Chinese Furniture — Classic Artwork with Aesthetic and Practical Values

Chinese Furniture is an independent system that combines aesthetics and practicality, with exceptional historic, cultural, and artistic values.

Similar to Traditional Chinese Architecture, different types of furniture in China, mostly, are symmetric, followed the strict hierarchy in history, are made of wood, and applied resemblance decorations and structural designs, such as mortise and tenon joint technic. 

Chinese Furniture in Luxurious Nanmu Hall or Wufeng Xianguan in East Part of Lingering Garden

Traditional Furniture in Luxurious Nanmu Hall of Lingering Garden, Photo by 97Lang. 

 

Chinese Furniture History and Development

Traditional Chinese furniture throughout history experienced some stages, mainly from low to high, heavy to light. 

 

Woven Mats, Low Table, and Screen in Ancient Dynasties 

 

In Xia (2070 BC — 1600 BC), Shang (1600 BC — 1046 BC), and Zhou (1046 BC — 256 BC) dynasties, people sat on woven mats. Based on social status, mats were woven with different materials, and layers, and with diverse sizes and exquisite decoration. 

Reed Mat of the Hemudu Culture (5000 BC — 3300 BC)

Reed Mat of the Neolithic Hemudu Culture (5000 BC — 3300 BC) — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Low tables were used to place sacred tribute offerings and dining utensils. Nobles would use bronze ones, decorated with mystical or auspicious patterns. 

Nobles Sitting on Mats in Front of Low Tables, On Imperial Banquet Mural of Dahuting Tomb of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220).

Nobles Sitting on Mats in Front of Low Tables, On Imperial Banquet Mural of Dahuting Tomb of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220).

Splendid Lacquer Furniture in the Diverse Regional States

 

During Spring and Autumn (770 BC — 403 BC) and Warring States (403 BC — 221 BC) periods, more types of low furniture were further developed, including beds, due to the development of metallurgy technologies, such as ironmaking. 

 

Meanwhile, lacquer had been widely applied to nobles' furniture, which provided splendid colors and fabulous patterns. 

Color and Pattern Details on Lacquer Box of Warring States Period

Color and Pattern Details on Lacquer Box of Warring States Period — Hubei Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Appearing of Taller Version Furniture 

 

In the prosperous Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), more types of furniture with sophisticated designs were popularized, such as beds with curtains and screens, while more materials had been applied to make and decorate furniture, including jade, bamboo, pottery, and lacquer. 

 

With the opening up of the Silk Road in the Han Dynasty, the introduction of Buddhism, and intense contention wars during the Three Kingdoms, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties (220 — 589), some types of taller furniture were imported and spread nationwide. 

 

Since then, people gradually started to sit on high furniture like today. 

Sitting Pottery Figurine of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220)

Sitting Pottery Figurine of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) — Chengdu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Coexistence of Low and High Furniture in Golden Eras

 

From Sui (589 — 619) to Yuan (1271 — 1368) dynasties, Chinese traditional furniture developed to an advanced level, when all types and styles were popularized, and beautiful decorations were widely applied. 

 

Gradually, furniture became one of the most important representatives of one's social status and artistic taste. 

 

During this era, different types of low and high furniture coexisted, until high furniture gradually became dominant during the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279). 

Chinese Furniture in the Painting "Night Revels of Han Xizai"

Ancient Furniture in the Painting "Night Revels of Han Xizai", by Gu Hongzhong (910 — 980). This is the copied version of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), preserved in the Palace Museum.

The Heyday of Traditional Furniture — Ming Furniture 

 

Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) Furniture is respected as the heyday of ancient furniture, with artsy lines, simple shapes, delicate textures, refined decorations, masterful craft skills, and rich cultural values.

 

They are great representatives of Chinese traditional furniture and the perfect combination of ergonomic and aesthetic designs. 

Huanghuali Armchair of the Ming Dynasty

Huanghuali Armchair of the Ming Dynasty — Palace Museum

Sophisticated and Luxurious Decoration — Qing Furniture

 

Based on Ming Furniture, Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) Furniture included more types of material, technics, and patterns in making and decorating procedures. 

 

Hence, Qing Furniture, mostly, is exquisite, refined, and luxurious decorations. 

Luxurious Decorations on Zitan Wood Chair of the Qing Dynasty

Luxurious Decorations on Zitan Wood Chair of the Qing Dynasty — Liu's Manor Museum in Dayi County (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Types of Chinese Traditional Furniture Based on Function

Based on function, traditional Chinese furniture can be classified into five types: table, stool and chair, bed and couch, cabinet and shelf, and others. 

