integrated into art, furniture, fashion and architecture,
Chinese aesthetics were permanently incorporated into the lexicon
of European design. Cabinetmakers in Holland and England began
incorporating aspects of Chinese style into their furniture,
and this trend gradually spread throughout the western world.
Evidence of Chinese influence appears in styles as diverse as
Italian Rococo, "Chinese Chippendale" and Danish Modernism.
Changes as subtle as the metamorphosis of previously straight-backed
furniture into the soft curves of Queen Anne Spoon-back or Slipper-back
chairs can too be attributed to Chinese influence.
Chinese classical furniture has had a tremendous impact
on Western furniture design. In the late 17th century,
the export of decorative objects and drawings from China
to Europe sparked a rage for "Chinoiserie" and captured
the attention of artists and collectors alike. As Chinese
design influences were
1) Classical furniture and the Chinese Intellectual class
As the west began to trade and
interact extensively with China in the 17th century, privileged
Europeans began to discover the many fruits of Chinese culture.
High on the list of Chinese cultural achievements is the ancient
craft of joinery, or furniture making, and collectors around
the world quickly recognized the value of traditional Chinese
furniture. Classical furniture is an integral part of Chinese
culture, with distinct styles and techniques developed over
the centuries during each succeeding dynasty and historical
Developments in Chinese classical
furniture over the centuries illustrate many aspects of life
in China during those times to professional researchers and
collectors. One discovery is the key cultural linkage between
Chinese furniture making and the intellectual class, the Mandarins
who ran the day to day operations of government and held great
influence over Chinese society. Intellectuals in China for centuries
have provided the impetus for creating new styles and discovering
new materials for furniture construction. Their appreciation
for zitan and huanghuali hardwood initially stemmed from
their exotic sources and unusual texture, coloration and durability.
2) Development of Chinese Furniture
The earliest examples of Chinese
furniture, wooden stools, painting tables and tools, approximately
4,000 years old, were discovered in Shanxi province in Central
China. Archeologists have also discovered seats, stools and
square tables made of copper along the Yellow River, dated from
approximately 1600 B.C. During the Warring States Period (475
BC - 221 BC) and the early Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 BC), furniture
was often made with precious metals such as silver or gold and
was always elaborately painted. The construction of furniture
out of precious metals reflected their early status as prized
objects, rather than objects for every day use. Archeologists
have also discovered delicately painted and carved large canopies,
sitting screens and wooden boxes dating from 400 BC
As illustrated by many tomb paintings
discovered in China in recent years, ancient Chinese typically
sat on a low platform covered with a mat, on which they knelt
or sat cross-legged and use low pieces of furniture. During
the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 221 A.D.) the Ta, a large mat that
also served as a bed, came into widespread use. A variation
of the Ta was the Chuang, which was similar to the Ta but higher,
and could come in the form of a day bed or a canopy bed. The
Ta and Chuang were the center of social gatherings, much like
tatami beds in Japan. Around the same time people began to use
screens to partition off the private portions of their homes.
Sitting on higher chairs, with
the feet flat on the floor or hanging, first appeared during
the North and South dynasties periods (400 - 500 AD), and become
a common practice in the Tang Dynasty (600 - 900 AD) and the
Song Dynasty (900 - 1200 AD), as people's home lives no longer
revolved around beds, or Chuang, any more. This shift in preference
from the Ta or Chuang to sitting in chairs resulted in increased
demand for wooden furniture and stimulated the development of
new designs, materials and techniques of construction.
These early chairs marked an important
milestone in Chinese classical furniture development. Historical
evidence suggests that the usage of chairs and tables first
became widespread during the Tang Dynasty (618 AD 907 AD). The
Tang was one of the most powerful dynasties in Chinese history
and China under the Tang was the most powerful and advanced
nation in the world. The unprecedented economic, social and
cultural development of China, under the Tang provided both
the impetus and means for the development of Chinese furniture.
Furniture from the Tang period is characterized by elaborate
carvings and intricate, almost baroque, designs. Many pieces
included elaborate features, such as large golden canopies,
silver seats and jade thrones. Along with the style of furniture,
construction techniques developed, as well. The intricate and
diverse joinery techniques that characterize traditional joinery
today first appeared during the Song dynasty (960 AD 1279 AD).
The earliest evidence of hardwood furniture joinery, made from
heimu wood, or ebony, comes from the Song period.
