Chinese Antique Furniture Category
The furniture of the late Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) marked a departure from the classical style so closely associated with Chinese
pieces. The tastes of the ruling elite had dominated Chinese furniture design for centuries. When most people think of Chinese
furniture they most likely picture the classical style of the Ming Dynasty – simple, austere and imperial. The arrival of the Qing dynasty
saw the expansion of trade and contact with the west which resulted in a revised notion of who could own extravagant goods. A new
and prosperous merchant class appeared whose furniture tastes tended to be more colourful and creative and a lot warmer.
Today, this type of furniture has enjoyed a revival. Not only do these pieces make warm and lively additions to a living space but they
also hold extraordinary cultural value. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's, groups of young communists, known as the Red
Guards, attempted to destroy any remaining evidence of the class society that had oppressed ordinary China for centuries. Much of
the Chinese furniture was taken from the intellectuals' homes or burnt on the streets because they are evidence of bourgeois. What
furniture did survive was taken to enormous warehouses owned by China government where it sat for the next decade. In the early
1980's government officials decided that retaining the furniture was not helping the Chinese nation and thus much of it was
redistributed, with no thought for its original owners. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's, farmers were considered the first
class like army soldiers and communists, so a farmer in a village might receive an intricately painted Chinese cabinet once
intended for storing precious scrolls not farm implements!
Low platforms, which were used as honorific seats, were the earliest type of raised seating furniture to appear in China. Sitting
platforms were called Ta; the relatively longer Chuang was used both for sitting and reclining. By the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), the
platform had increased in height with decorative panels or Kunmen-shaped openings decorating the sides.
"When daybeds (Ta) were made in ancient times, although the length and width were not standardized, they were invariably antique,
elegant and delightful when placed in a studio or room. There was no way in which they were not convenient, whether for sitting up,
lying down or reclining. In moments of pleasant relaxation they would spread out classic or historical texts, examine works of
calligraphy or painting, display ancient bronze vessels, arrange dishes of food and fruit, or set out a pillow and woven mat."
During the late Ming, some sophisticated connoisseurs preferred the archaic style of the box-style platform over the modern daybeds
with free-standing legs. Although the old tradition gave way to popular fashion, some limited use continued throughout the Qing
Open-frame daybeds were popularized during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and their use gradually eclipsed the old, box-style
platform. Traditional styles included Simianping and waisted forms with cabriole legs or horse-feet.
A miniature wooden daybed found in the tomb of Pan Yunzheng (d. 1589) near Shanghai reflects a classical 'waisted corner-leg' -
style typical of the late Ming period.
Daybeds of 'recessed-leg' style were also typical of the late Ming period, including both those of round-leg style as well a those with
mitered bridle joints and legs shaped with flanges.
Being relatively lightweight, the daybed was well-suited for impromptu gatherings, and was often arranged with other furnishings on
a terrace or in the garden where fresh air and natural impressions could be enjoyed.
In a makeshift study arranged on a garden terrace, the daybed served as a place for quiet relaxation and contemplative meditation or
as a platform from which to engage in lofty conversation. Such tented arrangements also provided a comfortable place to sleep
during the hot summers nights.
The refined gentleman also found idle pleasure playing the Qin while seated upon a daybed arranged in a garden pavilion.
Writing in the early 17th century, Wen Zhenheng recommended a simple daybed (Ta) for a gentleman's sleeping quarters; his
suggested arrangement—with a couple of stools and a small table set to the side—corresponds closely to scene painted by Qiu
Ying some 50 years earlier.
Therein, a gentleman relaxes leisurely upon on a Simianping daybed, and while reclining against a backrest, looks out upon an
enclosed private garden.
Although the use was similar to the daybed, the couch bed (Chuang, Luohan Chuang) is distinguished by railings, which render it as
a more formal piece of furniture. The development of railings may be related with the early placement of screen panels around the
back and sides of the platform, which enhanced the sitter as well as provided privacy and protection from drafts.
This practice gradually gave rise to decorative railings attached to the seat frame of the platform.
By the Ming dynasty, the box-style platform had developed into the more sophisticated open-structured, corner-leg form.
Railings were made in various styles; those configured as throne-like stepped panels are evident from the early Ming period. Literary
references also record use of decorative stone for couch bed railings during this time.