Funerary Furniture Set of the Ming Dynasty

Funerary Furniture Set of the Early Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Chinese Table — Zhuo and An

 

Chinese table includes two types, Zhuo and An.

 

An appeared earlier, originally was used to place sacrificial and tribute offerings, and has been considered superior and more honorable in history.  

 

The most important difference between Zhuo and An is the position of the table legs.

 

Those who have table legs indented tabletop are named An, the others are called Zhuo. 

Two An (Left) and One Zhuo (Right) in the Painting "Zhenshangzhai Tujuan" by Wen Huiming (1470 — 1559)

Two An (Left) and One Zhuo (Right) in the Painting "Zhenshangzhai Tujuan" by Wen Huiming (1470 — 1559) — National Museum of China

Based on function, traditional Chinese tables can be divided into four main categories:

 

Offering Table

 

To place statues, pictures, or tablets of deities and ancestors that a family usually worships, and place offerings including censer, food, flower, candle, etc. 

 

Today, offering tables can also be used to place decorative ornaments. 

Huali Wood Table of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Huali Wood Table of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Palace Museum

Entertain and Dining Table

 

To entertain guests and have dinner. 

 

  • Square Table is used to welcome and entertain important guests. 

 

  • Round Table is to entertain close friends and have family dinners. 

 

  • Half Moon Table is used as decorative tables to place ornament, and two of them can splice into a round table when necessary. 

Antique Round Table and Chairs in Yuanxiang Hall of Humble Administrator's Garden

Antique Round Table and Chairs in Yuanxiang Hall of Humble Administrator's Garden.

Literati Table

 

For scholars to read, write, and paint.

 

 

Display Table

 

To place decorations and daily utensils. 

Tables and Chairs in the Painting "Ting Qin Tu" by Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135)

Tables and Chairs in the Painting "Ting Qin Tu" by Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135) — The Palace Museum

 

Chinese Stool and Chair — Deng and Yi

 

Chinese Stool (Deng) appeared earlier and originally was used as pedals.

 

Since Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), people have started to sit on stools and developed a series of making and decorating methods. 

 

Chinese stools mainly include square stools, round stools, benches, and campstools. 

Zitan Wood Square Stool of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) with Enamel Decorations

Zitan Wood Square Stool of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) with Enamel Decorations — The Palace Museum

Since the Chinese Chair (Yi) appeared in the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), many styles had been developed and were used to show hierarchy. 

 

Today, traditional Chinese chairs are no longer representatives of one's social status, however, they are still splendid combinations of aesthetics and practicality.

 

Folding Chair or Jiao Yi: Symbol of Power and Leadership

 

It is a type of exquisite folding chair that can be carried around easily and was exclusively used by people with high status in history, for them to sit and relax during marching or hunting.

Huanghuali Wood Folding Chair or Jiao Yi of the Late Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Huanghuali Wood Folding Chair or Jiao Yi of the Late Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), Photo from Christie's Hong Kong.

Round-backed Armchair or Quan Yi: Elegant and Smooth Lines

 

The round-backed Armchair or Quan Yi is one of the most famous traditional style furniture today, whose elegant and smooth curvy lines are perfect combinations of aesthetics and ergonomics. 

 

Generally, Chinese Round-backed Armchairs or Quan Yi are simple and unadorned. 

Huali Wood Round-backed Armchair or Quan Yi of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Huali Wood Round-backed Armchair or Quan Yi of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Palace Museum

Later in Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), Imperial Palace Chairs or Huanggong Yi were produced and exclusively used by royals. 

 

Based on Quan Yi, Imperial Palace Chair uses more valuable wood and is decorated with extravagant carvings, usually dragon and phoenix patterns that represent authority and supremacy. 

Exquisite Carvings on Imperial Palace Chairs or Huanggong Yi

Exquisite Carvings on Imperial Palace Chairs or Huanggong Yi — Palace Museum

Taishi Chair: Symbol of Authority

 

Taishi Chair evolved out of Folding Chair, named after an honorable official name "Taishi". 

 

Taishi Chair has an integrally connected backrest and armrests, usually square, big, spacious, and with extravagant decorations. 

Zitan Wood Taishi Chairs of the Qing Dynasty Decorated with Gems and Mother-of-pearl

Zitan Wood Taishi Chairs of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) Decorated with Gems and Mother-of-pearl — Liu's Manor Museum in Dayi County (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Guanmao Chair: Artsy Modelings with Auspicious Meaning

 

Guanmao Chair refers to chairs with backrests that look like officials' hats, which represent fortune and talent. 

