January 7th, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Court Music by Zhou Fang in Dynasty (copy in Song Dynasty)Furniture is closely related to people’s life-style and environment. The sitting posture of the Chinese people has changed from sitting on the floor as in ancient times to sitting on a seat as in present day. The shape of furniture falls accordingly into two series, the low-type and the high-type to suit people’s needs at respective historical stages.

From the Shang and Zhou down to the Han and Wei dynasties, people used to sit on the floor or take a half-kneeling, half-sitting position. The limited pieces of furniture available at that time such as narrow oblong tables and side tables were all low and short, which could be moved about without being placed in fixed position. In the Three Kingdom Period, a high-type seat Hu-chuang (literally bed from non Han areas), similar to present-day campstool, was introduced for the first time to Han people from the minority nationalities region. As time went by, higher articles for home use such as round stools, square stools started to appear in the Central Plain area. Beds, couches, etc. also became higher gradually, though low furniture still took a dominant position. Starting from the Western Jin Dynasty, the concept of half-sitting, half-kneeling posture as was required by etiquette, gradually faded. People either sat on the floor with legs stretched out, or sat cross-legged, or sat aslant, just as they pleased. And then the side-table was created which was placed on the bed for leaning against or leaning back, together with yinnang, something like a modern back-cushion.

When it came to the Tang Dynasty, people started to sit on a seat instead of sitting on the floor. In the late years of Tang Dynasty, tables and chairs appeared which, though not yet prevalent, had greatly affected people’s way of life. Furniture at that time included chiefly side tables, narrow tables, xieshi (an article developed from side table used for leaning against), chests, cupboards, Hu-chuang, screens, chessboards. High-type furniture such as tables, stools, chairs, etc. already turned up and became popular in the upper circles. By the Song Dynasty, all sorts of high-type furniture started to fall into a pattern and widely used. In the Southern Song Dynasty, furniture was rather complete in variety and shape, the workmanship increasingly exquisite.

Ming Dynasty yellow rosewood mandarin-style chair, 116cm high, named from its resembling ancient official's headgear

Ming Dynasty yellow rosewood mandarin-style chair, 116cm high, named from its resembling ancient official’s headgear

By the Ming and Qing dynasties, Chinese ancient furniture became settled into a shape much higher than in the past. The Ming-dynasty furniture looks elegant, plain and ingenious and was commended as brilliant representative of Chinese classic furniture, know as Ming-type furniture. The rise of Ming furniture was closely associated with the social environment of the times, as the booming of cities and towns, the growth of commodity economy and the emergence of architecture in large numbers, made the demand for furniture continuously on the increase. Moreover, in the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He, the great navigator made seven trip to the West and the ban on maritime trade and relations with foreign countries was once lifted, resulting in large quantity of timber brought to China from Southeastern Asia. Besides, woodworking implements had been improved to an extent as never before. The book Tiangon Kaiwu (Exploitation of the Works of Nature) records that the forging techniques were already highly promoted in the Ming Dynasty, with it different kinds of woodworking implements were invented, in planes alone there were pushing plane, thin-line plane, centipede plane, etc., to be used for different processes.

The Canon of Lu Ban compiled by Wu Rong, head of the imperial workman deparment under the Board of Works of the Beijing municipal government, is the only extant specialized book about building and repairing of wooden things. The book sums up the designs and practices of master craftsmen over centuries since the Spring and Autumn Period. Included in the book are thirty-plus drafts for furniture in which each measurements, tenon and mortise structure, end of lines and adornments are all given in detail, with real object pictures attached. It is a significant refence material for the study of Ming Dynasty folk architecture and Ming-style furniture.

In Ming-style furniture making, materials were most particular about. Usually hard wood such as red sandalwood, huang-hua-li-mu (a species of rosewood) and the like, was chosen, which when polished with was, reveals their natural grain and freshening luster, fully in accord with the taste of the men of letters in the Ming Dynasty who are always after primitive simplicity and elegance. As they advocated nature, they preferred yellow color to dark color, and huang-hua-li-mu which is fine in grain, having the color of amber and the touch of jade, became the first to be chosen in the late Ming Dynasty down to the eatly Qing Dynasty.

Furniture making procedures include: to cut open wood, to saw timber, to plane, chisel, drill, carve, polish, lacquer and wax. The precise and ingenious process of fitting a tenon into a mortise to make a joint is a unique feature of Ming-style furniture making in which all joints are formed with tenon and mortise without using nail or glue. Tenon can be divided into open tenon, closed tenon, square-and-corner tenon, long-and-shor tenon, swallow-tail tenon, etc.

The Qing Dynasty people valued dark color instead of yellow. They were partial to luxury and majesty. As the Qing royal family favored red sandalwood in particular, it became the first choice for the material used in making furniture. The existing articles are mostly from the court, all carved meticulously. In the middle of Qing Dynasty, huanghuali, red wood is similar in quality to red sandalwood. It is of hard texture, and appeats grand and majestic. Its main disadvantages are such as not tenacious enough to be easily carved and it is susceptible to changing shape when affected with damp, dryness, cold, or heat and is therefore unfit for meticulous carving.
The Ming-style furniture excels in plain shape while the Qing-style one is good at multifarious and elaborate decoration. The crafts in making furniture in the Qing Dynasty were so consummate that they had reached the apex of traditional furniture crafts. Not only had they inherited the traditional methods, but also absorbed exotic culture to form distinctive style of the times.

Furniture displayed in the back house of Confucian Temple of Qufu, Shangdong

Furniture displayed in the back house of Confucian Temple of Qufu, Shangdong

By the Ming and Qing dynasties, traditional furniture had already completed in varieties, which fell into six major categories: chairs (stool); side tables; cupboards (cabinet); beds(couch); stands (rack) and screens. Chairs include official-headgear shaped chair, rose chair, lamp-hanging chair, round-backed armchair, folding chair, square stool, long stool, drum-shaped stool. Tables include kang (a heatable bed commonly used in North China), tea table, incense-burner table, writing desk, flat table, end-upwards table (table with both ends raised upwards), jiaji table(table on top of which side table is placed), lute table, altar table, square table, Eight Immortals table (square table seating eight people), crescent table, etc. Cupboards include cupboard-cabinet (combining the functions of cupboard, cabinet and table), menhu cupboard (table with drawers, somewhat similar to the chest of drawers), wardrobe, bookcase, treasure case, treasure box, etc. Beds include framed bed, wooden couch, etc. Stands include coat hanger, basin stand, lamp-stand, shelf for holding potted flowers, dressing table, foot supporter, etc. And screens include chaping (table screen with a stand), Weiping (folding screen usu. With four, six or eight folds), luzuo (stove base), huzuo (pot base), etc. The furniture in the Ming and Qing dynasties often used metals as auxiliary components to further protect and reinforce the furniture, and to add luster as well.

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