Classic Chinese Hardwood Furniture

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C
hinese 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
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.

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 epoch.

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.

 

3) Ming and Qing style furniture in Chinese Classical Furniture

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

legs at corners), guichu (cabinets), chuanta (beds and couches), taijia (stands and end tables) and pingfeng (screens).

A
lthough 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.

T
oday, 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.

D
uring 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..


4) Craftsmanship

D
uring 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 household.

M
ing 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.

D
uring 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.

D
uring 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.

Other Sample Classical Chinese Furniture Design Drafts

Links on Chinese Classical Furniture

Chinese Hardwood furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties
Garrett's Attic
Chinese Furniture - you see what you get
 
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