Huali Wood Guanmao Chair of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Huali Wood Guanmao Chair of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Palace Museum

Rose Chair or Meigui Yi: Delicate Chair for Beauties

 

Rose Chair or Meigui Yi is small and exquisite, with delicate backrests and armrests all intersect vertically with the chair's surface. 

 

In history, Rose Chair was also named the Beauty's Chair, for its popularity among women.

Huanghuali Wood Rose Chair or Meigui Yi of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Huanghuali Wood Rose Chair or Meigui Yi of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum

Lamp Hanger Chair or Denggua Yi: Ancient Minimalism

 

The back of Denggua Yi looks like the shelf that was used to hang lamps hence named the Lamp Hanger Chair. 

 

It has no armrests, with simple and unadorned lines. A perfect example of ancient Minimalism and one of the commonest furniture, Lamp Hanger Chairs had been popular for centuries, from royals to civilians. 

Huanghuali Wood Lamp Hanger Chair or Denggua Yi of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Huanghuali Wood Lamp Hanger Chair or Denggua Yi of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), Photo from China Guardian.

Chinese Throne or Bao Zuo: Emperor's Chair

 

Bao Zuo is the emperor's throne in ancient history, which represents supremacy and ultimate imperial power.  

 

Chinese throne chairs are usually big and tall, decorated with luxurious treasures, and carved with patterns that represent authority and power, such as Chinese Dragons

 

Traditionally, imperial thrones usually were set in front of a grand screen, with sacred decorations placed on each side. 

Emperors' Throne and Luxurious Decorations in the Hall of Supreme Harmony (or Tai He Dian) in the Outer Court

Emperors' Throne and Luxurious Decorations in the Hall of Supreme Harmony (or Tai He Dian) of Forbidden City, Photo by Liu Yedao.

 

Chinese Bed and Couch — Chuang and Ta

 

Chinese Bed (Chuang) is usually bigger and has been used for people to sit, entertain guests, and sleep. 

 

In ancient times, Ta served the function of a couch, which is smaller than a bed and is used for people to sit and nap. 

 

 

Ta: Chinese Couch and Narrow Bed

 

Ta is a type of long, low, and narrow platform, on which people could sit like the couch, or nap like the bed. 

A Scholar Resting on Ta in the Painting "Whiling Away the Summer" by Liu Guandao of the Yuan Dynasty

A Scholar Resting on Ta in the Painting "Whiling Away the Summer" by Liu Guandao of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) — The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Guifei Ta: Couch for Beauties

 

Also named Meiren Ta, originated in Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), is a narrower, smaller, and more exquisite type of Ta that had been used by women. 

Chinese furniture Guifei Ta or Meiren Ta

Guifei Ta or Meiren Ta

Luohan Bed: Ancient Multifunctional Furniture 

 

Luohan Bed evolved out of Ta, usually bigger and with guardrails on three sides. 

 

Generally, a table would be placed in the middle of a Luohan Bed, where people can sit and rest, read and eat, entertain close guests, and take naps. 

Huali Wood Luohan Bed of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Huali Wood Luohan Bed of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Palace Museum

Canopy Bed or Jiazi Chuang: Commonest Traditional Chinese Bed

 

The Canopy Bed or Jiazi Chuang is a popular and typical type of bed in ancient China, usually with four or six pillars, guardrails on at least three sides, and a canopy on top, which can hang different styles of beautiful curtains.

 

The Canopy Bed is only used for sleeping and is usually well decorated with auspicious patterns. 

Huali Wood Canopy Bed or Jiazi Chuang of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Huali Wood Canopy Bed or Jiazi Chuang of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Palace Museum

Alcove Bed or Babu Chuang: Luxurious Antique Bed

 

Among traditional furniture, Alcove Bed or Babu Chuang which originated in the late Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) is the largest bed in China. 

 

It looks like a wooden cabin, inside places a Canopy Bed and necessary furniture, such as a dresser, stool, and lamp.   

 

Because of its sophisticated structure, complicated making procedure, and extravagant decorations, Alcove Bed had been used mostly in rich and powerful families. 

Alcove Bed or Babu Chuang of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Alcove Bed or Babu Chuang of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo from Peiranjun)

 

Chinese Cabinet and Shelf — Gui and Jia

 

Traditional Chinese Cabinet (Gui) is usually symmetry and rectangular, with four legs on the bottom, and contains drawers and shelves inside doors. 

 

Throughout history, there are three commonest styles of Chinese Cabinets: Round-corner Cabinet, Compound Cabinet, and Display Cabinet. 