Railings were frequently decorated with carving, inlays, or painted lacquer. By the late Ming period, advanced joinery techniques
permitted the abandonment of the reinforcing floor stretcher.
Contemporary to the fashion for hardwood furniture during the late Ming and Qing dynasties, the couch bed was frequently made with
plain solid panels of naturally figured wood or with intricate lattice patterns displaying auspicious wanzi, jingzi, or 'carpenter's square'
Bamboo was also a favorite material of construction for couch beds—especially the prized speckled bamboo.
Couch beds contrived from roots also appeared during the late Ming and Qing dynasties, at a time when Daoist traditions—
expressed through rusticity and humble natural materials—became fashionable for those with leisurely lifestyles.
The platform bed was naturally extended with surrounding screen panels or tented awnings to provide nighttime enclosure. The
canopy bed is thus characterized by a super structure fitted to the top of the bed, which was enclosed with panels and/or hung with
draperies. This room within a room provided private space that was further insulated from drafty quarters.
Four-post canopy beds, which were common during the Ming period, were typically draped with fabric around the outside of the
frame that suited to the season. Pongee silk or thick cotton provided insulated during the cold winters; gauze netting, provided relief
was from annoying insects during the summer without diminishing the refreshingly cool evening breezes. Silk curtains for a lady's
bed were often finely embroidered with decorative and auspicious patterns.
Curtains were drawn back during the day with curtain hooks, and the cozy cubicle continued to be utilized for dining, socializing, and
other daily activities.
Six post canopy beds exhibit a somewhat more architectural style. The curtains were generally hung on the inside of these beds so
as to reveal its decorative lattice-work and/or open-carved panels. Those decorated with marble panels were highly prized during the
late Ming period.
The alcove bed is yet a larger piece of furniture that fits upon base with floor boards. An extension in front provides space for a small
table, cabinet, and/or stool. The alcove bed is described in the Ming carpenters manual Lu Ban Jing, and a miniature wood model
illustrated below was discovered in a tomb near Shanghai dated to the late 16th century. A similar full-sized example made from
Huanghuali wood is exhibited at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.
CABINETS / WARDROBES
Cabinets in traditional Chinese society were available in a variety of forms. A wealthy Chinese household was home to many
families and since it was considered offensive to lock a door to a room, cabinets were used to secure precious objects as they were
lockable. The pairing of cabinets was also particular popular in China as it was considered lucky in China . According to legend,
placing two objects alongside each other created a cosmic gateway through which invisible blessings came.
The most popular Chinese cabinet designs included:
Tapered Cabinets which came with a removable centre post allowing easy access for storing large objects or lying robes and
Wedding Cabinets painted in red, the colour of luck and prosperity, which were often the main part of a bride's dowry. The hardware
on the cabinets is nearly always a large round brass plate.
Painted Cabinets are always interesting as they offer an insight into how they would have been used within a Chinese household.
Paintings depicting women or children would most likely have been used in the living quarters of a wife or concubine whilst scenes
depicting hills and rivers would most probably have belonged to a scholar.
Medicine Cabinets , also known as 100 eye cabinets, were used by doctors to store a variety of herbs and medicines to fix all types of
Kitchen Cabinets usually had either lattice or spindle doors which allowed the air to circulate around the enclosed fruit and
vegetables without letting in too much light and thus keeping it fresher for longer.
CHESTS / TRUNKS
Trunks and chests were the earliest from of storage in Chinese society. They came in a variety of sizes and styles. The larger chests
tended to be used for storing clothing and bedding and were placed on the floor against a wall. Smaller chests were used for
jewellery, make-up, scrolls and important documents and were placed on top of tables. Chinese chests came in a variety of finishes
and tended to depict colourful scenes. Chinese chests were designed not merely for storage but as a piece of artwork.
Tables were an incredibly popular item in a Chinese household and were used for more than just eating. The most popular Chinese
table designs included:
The Raised End Table , more commonly known by the western term Altar Table, was placed in front of a shrine in the main reception
hall and was certainly the most important piece of furniture in a Chinese household. The table would usually hold offerings such as
food or flowers in a bid to encourage favour from the ghosts of ancestors.
The Eight Immortals Table was designed to seat 2 people per side and served as the centre of domestic gatherings - a place to sit,
eat and converse with guests. When not in use the table would sit in front of the altar table adorned with silk and flanked by 2 chairs.
When needed for meals the table would be moved into the centre of the room.
Side Tables were incredibly popular in Chinese households. It was rare to see a table in the centre of a room when not in use and
most often they would be placed against a wall flanked by chairs or stools. Side tables were popular for conversing with guests or
displaying treasured possessions such as vases or sculptures.
Tea Tables usually formed a pair and they were used solely for entertaining guests. Also known as the spring table because the
wood design on the bottom shelf often depicted a cracked ice pattern which signified the breaking of the river ice in spring.
Painting Tables were mainly used to paint landscapes on wide silk scrolls. Such tables would most likely have been found in a
scholar's study where gentlemanly arts such as reading, writing, music and poetry would be practiced.
Kang tables were designed to sit either on top or to the side of a Kang, which was a large platform built of bricks or earth. In the
centre of the kang was a fire which kept it warm and as such it was the place that saw most activity within a Chinese household,
especially during the winter months. Eating, working, sleeping, entertaining all took place on the Kang. Kang tables were designed
to be lifted up onto the bed to provide convenient storage and a useful surface.
Wine Tables often have stone panels inset into the top panel of wood. Stone was practical and proved easier to remove the food and
drink spillage. The stone was greatly prized as a source of endless interest due to the images of mountains, faces, and animals etc
that were evoked through the patterns.
Chairs were used in Chinese society as a symbol of importance and rank. The elevated position represented an elevated status and
as such was reserved for important guests only. Chairs were also often used to display lucky signs such as a fish which was a
symbol of plenty. Symbols were important on furniture as often the new owners - the merchant class - were unable to read but could
recognise symbols. The most popular Chinese chair designs included:
Officials Hat Chairs , so called because they resembled the hats worn by government officials, often displayed beautiful carvings
beneath the seat of the chair. Also known as meditation chairs due to their straight backs and high armrests the chairs were
designed to keep a person's feet of the cold stone floors and thus they were deemed a relatively warm place to be.
Round back Chairs , commonly known as Horseshoe Chairs are one of the most comfortable styles of Chinese seating with their
crest rail and arms forming a continuous curve. They were considered the most ceremonial of chairs and preferred for important
guests and ancestral portraits as the high, curving arm conferred dignity on the sitter.
Suzhou Style Scholar Chair, the screen chair is fitted with a removable board inserted behind backrest on which bowl and vase
patterns were carved. The carved standing teeth at both sides to support the backrest to make the chair solid.
Lamp-Hanger style Southern Chinese Chairs, Two-Protruding-Head sides like lamp hangers (Deng gua yi) are very popular in
Suzhou area in Ming dynasty. The protruding crestrail curves slightly upward at either end and is flattened at its center, where it
meets the splat and where the neck of the sitter would rest. The rear stiles are not straight but curve gently backward toward the
crestrail. This style of chair is comfortable to sit on leaning on the curved backrest.
Fauteuil (Tai shi yi), armchairs are very wide chair with armrest.
Stools came in many shapes and sizes in China. Low stools meant sitting lower to the ground and generally indicated a southern
origin whilst the higher stools tended to be from the north with people sitting well above the cold ground. Chinese stools were
popular household items as they were easy to store and move around and on occasion could double as a table.
For many centuries, the most common form of seating in China was without a back, and stools are still preferred by many in China
today. Western-style furniture gained popularity during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but even up until the end of the Qing Dynasty
(1644-1911), only important family members and guests used chairs.
Screens were an important item in the Chinese household. Used as a means of both privacy and decoration the screens
traditionally comprised of intricate latticework woven with exquisite carvings and relief work. Chinese craftsman took great delight in
finishing their work. Unlike Western homes, Chinese houses traditionally required less furniture. Each piece was therefore more
important, so excellent workmanship, wood, and styling became the hallmarks of classic antique Chinese furniture.
Chinese accessories come in all shapes and sizes but they more than any other item of furniture probably tell the story of daily life in
China during the late Qing dynasty. The most popular items include Painted wooden food pots used for storing a range of food, rice
baskets used to transport grain from market, bird cages used for walking pet birds, calligraphy brush pots used to protect the
scholars most precious tool, red wedding baskets which were filled with food and given to a bride on her wedding day, bathing
bowls, water buckets. The list goes on and the collection of items gives us a unique insight into pre-Mao China .