A Guide to Chinese Antique Furniture
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China has a long history of furniture production, gradually giving rise to a furniture culture with distinct Chinese national
characteristics over the past thousands of years. The most characteristic of all belongs to the Chinese antique furniture of Ming and
Qing dynasties, during which ereas both style and cultural background had reached its summit. As the beautiful flower in the garden
of Chinese civilization, the Chinese classic furniture enjoys a high reputation in the culture of world furniture.
The Classical Chinese Furniture's group includes pieces from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. Historical
documents demonstrate that pre-Ming furniture-making was already well developed both in skill and design, but very little has
survived. As in Wang Shixiang's words, "it is only from Ming and early Qing times that pieces of furniture of high quality material and
craftsmanship have been preserved from the large numbers that were made".
Ming and early Qing times are considered the Golden Age of Chinese furniture; pieces from this period are highly-valued antiques
and today are quite hard to find. It is necessary to be a connoisseur to recognize and collect such pieces. The Qianlong reign period
(1736-1795) marks the beginning of the decadence in the tradition of fine furniture; still, because of its shortness and the first
appearance of overly elaborate pieces (typical Qing furniture), furniture from this period is considered of excellent quality, attract high
value and are extremely sought after. In the latter part of the Qing Dynasty, Classical Furniture became just a shadow of the ancient
tradition and lost the beauty of simplicity.
The first auction of Chinese antique furniture held by International Auction Company in New York, US, has attracted collectors
throughout the world. After two hours of fierce competition, all objects are sold with no remaining. This successful auction marks the
position of Chinese ancient furniture amongst the worldly important cultural relics.
With people's growing favor over restoration of ancient style, a world-based research and collection of Chinese classic furniture is
forming. In US, the first museum of this kind is launched, with the aim to collect the fine Chinese antique furniture from all corners of
the world. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO displays super quality Ming furniture. The historical meaning and spirit
of humanity embodied by Chinese classic furniture has been getting more attention.
The trend of folk collection dates back to the Seventy's. Now, more and more men of insight have recognized the value of arts and
commerce in it. The demand is increasing, and the prospect of market is favorable. Because of the prohibition on export of five wood
(in other name, "hard wood") furniture by government, the foreign collectors now focus on furniture made from non-prohibited woods
which are called "soft furniture" in comparison with the hard ones. Whether from hard or soft woods, the Chinese classic furniture
has great value. Just as significant as classic music of the East, the Chinese antique furniture belongs to treasure of human spirit.
As one of the four ancient civilized nations, China boasts a history of five thousand years. A resplendent treasure of civilization,
Chinese classic furniture plays a significant part of it. The most representative is the furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, which
typically show their exquisite craft value, artistic value, and historical cultural value. This makes furniture art a part of the valuable
heritage in which we Chinese take pride.
Furniture has been with us since man decided that he needed something more comfortable than the hard ground to sit upon. 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. Emperors and Empresses sit on their royal furniture to show
superiority and authority. The crafting of solid, hand carved furniture is a dying art. Some of the best craftsmen created tables, beds,
chairs and dressers for comfort, relaxation and entertainment under the instruction of scholars. The popularity of Chinese antique
furniture is on an upward rise because it is an expression of a person's character, a decorative object of their admiration as well as
an article of investment. Most furniture older than 50 years old is a collectible antique.
Most of the furniture from Ming dynasty are royal court furniture made of Huanghuali and Zitan. A few pieces of furniture from Qing
dynasty are royal court furniture made of Huanghuali and Zitan because these hardwoods were not available in China and had to be
imported from abroad through trade. Most of Qing dynasty furniture was constructed of elm(N. elm called Yumu, S. elm called Jumu),
cypress, fir etc. because it was readily available and abundant in most parts of the country. Middle class growth gave rise to a
demand for furniture not only for domestic purposes, but also for showcasing the wealth and prestige of the individual to the outside
world. This resulted in an increasing quantity of high quality furniture which was quite often designed in a localized form peculiar to
the area. Many items were custom made to order and would reflect the specific requirements of decoration and size and also would
be dated and initialled. Some would commemorate a name. Initials and brands are found on furniture and sets of different initials
indicate a change of ownership. Few could survive from many wars in Ming dynasty, Qing dynasty, Minguo Period, Japanese War, Civil
War and Culture Revolution in the Great China.
Antique furniture covers a wide range of styles, designs, types and historical periods-- Ming dynasty, Qing dynasty and early Minguo
Period. All of these have their respective following and within each of these classifications are subclasses that indicate style and
historical periods. The predominate types of wood are Zitan and Huanghuali. The different types of wood significantly affect the value
of Chinese antique furniture. The construction details, type of furniture, hardware, patina and provenance are also important in
determining value as is having all the original components. Many pieces of antique furniture have had components replaced or
hardware changed and this results in the decrease of the value of the piece. How does one know if they have a collectible piece of
antique furniture? There are characteristics and qualities which define and determine collectibility.
Furniture of the Ming Dynasty, also known as Ming style furniture, is usually made of hard wood. The Ming Furniture is famous for its
unique frame constructs. It features simple and chic designs with an emphatic contour. The wood features heavy colors, beautiful
patterns and fine and hard texture. There are virtually no carvings or engravings. In order to stress the beautiful lines, only decorative
carvings are done locally in order not to affect the overall effect. The outstanding workmanship of the Ming furniture is also reflected in
its rational structure and elegant appearance.
The furniture of the Ming Dynasty was rich in varieties and styles: "the concept of furniture sets" was formed, and complete sets of
furniture appeared in the hall, bedroom and study, divided each space according to its function. Furniture of the Qing dynasty is quite
different from that of the Ming Dynasty in the style of formative art. The Qing Furniture is characterized by its usage of weighty wood for
making furniture of relatively larger size. It features strong impacts and elegance. Its sophisticated inlays, carvings and paintings
command an impression of high authoritative power. All this stands a sharp contrast with the Ming's style.
Ming & Qing dynaty furniture is classified into three region styles of craftsmanship. It was mainly made in the cities of Suzhou, Beijing
and Guangzhou, each having its own local styles. Suzhou style and Beijing style have retained much of the traditional forms. The
Guangzhou style, due to the influence of the Westerns culture, is virtually westernized. The Chinese antique furniture of the Ming and
Qing dynasties is characterized by exquisite design, expert workmanship and careful carving. Ming and Qing dynasty furniture
remains a rare timeless treasure and one of the splendid achievements of Oriental culture.