12th century seating on the floor was rare in China, unlike in other Asian
countries where the custom continued, and the chair or more commonly the
stool was used in the vast majority of houses throughout the country.
Over the next few centuries furniture design and construction continued
to be refined, leading up to the late Ming period (1368 – 1644), which
is considered by most to be the golden age of Chinese furniture. By this
time China had become extremely prosperous, particularly its coastal cities,
and demand for luxury items including fine furniture had grown.
of this time displayed simple, elegant lines, beautiful curves and superb
craftsmanship. The quality and accuracy of joinery was so precise that
nails and glue were used only as supplements. Metalwork such as handles,
hinges and lock plates were designed to complement the graceful lines
of each piece. These were no longer simply functional items of furniture
but had become objects of beauty, and their timeless simplicity means
that they still grace even the most modern home.
of the designs that first appeared during this period remained unchanged,
in some cases for hundreds of years. Drawings on paper were rare. Instead
verbal descriptions of ‘types’ of furniture were passed down from generation
to generation, along with the skills and craftsmanship to continue the
tradition. In many ways the artisans that produced the beautiful pieces
of this time were far more advanced than their European counterparts.
One simple example of their technical superiority is the appearance early
on in China of the curved backrest, designed to both please the eye and
to increase a chair’s comfort. This same feature did not appear in European
furniture making until centuries later.
of Ming furniture was made of timber from indigenous trees such as pine,
elm and zelkova (known as ‘southern elm’). However, the lifting of a ban
on imports in 1567 and the subsequent increase in maritime trade also
saw the use of tropical hardwoods, mostly imported from South East Asia.
These included the dense, precious hardwoods Zitan and Huang-Huali.
few examples of the originals remain today, a wide range of finishes were
used for furniture of the Ming period. These included heavy carved lacquer,
sometimes inlaid with mother of pearl or agate; plainer red or black lacquer;
and a more natural finish, allowing the grain to stand out and the beauty
of the wood to be the main focus of the piece. Contrary to the image often
held in Western minds of opulent painted and lacquered items, evidence
suggests that the elite scholars and officials of the time preferred a
more refined and restrained finish.
produced during the early Qing period (1644 – 1911) was similar to Ming
and continued to display classic, simple lines. However a change in style
gradually appeared, and by the end of the 18th century the purity of Ming
furniture had been replaced by angular forms and overly ornate carvings.
that came out of China during the Ming dynasty were much admired by the
Europeans and have had a major influence on Western interior design. The
timeless simplicity and perfect proportions of Ming furniture allow these
pieces to grace even the most modern home, and we hope that you will find
something to delight you amongst the Eastern Curio's range.
antique furniture general information
Ancient Chinese furniture has a fine reputation in modern China and the
West alike, Chinese ancient furniture features profound cultural facts
and superb craftsmanship. The furniture was mostly made from precious
wood, in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1616-1911) dynasties. It is widely
recognized as the best, because furniture before the Ming Dynasty did
not survive wars and time, traditional Chinese furniture craftsmanship
did not reach its zenith until the Ming Dynasty. It reached a high level
of aesthetic success and could even claim a place in the history of world
Chinese furniture was usually lacquered red or black and then painted,
and often carved and sometimes inlaid with other materials such as precious
stones, etc.Ming Dynasty funiture is known for its simplicity with sparse
lines and little decoration while Qing furniture emphasizes detail and
extravagance. Furniture from southern China tends to be very elaborate
whereas northern furniture is big, heavy and grand.
Ming Dynasty Furniture:
Ming furniture is simple with sparse lines and little decoration. It usually
features fine and durable precious woods, such as mahogany, sandalwood,
rose wood etc. In the Ming Dynasty, the demand for fine furniture, the
ample supply of wood and the highly developed tenon-mortise technology
all facilitated the success of the Ming furniture. Craftsmen of the Ming
Dynasty used the succinct language of art to express their inner feelings,
and combined ingeniously with the beauty of simplicity and quietness.
So the Ming furniture usually has simple structures, unique shapes and
minimal decorations which would reserve the natural beauty of the wood.
Lines were ingeniously applied to emphasize details such as the back of
an armchair and the legs and resting bars of chairs and tables. Main emphasis
was placed on the application of the natural beauty of the wood texture
and adopting latticework and openwork carving. On eye-striking places
such as the backs of armchairs, there would be simple patterns by relief
engraving or openwork carving.
Qing Dynasty Furniture:
In the early Qing Dynasty, furniture inherited characteristics of the
Ming Dynasty, from the reign of Emperor Yongzheng to Emperor Jiaqing.