Bronze Box and Spoon of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 BC — 256 BC)

Bronze Box and Spoon of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 BC — 256 BC) — Shanxi Archaeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Round Corner Cabinet or Yuanjiao Gui

 

It is one of the most ancient and popular Chinese cabinets, named after its round corners on top, and usually also with round legs. 

 

The top of Yuanjiao Gui is subtlety smaller than the bottom, and brilliant designs of rails make it free from using hinges.  

 

Antique Yuanjiao Gui or Round Corner Cabinets are usually elegant and unadorned, with beautiful and refined lines.

Huanghuali Wood Round Corner Cabinet or Yuanjiao Gui of the Late Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Huanghuali Wood Round Corner Cabinet or Yuanjiao Gui of the Late Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), Picture from Beijing Poly International Auction.

Compound Cabinet or Dingxiang Gui

 

Compound Cabinet or Dingxiang Gui became popular among nobles and wealthy people since it appeared in the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), and is usually made of fine woods with exquisite carvings. 

 

It looks like a wardrobe with a top cabinet, usually placed in the bedroom in pairs.

Zitan Wood Compound Cabinet or Dingxiang Gui of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Zitan Wood Compound Cabinet or Dingxiang Gui of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum

Display Cabinet or Liangge Gui

 

The Display Cabinet or Liangge Gui is a combination of cabinet and shelf, usually placed in the study or hall room. 

 

Books usually can be placed in the cabinet, while antiques and classy ornaments would be placed on the shelf on top. 

Huanghuali Wood Display Cabinet or Liangge Gui of the Late Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Huanghuali Wood Display Cabinet or Liangge Gui of the Late Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), Photo from China Guardian.

Chinese Shelf Jiage

 

Chinese Shelf, also named Jiage, is the furniture to place books and stationeries and to display antiques and other decorations. 

 

Chinese shelves are not necessarily symmetric and rectangular, but are usually balanced and with ingenious designs. 

Zitan Wood Shelf Jiage of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Zitan Shelf Jiage of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Palace Museum

Ancient Coffer Menhuchu

 

Traditional Menhuchu is a type of furniture that combines tables, drawers, and coffers, which had been an important dowry in Traditional Chinese Wedding in ancient history. 

 

Putting aside exquisite decorations and beautiful designs, a noteworthy characteristic of Menhuchu is that one can open the coffer only after having taken out the drawers on top. 

Carved Lacquerware Coffer Menhuchu of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Carved Lacquerware Coffer Menhuchu of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Victoria and Albert Museum (Photo from Peiranjun)

 

Other Types of Chinese Antique Furniture

 

Besides these four categories mentioned above, other types of traditional antique furniture include:

 

  • Chinese Chests to place specific objects, such as books, stationery, seal, clothes, jewelry, cosmetics, food, etc.;

Furniture Case Decorated with Mother-of-pearl Inlay of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368)

Furniture Case Decorated with Mother-of-pearl Inlay of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) — Tokyo National Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Chinese Screen to shield, divide, and decorate, such as fold screen and floor screen as room dividers, table screen, hanging screen, and wall art as room decorations;

 

  • Dressing table, clothes stand, and various table ornaments.

Furniture Table, Dresser, Bed Screen (Ta Ping) and Bed (Ta) in the Painting "Banxian Qiuguang" by Qiu Ying (about 1498 — 1552)

Table, Dresser, Bed Screen (Ta Ping) and Bed (Ta) in the Painting "Banxian Qiuguang" by Qiu Ying (about 1498 — 1552) — Shanghai Museum

 

Chinese Furniture and Art

The aesthetic values of furniture design embody in:

  • Clean and smooth lines, and ingenious structure;

  • Brilliant use of woods' natural textures;

 

Huanghuali Wood Table With Beautiful Natural Textures and Carved with Mythical Creature Chi Pattern of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Huanghuali Wood Table With Beautiful Natural Textures and Carved with Mythical Creature Chi Pattern of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum

  • Splendid lacquer colors and pictures;

 

  • Magnificent and delicate carvings;

Exquisite Details on Carved Lacquerware Round Table of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Exquisite Details on Carved Lacquerware Round Table of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Shenyang Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Chosen and use precious woods with fine density and beautiful texture, such as Zitan, Huali, and Suanzhi;

 

  • Inlaying and attaching artsy and treasurable articles. 

Delicate Enamel Decorations Inlayed on Zitan Wood Table of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Delicate Enamel Decorations Inlayed on Zitan Wood Table of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum