Traditional furniture includes elegant pear-wood folding chairs, couch beds, calligraphy tables, six-poster canopy beds carved with dragon motifs and covered with yellow brocade, garment racks, and bamboo chairs carved with the "three friends of winter" (bamboo, plums and pine trees). Prized Ming and Qing dynasty furniture from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries includes altar tables, coffers, stools, stands and chairs. Antique Chinese furniture was built without nails. Pieces were fit together like puzzles and assembled with Chinese characters that were associated with poetry and calligraphy. Huanhuali, a Chinese hardwood, has traditionally been treasured for furniture making. It can be polished to bright sheen but is difficult to carve.
Traditional furniture can be divided into two general categories: waisted and unwaisted. "Waisted" describes that characteristic of furniture where part is constricted, usually at the frame side of the surface or between the legs of the piece. It is found that most waisted furniture has feet with the bottoms enlarged or with a revolving effect. The feature can be regarded as a formal convention in the manufacture of traditional furniture.
Classical Chinese furniture developed from ancient times. The change in habits of kneeling or sitting crossed legged on a platform or floor to sitting on a stool, chair or sofa gave rise to furniture at some height of the floor. Asian chairs and sofas tend to be lower than ones in the West. Chinese screens have traditionally been important objects of furniture. Prized antique ones have 12 panels and are 11 feet tall. Made of hunaghuali, they feature upper panels incised with images of scholar's objects, and lower panels covered by cloth painted with landscapes and calligraphy.
The New York Times described several quality pieces of Chinese furniture for sale during Asia Week in New York in 2008.A matched pair of 17th-century huanghuali tapered cabinets formerly in the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture in Renaissance, Calif was up for sale. “They are one of the best pairs of cabinets that exist,” Marcus Flacks, owner of a London gallery told the New York Times . Christie’s sold them in 1996 for that California museum for $386,000. The collector who bought them sold the pair to Mr. Flacks, who is now asking $1.4 million for them. Nick Grindley wanted to sell a set of four faux-bamboo drum stools made of jichimu, a Chinese hardwood. “I have not had a set of four 18th-century drum stools for 15 years,” Mr. Grindley said. “These are particularly interesting because they use an expensive hardwood to simulate the cheapest one available.” [Source: New York Times, March 14, 2008]
Websites and Sources: China Online Museum chinaonlinemuseum.com ; University of Washington depts.washington.edu ; China -Art History Resources art-and-archaeology.com ; Art History Resources on the Web witcombe.sbc.edu ; ;Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Visual Arts /mclc.osu.edu ; Asian Art.com asianart.com ; Qing Art learn.columbia.edu Museums with First Rate Collections of Chinese Art National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw ; Beijing Palace Museum dpm.org.cn ;Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Sackler Museum in Washington asia.si.edu/collections ; Shanghai Museum shanghaimuseum.net; Crafts : Kites travelchinaguide.com ; Furniture chinatownconnection.com ; Furniture chinese-furniture.com ; Jade: Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; International Colored Gem Association gemstone.org; Book: “Jade and You” by John Ng. Books: “The Arts of China” by Michael Sullivan (University of California Press, 2000); “Chinese Painting” by James Cahill (Rizzoli 1985); “Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei” by Wen C. Fong, and James C. Y. Watt (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996);“Art in China” by Craig Clunas (Oxford University Press, 1997); “Chinese Art” by Mary Tregear (Thames & Hudson: 1997)
Ming and Qing Furniture
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Ming dynasty furniture represents a fine fusion of material, function, and design. The mellow wood hues, fine grain, and succinct shapes combine to make fluid forms featuring "precision, skill, and refinement." The residences of literati in the Ming dynasty were filled with overtones and meaning, turning furniture and display antiquities into embodiments of aesthetic tastes and tendencies in literati life at the time. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]
According to the Shanghai Museum: Classical Chinese furniture has a long history of development and reached its climax during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Ming furniture is known for its simple and elegant design with fluent lines and appealing proportions. Qing furniture is larger than that of the Ming Dynasty and more imposing, with elaborate carving and inlaid decoration. Both types are prized for their fine materials, special workmanship and high artistic level. [Source: Shanghai Museum, shanghaimuseum.net]
Although furniture between the Ming and the Qing differed in style, both of them display a high level of artistry. Chinese furniture became highly developed during the Ming dynasty. Ming furniture was simply in style but elegantly prepared and tightly formed by tenon- mortise technique and was characterized by varieties of style and distinctive craftsmanship. Ming furniture has succinct outlines, smooth lines, pleasant proportions and a tight mortise and tenon structure. Great emphasis was placed on the use of natural beauty of wood grain together with adopting latticework and openwork carving. Ming furniture has been well known for its romantic charm, elegant style and unadorned structure.
