedding dowry, along with the clothes and other items they held inside. Other popular decorative themes therefore include symbols of marital happiness such as butterflies, as well as inscriptions wishing a joyful and prosperous marriage to the bride and groom.
In Inner Mongolia most furniture was constructed from pine, as this was more abundant than the elm used in other parts of China. Many pieces were brightly painted, with common themes being not only flowers or family valuables, but also animals. The paintings are normally quite similar to those seen on Tibetan furniture, but differ in the colours used. Mongolian furniture was normally painted in just three colours – usually yellow, green and red, while Tibetan furniture tends to show a more expansive pallet of colours. Common pieces from Mongolia include grain chests, usually converted to have front opening doors for modern practicality in place of the top lids, and smaller painted cabinets.
Because there was virtually no consumer class in Tibet during the 19th century to demand luxury goods such as fine furniture, almost all furniture from the region originated in the monasteries, made by and for the monks. Apprentice monks would usually be given the task of producing furniture, and this use of a largely unskilled workforce meant that the resulting pieces were often quite crude.
Tibetan furniture is usually made from pine – the most readily available material, and the pieces have a very distinctive style, being brightly painted with designs usually including flowers or religious imagery. The paintings were produced using natural pigments which tend to fade over time and common colours include yellow, green, red, blue, orange and black. Tibetan furniture in its original state, without any retouching to the paintings, is now becoming quite rare and as a result these pieces are becoming more and more expensive.
Fujian is located along the south east coast of China, an area more liable to flooding than other regions. Because of this furniture from Fujian was usually made with slightly longer legs in order to withstand damp floors or flooding. Pieces were often decorated with ornate carvings and constructed from more than one type of wood. For example, the frame of a cabinet may be made from fir or pine, while inset panels would be made from camphor – a wood more easy to carve. Most furniture would be finished in either red or black lacquer, often with gilt paintings on the surfaces.
Most of the furniture produced in Zheijiang on China’s east coast was made from fir, a wood that is liable to crack if moved to a less humid climate and less robust than elm. As a result few pieces more than 200 years old can be seen today. Zhejiang furniture is quite decorative, particularly with relief carvings on the front of cabinets, drawers and tables. A particular design from the city of Ningbo was the ‘kitchen cabinet’ – a large cabinet with either lattice work or wooden (sometimes bamboo) strips in the doors to allow ventilation. These pieces were often used to store food and cooking utensils, hence the name, but were also used for more general storage.
Furniture from Anhui in eastern China, is particularly delicate in style, often with beautiful carvings. Fir was the most common material used, but pine, cypress and elm were also used. Carvings were often of flowers and animals, as well as scenes of people. While some pieces show the natural grain of the wood, others were finished particularly in red lacquer. Anhui is particularly well known for its wonderfully carved door and window panels, which were often exquisitely carved from camphor wood. These pieces were almost always carved from one piece of wood rather than being made by joining many pieces together – the more common technique used to make the geometric patterns for panels produced elsewhere.