Chinese Furniture — Classic Artwork with Aesthetic and Practical Values
Chinese Furniture is an independent system that combines aesthetics and practicality with exceptional historical, cultural, and artistic values.
Similar to Traditional Chinese Architecture, different types of furniture in China are primarily symmetric, follow the strict hierarchy in history, are made of wood, and apply resemblance decorations and structural designs, such as mortise and tenon joint technic.
Chinese Furniture History and Development
Traditional Chinese furniture throughout history experienced some stages, mainly from low to high, heavy to light.
Woven Mats, Low Tables, and Screens 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, diverse sizes, and exquisite decoration.
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).
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 — 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. In contrast, more materials were used 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 have gradually started to sit on high furniture like today.
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, traditional Chinese 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.
Different types of low and high furniture coexisted during this era until high furniture gradually became dominant during the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279).
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 — Palace Museum
Sophisticated and Luxurious Decoration — Qing Furniture
Based on Ming Furniture, Qing (1636 — 1912) Furniture included more materials, technics, and patterns in making and decorating procedures.
Hence, Qing Furniture primarily has exquisite, refined, and luxurious decorations.
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 Early Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Chinese Table — Zhuo and An
Chinese table includes two types, Zhuo and An.
It appeared earlier, used initially 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 with table legs indented tabletop are named An, and the others are called Zhuo.
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:
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) — 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 can splice into a round table when necessary.
For scholars to read, write, and paint.
To place decorations and daily utensils.
Chinese Stool and Chair — Deng and Yi
Chinese Stool (Deng) appeared earlier and was initially 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 — The Palace Museum
Since the Chinese Chair (Yi) appeared in the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), many styles were developed and 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), 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 furniture styles 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) — Palace Museum
Later, in Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), royals produced and exclusively used 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 (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 resemble officials' hats representing fortune and talent.
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 intersecting vertically with the chair's surface.
Historically, Rose Chair was also named Beauty's Chair for its popularity among women.
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. An example of ancient Minimalism and one of the most typical furniture, Lamp Hanger Chairs, had been famous for centuries, from royals to civilians.
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, representing supremacy and ultimate imperial power.
Chinese throne chairs are usually big and tall, decorated with luxurious treasures, and carved with patterns representing authority and power, such as Chinese Dragons.
Traditionally, imperial thrones were set in front of a grand screen, with sacred decorations on each side.
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, smaller than a bed, and was used for people to sit and nap.
Ta: Chinese Couch and Narrow Bed
Ta is a long, low, narrow platform; people could sit and nap on it, like on a couch or bed.
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 and originated in Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), it is a narrower, smaller, and more exquisite type of Ta used by women.
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) — 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) — Palace Museum
Alcove Bed or Babu Chuang: Luxurious Antique Bed
Among traditional furniture, Alcove Bed or Babu Chuang originated in the late Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) and 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 their sophisticated structure, complicated making procedure, and extravagant decorations, Alcove Beds were used primarily on rich and powerful families.
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 symmetrical and rectangular, with four legs on the bottom, and contains drawers and shelves inside doors.
Throughout history, there have been three most typical 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) — 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 subtly smaller than the bottom, and brilliant 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), 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 wood 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) — 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), 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 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 Weddings in ancient history.
Putting aside exquisite decorations and beautiful designs, a noteworthy characteristic of Menhuchu is that one can open the coffer only after taking out the drawers.
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) — 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.
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 the following:
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) — Palace Museum
Splendid lacquer colors and pictures;
Magnificent and delicate carvings;
Exquisite Details on Carved Lacquerware Round Table of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Shenyang Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Choosing and using 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) — Palace Museum
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