Furniture of the early Qing dynasty adopted the Ming tradition, simple and unadorned in structure. From the Yongzheng through Qianlong to Jiaqing reigns, various kinds of wood and techniques were utilized to process furniture. Furniture tended to be large in size and fully decorated. Their luxurious style was used to display wealth and stratification. The late Qing dynasty witnessed gradual decline of classical Chinese furniture.
Woods Used in Chinese Ming and Qing Furniture
Zitan wood (Pterocarpus santalinus) is one of the most precious hardwoods in the world, coming mainly from the tropical islands of the South Pacific Ocean. It grows in some areas of China, Yunnan, Guangdong and Guangxi, but not in a large quantity. It takes hundreds of years for the wood to grow. It is of a very firm texture. It is a dark purplish-black to nearly black color with some irregular grain. [Source: Shanghai Museum Education Department]
Huanghuali wood (Dalbergia hainanensis) is one of the most commonly used woods in Ming and Qingfurniture. Most of the best Ming and Qing furniture were made of huanghuali wood from Hainan Island . It is a dense wood with a beautiful color, and a distinct variable grain pattern.
Jichi wood (Ormosia) is from Guangdong and Hainan Provinces. Before the 19th century, only a few pieces of furniture were made of jichi wood. It is dense wood in a purple-brown color with a grain that forms patterns suggestive of the feathers near the neck and wings of a bird.
Tieli wood (Mesua ferrea) were used to make large pieces of furniture. Tieli trees are the largest of all the hardwood trees in China. Large pieces of Ming furniture were made from this wood. Its grain looks very similar to that of Jichi wood, but coarser.
Ju wood (Zelkova) is good for making furniture. The ju tree grows in Jiangsu and Zhejiang areas of south China. People in the north called it nanyu (southern elm). It is harder than many woods but not exactly a hardwood. Old ju wood has a reddish color known as xueju (blood.ju). Many pieces of furniture in Suzhou and Shanghai were made of it. Its beautiful grain, called pagoda pattern, looks like mountains piled upon mountains.
Rosewood (Pterocarpus indicus) is greatly prized in China as it is in many parts of trh world. The rosewood tree grows in Guangdong and Yunnan provinces of China, and in India, Bengal and Burma. There are two kinds: old and new. The old resembles Zitan wood, but is not as dark in color or as dense in texture. It was not widely used in the Ming and early Qing Dynasties. The shortage of huanghuli and jichi wood in the mid and late Qing period gave rise to its use.
Burl wood does not refer to the wood from a specific kind of tree, but to the wood cut from a large knot or twisted root. It can come from any kind of tree, such as nan burl wood, birch burl wood, huali burl wood. Each has a distinctive grain pattern. Some look like landscape scenery; some like clusters of grapes. Burl wood was prized for its patterns and often used for the floating panels of a table or for decorative inlay.
Major Types of Chinese Furniture
Stools: 1) Square stool has no back and arms, and is one of the basic stool forms; 2) Folding stool is a cross-legged stool, consisting of eight straight pieces of wood. It is widely used and easy to carry. [Source: Shanghai Museum Education Department]
Chairs: 1) Official' hat armchair gets its name from its top rail, which looks like a Ming official hat. Such a chair with the ends of its top rail and arms protruding is called an "Official hat armchair with four protruding ends". One without these is called an "Southern official's hat armchair" 2) Armchair with curved rest are known to Westerners as the horseshoe armchair. 3) Folding chair with curved back is a a folding stool added with a back. There were two kinds until the Song dynasty ((960–1279): one with a straight back and the other with a curved back. The latter was popular in the Ming dynasty. Chinese folding chairs are built to come apart and be folded so they can be carried under the arm of one person. They feature serpentine wooden armrests, anchored by tendons, that easily flip up, allowing the seat and back to go flat. The headrest and footrest also fold flat. Unlike Chinese scholar's chair, which all are all form and no function, folding chairs are both beautiful and comfortable to sit in.
Armchair terms: 1) Top rail; 2) Spandrel, at the corner of a joint; 3) Side post; 4) Gooseneck post, the front supporting post of an arm; 5) Arch-shaped apron. Table Terms: 1) Ice-plate edge, a downward-contracting edge of a frame member; 2) Decorative strut; 3) Humpbacked stretcher; and 4) One leg with two aprons and one spandrel.
Tables: 1) Square table come in two types. The one called "Zhuo" has four legs supporting at the four corners; the other called "An" has its legs recessed from corners. A large square table big enough for eight people called "Baxianzhuo". 2) An Eight Immortals table is a narrow rectangular table. It could be used as a lute table, painting table or writing table. 3) The Half table could be used as a lute table, painting table or writing table. 4) Kang table is short table used on Kangs, it kind of chair-level bed that is usually built-up with bricks and can be heated underneath and also used for daytime sitting in northern China. 5) Narrow rectangular table with recessed legs is narrow and long and relatively high. One with a flat top is called "Pingtiao'an" in Chinese; one with everted flanges at the two ends of the top is called "Qiaotou'an". 6) Narrow rectangular trestle table has a framed floating panel, supported by two rectangular stands, and is easy to move.
Beds: 1) Canopy beds came in four- or six-post canopy varieties in imperial China. 2) Luohan bed have back and side railings. The railings of a Luohan bed, unlike that of a canopy bed, have no posts between the panel. The base of the bed can be made in different ways and maybe waisted or waistless.According to Altfield in London: It not only resembles a daybed but also has some similarities to kang tables and even rectangular stools. The railings of Luohan beds exist in many variations; when the railing is formed of three pieces the bed is called a three-paneled screen bed (sanpingfengshi ). If the railing has five pieces, back being made up by three pieces with the two single side panels, it is a five panel screen bed in Chinese (wupingfengshi).
Screens: 1) Folding screen is made from many panels that can be arranged in different configurations. 2) Serene set in a stand that has its central screen panel set in a stand. 3) Screen set in a stand with a removable panel has its central screen penal inserted into the grooves at the inner sides of the frame posts. So the panel is removable. 4) The ink-stone screen A kind of small screen placed on the narrow rectangular table for decoration or to protect the candle light from wind
Chinese Cabinets and Shelves
There are four types of shelves and cabinets found in the Chinese furniture tradition.According to Altfield in London: 1) Shelves (jiage) are also called bookshelves ( shuge or shujia ). The basic form has four legs and open shelves without ornamental openings and drawers. The three tiered shelf opn on four sides with two drawers is close to the basic form. In order to decorate the shelves, ornamental railings are frequently added to the back and sides. The back may consist of a board or be left open. Sometimes a four sided inner frame or arched-shaped inner frame may be added to the back and sides, or just the sides.[Source: Altfield in London altfield.com ]
Display Cabinets (lianggegui) are a combination of shelves and cabinets. In most Ming display cabinets the shelf is above the cabinets, thus the piece functions as both a display and storage cabinet. Display cabinets have a standard form which consists of a cupboard with open shelf above resting on a separate low stand.
Round-Corner Cabinets: (yuanjiaogui) are also called noodles cabinets (miantiaogui). The top of this type of cabinet, which protrudes slightly on three sides is called the cabinet's cap ( guimao ) and usually has rounded corners. The reason why the top protrudes is so that there is enough space for the door pivots and mortises.
Square-corner cabinets have no splay and may or may not have had a central removeable stile. Those with no upper part are called square-corner cabinets. These forms can be found from small low cabinets to large imposing pieces. If there is an upper part they are known as compound wardrobes in four parts - dingxiang ligui sijiangui- because a pair of the wardrobes come in four pieces. This kind of cabinet varies greatly in size, from ones designed for kangs, to large ones that may be 3 to 4 meters high.
Chinese Desks and Chests
Desks were introduced by the West. According to Altfield in London: Writing desks with drawers did not belong to the tradition of the Chinese Scholar; writing and painting were done on large flat drawerless tables — painting tables — on which the scholar could spread out his various painting materials, while precious items and important documents were stored in separate wooden boxes. The majority of writing desks which still survive were in spired by Western needs and design influences in the 19th Century. [Source: Altfield in London]
Chests were the traditional piece of furniture used for storage. According to Humble House: The earliest forms of storage were small boxes and over the centuries these evolved to larger chests. The basic form of the chest probably continued until the advent of the chair level of living when the raised lifestyle saw the introduction of cabinets and allowed for different ways to store articles. Because of their usefulness, boxes of different sizes were used throughout history. Larger chests were made to hold linen, quilts and clothing. Timber such as camphorwood was a favoured material because it repelled insects but elm and fruit tree timbers were also widely used. [Source: humblehouse.com]
Many of the larger chests have a built-in base to protect the contents from damp. Often these chests have carvings or paintings or a combination of the two. The tapered linen cabinet is one of the most representative pieces of the Ming era and remained popular through to modern times. The top to bottom taper of the frame members is subtle and gives a sense of the cabinet reaching to the sky. Many consider that the best pieces are those with full length doors as the eye takes in the long lines of the piece. Undecorated, they represent the simplicity that has come to be recognized as the best of Ming furniture.
Museum-Level Chinese Furniture
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Furniture is an art form combining both aesthetic with pragmatic qualities. Like the features of one's face, once the location and features of the eyes and mouth have been established, a whole range of beauty, expression, and emotion becomes possible within a limited space. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]
“The development of Chinese furniture reached its apex approximately between the 15th and 17th centuries. At that time, carpenters used such hardwoods as "tzu-t'an" (red sandalwood) and "huang-hua-li" (rosewood) because of their firm texture and fine grain. Taking into consideration the taste of scholars, craftsmen designed forms and structures that emulated the graceful contours of calligraphic strokes. Hence, so-called "Ming-style furniture" gradually emerged with a simple yet elegantly succinct style along with a sense of strong charm in its graceful beauty. In the 18th century, following an upsurge in demand for furniture by the court, imperial taste increasingly drove the style of furniture to become somewhat more dignified and majestic, even luxurious and opulent in presentation. Apart from incorporating some elements of Western aesthetics, relatively more emphasis was placed on meticulous decoration, as craftsmen fully utilized clever techniques of carving, inlay, painting, and appliqué to produce the desired results.
“The collection of the National Palace Museum includes a set of red sandalwood furniture originating principally from the imperial residence of Prince Kung. Red sandalwood has always been valued for its hardness and density. Though not as brilliant or beautiful as rosewood in terms of color, red sandalwood nonetheless imparts a sense of serenity and stability. Though these pieces of furniture derive from the same source, they were not originally from the same set, the styles actually ranging from the 17th to 19th centuries. However, much attuned to the modern taste of mixing and matching styles together, this exhibition is an attempt to construct two complementary sets of furniture arrangement: one for the more active setting of a living room and the other for the quietude of the scholar's studio. Consulting scenes of Qing dynasty life depicted in imperial paintings, various pieces of painting and calligraphy, curios, and display objects have been included here to provide a more accurate reconstruction of a room at the time. With these objects, whose original meaning may be obscured by placing them in isolation behind glass walls in display cases, we can rediscover their original setting within the simulated time and place seen here.
Furniture Found in a Qing-Era Living Quarters and Study
Furniture Found in a Qing-Era (1644-1911) Living Quarters: 1) Waisted "yueh-ya"table with cloud scrolls (Height: 87.1 centimeters, Width: 47.5 centimeters, Length: 95.1 centimeters). 2) Cabinet with cloud-and-dragon patterns (two pieces) (Height: 193.8 centimeters, Width: 42.2 centimeters, Length: 95.8 centimeters). 3) Waisted "lohan" couch with cloud-and-dragon patterns (Height: 104.2 centimeters, Width: 125 centimeters, Length: 200.8 centimeters). 4) "K'ang" stand with cloud and dragon patterns (Height: 31.3 centimeters, Width: 79.3 centimeters, Length: 44.2 centimeters). 5) Screen inlaid with semi-precious materials depicting a landscape and figures (two pieces) (Height: 125.8 centimeters, Length: 134.1 centimeters). 6) Waisted square stands with k'uei-dragon patterns (two pieces) (Height: 50.7 centimeters, Width: 59.6 centimeters, Length: 59.6 centimeters). 7) Waisted octagonal table with cloud scrolls (Height: 78.8 centimeters, Width: 74 centimeters, Length: 91 centimeters). 8) five-paneled armchair with openwork of cloud-and-bat patterns (Height: 96.2 centimeters, Width: 47 centimeters, Length: 59 centimeters). [Source: Shanghai Museum]
The "yueh-ya" table is shaped like a half moon, its flank and feet decked with geometric cloud scrolls. However, the platform along the bottom is rendered into a design like ceramic crackle, interrupting the overall simplicity of the piece and instilling a sense of playfulness. In "Mirror for Craftsmen on the Treatise of Lu Pan", a specialized book on carpentry and woodworking that is a revised and expanded edition of the Wan-li era (1573-1619) in the Ming dynasty based on "The Treatise of Lu Pan", mentions, "Connecting together the two halves, they can be combined into a large one", meaning that this kind of waisted "yueh-ya" table can be combined together to form a single piece.
“Five-paneled armchair with openwork of cloud-and-bat patterns (four pieces)” is typical of chairs found in the Ming and Qing eras. Some people are accustomed to calling this kind of chair with armrests a "general's chair". However, "general's chair" is merely a collective term referring to any style of chair that is imposing in manner and reflecting the noble status of the person sitting in it.