After political power was stabilized and the economy improved, people
began to pay more attention to more material things in there lives, and
demanded decorative and luxurious furnishings, gaudiness and sumptuousness
were a basic features of Qing furniture which was usually heavy and sizable,
featuring exquisitely carved patterns. Some pieces were carved from head
to foot and had inlays of stone, mother-of-pearl, porcelain, metal, and
enamel. Qing furniture had curved decorations and exaggerated shapes that
demanded attention. Chinese traditional furniture has a strong aesthetic
appeal due to its apparently simple lines and the fact that it makes use
of "natural materials" such as the finest hardwoods-no fusty
stuffed couches here. Ready comparisons can be made to Danish furniture,
with its sparse lines.
With Chinese furniture, you see what you get. Nothing is hidden, and the
wood is polished, stained or lacquered to evoke its natural earthiness
and grainy patterns.Chinese furniture reached a pinnacle of fine design
and workmanship from the sixteenth centuries, the later part of the Ming
period. Fine furniture is characterized by restrained and elegant designs
and complex joinery that held the furniture together without glue or nails.
Chinese furniture uses a number of types of wood that are only known by
their is that some types of wood have several Chinese names, and the same
Chinese name can be applied to several types of wood. The two most valued
types of wood are Huang Huali and Zitan. The former is a tropical hardwood
that grows in China, and has a wide range of colors. In its lighter variations,
it is called Huang (yellow) Huali, and in its darker manifestations, Lao
(old) Huali. Zitan, with its purplish brown color, can be considered the
most precious type of timber, and its expense and rarity are related to
the fact that it was imported. More common timber types are oak, elm,
maple, chestnut, poplar, birch, Hong Mu and Nan Mu.
The Chinese Grandfather
The taishiyi means literally the Imperial Rector's Chair" but has
been loosely called by some old-time Western residents in China the "gradfather
chair". It is different from its Western counterpart in that it is
not upholstered but made of hard wood and with a straight back and arms.
Rector's chairs of various descriptions can still be seen in the imperial
palaces and the mansions of former courtiers and officials. They can also
be found in some old families among the people.
The name for the chair first appeared at the end of the Northern Song
in the 12th century. A man, in order to palace Qin Hui, the powerful and
traitorous prime minister and Imperial rector, presented to him a roomy,
cross-legged chair specially made with a head-rest that resembled a lotus
leaf, which he named the "Imperial Rector's chair". The novel
design of the chair became the fashion among the upper strata of the Song
officialdom, and the name stuck.
Down in the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644), the Rector's chair was reshaped,
with its back and arms forming a semicircle.
The"grandfather chairs" commonly seen today are mostly handed
down from the Qing Dynasty(1616-1911). With the armrests at right angles
and with the back, they are generally made of rosewood, red sandalwood
or padauk and often inset with marble bearing beautiful natural veins.
In south China, some of the chairs may have seats woven with rattan skin
for greater coolness.
As a rule, grandfather chairs are large in size, and in a saloon they
are normally arranged in pairs with a teatable in between, creating a
The cross-legged chair of the Song, the semi-circular chair of the Ming
and the straight-backed armchair of the Qing, though different in shape
and structure, are all called " Imperial Rector's chairs". They
were made at the beginning for eminent officials, so they have always
been reserved as the seats of honour for important visitors. When historical
plays are staged, one of the indispensable props of certain scenes is
the grandfather chair to highlight the features of the age.
The Classical Chinese
Furniture's group includes pieces from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911)
dynasties. Historical documents demonstrate that pre-Ming furniture-making
was already well developed both in skill and design, but very little has
As in Wang Shixiang's words, "it is only from Ming and early Qing
times that pieces of furniture of high quality material and craftsmanship
have been preserved from the large numbers that were made". Ming
and early Qing times are considered the Golden Age of Chinese furniture;
pieces from this period are high-valued antiques and today are quite hard
to find. It is necessary to be a connoisseur to recognize and
collect such pieces. The Qianlong reign period (1736-1795) marks the beginning
of the decadence in the tradition of fine furniture; still, because of
its shortness and the first appearance of overly elaborate pieces (typical
Qing furniture), furniture from this period is considered
of excellent quality, attracts high value and are extremely sought after.
In the latter part of the Qing Dynasty, Classical Furniture became just
a shadow of the ancient tradition and lost the beauty of simplicity.
We wanted to start
this section with a sentence like: "You won't find such a definition
in any book"; but, as a matter of fact you can find one in Kai Yin
Lo's book "Classical and Vernacular Chinese Furniture in the Living
Environment". These categories can be defined in
different ways, what we intend here is to define a specific group of Chinese
furniture that is strictly related to the place of origin and the daily
lifestyles of the people that used them. This kind of furniture has popular
origins and differ from place to place; most of them were copied following
the Classical Furniture models but all of them were made out of cheaper
and lower-quality wood. Their age vary between a range of time that goes
from sixty to one hundred and more years ago. Today, this group of furniture
is the most common one on the market. You can find pieces from Tianjin
to Ningbo; from Shanxi to Tibet, all with their specific characteristics
which can vary from town to town and from region to region. Because they
were handmade following the traditional patterns and joinery techniques,
the Vernacular furniture are highly appreciated by foreign buyers, but
still they don't have a good market among Chinese people who want to leave
behind the rural past they represent.
All the pieces included
in this group are perfect imitations made nowadays by Chinese carpenters
in the style of the Classical Ming and Qing Dynasties' furniture. Many
vendors will try to pass these pieces off as a real antique, but be careful
-if the piece looks to good to be old this should be a tale tell sign
- . Especially don't be fooled by "certificates of authenticity"
or "wax seals" which mean nothing in most cases.
The material used for these reproductions can be selected among the whole
range of tropical and strictly Chinese woods,
even the age of the wood itself, to some extent, can be chosen. These
pieces should only be bought from a reputable dealer because many factories
in China are specializing in this type of furniture using low quality
woods caring more about a quick sale than building a solid business.
This section is the
most controversial one but at the same time the most fascinating. The
main problem regards the different terminology that makes it impossible
to match the Chinese names with English and Botanical ones. That's why
usually the best way to denominate
the material used in construction is to retain the Chinese names. Generally
speaking, there are two main categories:
- Yingmu or Hardwood
- Zamu or Miscellaneous wood or Softwood
According to Grace Wu Bruce, "Ying mu refers to the richly grained
dense tropical hardwoods of which Ming furniture was made",
but it is important to add that it also refers to the beautiful quality
in grain, streaking and color, as in the Chinese sense of beauty, grain,
color, texture and marking, These qualities represent the main characteristics
in order to distinguish fine, quality woods. That's why among the Yingmu
category we can find woods that are not considered Hardwood by Western
standards, and why according to the Chinese definition, Zamu, includes
all the woods not included in the Yingmu category. Among the Yingmu category,
the following are the main woods:
is distinguished in Huanghuali and Xinhuali.
lTieli, also called "Ironwood".
lJichimu, also called "Chicken-wing wood".
lJumu, also called "Southern Elm" (not really a hardwood).
lHongmu, that is often erroneously referred to as Mahogany.
A special mention should go to a kind of wood that is not really a wood:
The Yingzimu, also called Burl wood, is the wood cut from a large
knot or twisted root; it can come from any kind of tree
and it is appreciated for its texture and patterns, which is why it is
usually used as a decorative insert. Because, as we said, whatever is
not Yingmu is actually Zamu, it is useless to list all the woods that
belong to this category. It is sufficient to mention that the most common
one is the Yumu (Elmwood).
Furniture made of
Yingmu are, of course, the most precious and among this category, the
old Yingmu is more valued and
expensive than the new one. The Zamu category is a single group, but among
this there can be woods that are actually more valuable than others: for
example the Elmwood (and especially the old one) is better than the Pinewood.
Pieces that belong
to this category differ from Vernacular Furniture inasmuch as they are
strictly related to specific periods of
China's modern history. The first of these periods is the Republic of
China (1912-1949) or, in Chinese, Minguo. Minguo furniture has a strong
western influence and is thus also known as Chinese Colonial style. The
Cultural Revolution is another of these periods even though furniture
from this time are honestly ugly and of low quality, it nonetheless documents
a particular piece of China's history.
It is not uncommon for someone to ask an official the oft-repeated question:"Which
jiaoyi are you in?" The question is meant to clarify the man's exact
position in the leadership of his institution. In the eyes of most people,
jiaoyi is synonymous to power. But what is a jiaoyi? The word referes
to a folding chair in use in ancient China. Being collapsible, the jiaoyi
came in handy for those going outdoors. The predecessor of jiaoyi was
the folding stools of the northern Huns. Images of such stools can be
seen in the frescos in the Thousand Buddha Grottoes in the Tuyu Gully
of Turpan. Jiaoyi fall roughly into three categories. Armchair with a
round back. This belongs to the highest grade of yiaoyi and was for the
exclusive use of members of the imperial family. When folded, such chairs
could be carried on a journey, and this is why they were also known as
"traveling chairs". When the emperor went on a hunting excursion,
his bodyguard would follow in tow with the folding chairs on their shoulders.
Thus jianyi was also known as " Hunter's chair". Armchair with
a straight back. This type of jiaoyi features arms that are longer than
usual, and is mostly of them were made of Onmosia Henryi, a precious hardwood.
Such a jiaoyi was usually for the enjoyment of the learned and moneyed
gentry in their studies or countyards. Chair with a straight back but
no arms. This type of jiaoyi is relatively simpler in structure and usually
made from run-of-the-mill materials. Many of them are still in use in
the rural areas of north China. High-grade jiaoyi could be found in museums
at home and abroad; there are few of them in the hands of private users.
By far there are only about 100 folding Onmosia Henryi armchairs with
a round back that date back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
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