The golden age of Chinese furniture production, however,
did not arrive until the Ming and Qing dynasties (14th to
20th century). During this period trading restrictions were
dropped and exotic hardwood timbers from other parts of world,
such as zitan and huanghuali, were imported
into China in significant numbers. At the same time the increased
trade brought greater wealth and demand for more exotic and
intricate furniture, making hardwood furniture constructed
of exotic foreign hardwood increasing popular. Material used
in Ming and Qing style furniture includes zitan, huanghuali,
jichimu, tielimu, and hongmu, as well
as some soft woods such as nanmu, jumu and yumu.
legs at corners), guichu (cabinets), chuanta
(beds and couches), taijia (stands and end tables)
and pingfeng (screens).
3) Ming and Qing style furniture in Chinese Classical
What is known today to the
world as Chinese Classical Furniture is primarily Ming
and Qing style furniture. Following the nomenclature
first set down during the Song Dynasty, these furniture
pieces have been roughly divided into the following:
zuju (things used for sitting), jian (tables
with set in legs and table with
Although Ming and Qing style furniture are closely related,
they are two very distinct furniture styles. During the middle
of the Ming dynasty, a class arose in Chinese society known
as Shi Da Fu. These citizens were mainly intellectuals
with great interest in new and unique influences. As a result,
they were intrigued by the West and came to prefer furniture
and other objects with clean lines and functional designs. Many
affluent intellectuals in the southern Yangze river area designed
and built their own garden retreats as a way of expressing their
individuality and creativity. To complement the gardens and
landscapes they created, they sought furniture with simple lines.
Today, over 300 years later, the elegant restraint and
gentle lines of this furniture can still move those who contemplate,
study and collect it. There is striking modernity in the simplicity
and balanced form of the surviving furniture from the Ming period.
Ming pieces lend themselves particularly well to dense hardwoods
such as zitan, which allow graceful, spare designs that
nevertheless have great strength and durability.
During the Qing dynasty, Manchurians, formally a minority
group among the majority Han Chinese, rose to power. Qing furniture
styles emphasized form over function, with elaborate, complex
designs, and were mainly aimed at the tastes of the emperor's
court, aristocrats and wealthy businessmen. The Chinese government
imposed strict requirement for material usage, size, decoration
and carving skills. With its intricate designs and dense wood,
Qing furniture is typically heavier and bigger than Ming pieces,
and often finished with ivory, shells, gold, silver, jade and other precious materials..
During Ming and Qing period, as intellectuals and artists
placed greater emphasis on the design and aesthetics of furniture,
new creativity and techniques appeared in Chinese joinery.
Skilled cabinetmakers were highly regarded and prizes were
awarded to those who created pieces to be used by the imperial
Ming and Qing cabinetmakers elevated joinery to an art.
The beauty and harmony experienced when viewing Chinese furniture
masterpieces is the result of a unity that lies beneath the
surface. Chinese techniques of wood joinery were born from
an ancient technological culture and developed through continuous
evolution over the centuries. Classical Chinese furniture
reveals its maker's ability, or lack of it, to a pitiless
degree. Unlike European furniture, which can rely on veneers
and inlays to create a surface appearance, Chinese furniture
is constructed exclusively of solid wood. One can see the
skeleton of the piece and it must be technically perfect to
work. Some say that Chinese furniture is the greatest ever
made from a structural point of view.
During the Ming period, furniture factories supervised
by the emperor's personal officials focused on imperial household
furniture. These factories often employed the best talent
of the time from all over the country. Zitan, being
the most expensive and rarest hardwood, was often collected
and made into quality pieces for the emperor. During the Qing
dynasty, on the other hand, the imperial government preferred
unusual, more ornate items. When the emperor traveled to the
west, for example, local officials would provide unique hardwood
furniture or carved art pieces collected from the local artisans.
These pieces too, were often made of zitan.
During late Qing period Shanghai became a major trade
port for China, and with that trade came a wide variety of
foreign styles and techniques. Many carving and painting styles
from Europe were integrated into Chinese forms, creating a
fusion that suited both Chinese and foreign collectors. For
the first time, quality hardwood furniture pieces were shipped
from Shanghai to European countries in large qualities.
Sample Classical Chinese Furniture Design Drafts
on Chinese Classical Furniture
Hardwood furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties
Furniture - you see what you get