Furniture Found in a Qing-Era Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Study: 1) Recessed-legged altar table with cloud, bat, and flower patterns (Height: 89.4 centimeters, Width: 53 centimeters, Length: 257.8 centimeters). 2) Small cabinet with cloud and dragon patterns (two pieces) (Height: 54.4 centimeters, Width: 20 centimeters, Length: 39 centimeters). 3) waisted rectangular stands with leaf patterns (two pieces) (Height: 83.4 centimeters, Width: 43 centimeters, Length: 41.7 centimeters). 4) Waisted wide chair with cloud-and-dragon patterns (Height: 102 centimeters, Width: 84 centimeters, Length: 116.8 centimeters). 5) Western-style waisted ottoman with leaf patterns (Height: 32.5 centimeters, Length: 64.6 centimeters). 6) Painting table with cloud-and-dragon patterns (Height: 84.2 centimeters, Width: 88 centimeters, Length: 189.5 centimeters). 7) Waisted rectangular bench withcloud scrolls (four pieces) (Height: 51 centimeters, Width: 36.5 centimeters, Length: 46 centimeters). 8) Small cabinet with four shelves with cloud-and-dragon patterns (two pieces) (Height: 67.2 centimeters, Width: 17 centimeters, Length: 43 centimeters).
Furniture in the Painting "The Eighteen Scholars"
"The Eighteen Scholars" by an anonymous Ming dynasty artist, is a hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, measuring 173.7 x 102.9 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “This painting shows figures sitting around a “flush-sided corner-leg”rectangular black-lacquer table, so named for the level surfaces of its legs and corners. The tabletop is inlaid with a piece of burl wood featuring beautiful grain for a fresh and unusual appearance. On the daybed is placed an arched back support, the arms of which curve outwards. The figure leans against the backrest, which has no legs or seat. Also shown here is a rose chair with back and armrests of equal height. Extending in front is a footrest of equal width. The entire chair uses round pieces of wood and appears quite light. Complemented by its beautiful color, it has a scholarly air of literati elegance. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]
“The "carved polychrome lacquer" stool features red and black lacquer engraved with hooked cloud patterns. The waist-drum porcelain stool has openings in the shape of crab apple blossoms as well as drum-stud patterns. This flat-bottomed stool is hollow, making it convenient to move about. The large carved polychrome lacquer daybed has a soft woven palm-fiber surface, bulging legs, and runners. The lacquer is carved with cloud-hook, reticulated, and geometric patterns that circle the daybed. The carved lines reveal alternating layers of red, black, and green lacquer. The time and expense of producing lacquered furniture meant they were very expensive, thus representing the status and wealth of the owner.
“The porcelain stool is covered with light celadon glaze, the body engraved with dragons shuttling amongst winding lotus and cloud patterns. This design of “dragons amongst flowers” appears later than dragons among clouds, representing a decorative motif popular in the middle Ming dynasty. The top and bottom rims of the porcelain stool are ringed by drum studs in relief, while the bottom is decorated with a flower base. Covered with floral decoration in imitation of brocade, this is also known as an “embroidered stool.”
“In front and behind the standing "insert" screen are a black-lacquered table and high-waisted rectangular table both with decorative legs (the table waist generally being the tabletop and apron). Both tables are decorated with cusped arches, with both the middle and end portions of the legs featuring cloud-wing patterns and raised ridges. The tabletops are made of marble with black and gray in the white suggesting the cloudy mountains of Song dynasty Mi Family (Mi Fu and Mi Youren) landscape painting, thus adding a painterly touch to the furniture. The forms and decoration of the furniture here all belong to Ming dynasty styles.
“The mottled bamboo chair here is meticulously designed. Below the seat are round woven forms, and connected to the front is an extension serving as a footrest. Mottled bamboo furniture, because of its rarity, brownish coloring, and unusual elegance, was especially appreciated and favored by scholars and members of the nobility.
“Placed within the courtyard is a daybed and table with a constricted waist. The legs do not touch the ground, instead connected to runners on all four sides. The inward-curving horse-hoof feet rest on round balls, and the middle of the legs feature protruding cloud wings. The inlaid stone tabletop has natural unusual patterning. Also shown here is a rose chair made of exceptionally fine and round materials to create a delicate and beautiful form of red and black. Pleasing to the eye, it was a favored type of chair among literati and upper classes.
“This rattan stool was made from woven bamboo and rattan with turtle-foot-shaped feet at the bottom. The seat has a very decorative embroidered cover. The various types of seating in these paintings all symbolize lofty status and reflect the beauty of refined and classical handicrafts at the time.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, University of Washington; Palace Museum, Taipei, CNTO (China National Tourist Office), Metropolitan Museum of Art
Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei; Shanghai Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated November 2021