Ming & Qing Style of Chinese Antique Furniture
The development of traditional Chinese furniture went from the simple to the intricate, and was closely linked to the Chinese lifestyle
and cultural and economic changes in China. In early antiquity, the Chinese sat mostly on straw mats on the floor. After the Warring
States period (475-221 B.C.), beds and couches began to come into widespread use as seating. During the Wei-Chin (220-420 A.D.)
and the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589 A.D.) period, Western-style chairs, folding stools, and other seating gradually
entered China. From this point on, Chinese everyday living began to be conducted from chairs rather than sitting cross-legged on the
floor. Straw mats came to be used as coverings for beds and couches.
Beginning in the late Ching Dynasty, foreign living styles began to be adopted in China, with the result that originally predominant
Chinese-style furnishings gradually became collector's items. Not only chairs, but also Chinese tables, cabinets, bookcases, and
decorative screens reached the summit of their development during the Ming ( 1368-1644 A.D.) and Ch'ing dynasties.
Ming furniture features simple, smooth, and flowing lines, and plain and elegant ornamentation, fully bringing out the special qualities of
frame-structure furniture. Influenced by China's burgeoning foreign trade and advanced craftsmanship techniques, furniture of the
Ch'ing Dynasty period turned to rich and intricate ornamentation, along with coordinated engraved designs. Because of the high level of
development of Chinese furniture in the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties, most Chinese furniture design today follows in the tradition of
pieces from these two periods.
As in traditional Chinese architecture, wood is the major material used in the manufacture of furniture. This was in response both to
needs arising from Chinese lifestyles, and to China's rich forest resources. The two main types are lacquered furniture and hardwood
furniture. Lacquered furniture was commonly used in palaces, temples, and in the homes of the wealthy. It includes the t'i-hung , or
carved lacquer style; t'ien-ch'i in which lacquer is used to fill in an engraved design, then rubbed flat; miao-ch'i , or outlined lacquer style;
and luo-tien , or furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Two or more methods might also be combined in the same piece. Hardwood
furniture was frequently found in the homes of the wealthy, but was even more common in the homes of nobles and officials. Woods
employed include red sandalwood, pearwood, padauk, ebony, and nanmu. Of these, red sandalwood is the most highly valued material
for use in furniture making; it is dense, hard, and resistant to decay.
Bamboo and rattan furniture also have a long history. Bamboo is a product unique to Asia, and is an especially developed industry in hot
and sunny Taiwan. Simple and ingenious techniques are used to make clever and useful products that can be ``knocked down,'' and
modular pieces that can be used together or separately.
Bamboo may be used in combination with other materials, such as wood, rattan, metal, and ceramic tile, in endless variation. Much
bamboo and rattan furniture is exported to Europe and the United States, where it enjoys great popularity.
Chinese are fond of furniture with inlaid and carved work. In addition to shells and enamel chips, brilliant, colorful, and artistically
grained jade, stones, ivory (and other animal teeth), horn, agate, and amber are used for inlaid designs. Marble, for example, is a stone
often used for inlaid work; colorful ceramic plates are also a popular material for ornamentation. Another elegant technique used since
ancient times is the inlaying of different kinds and colors of woods in a single piece. The methods of carving include relief carving,
negative engraving, and free-style carving. Common subjects for furniture carving are flowers; dragons and phoenixes; the ch'i-lin, a
Chinese mythical beast; and stylized cloud and leaf patterns.
Traditional Chinese furniture is generally arranged in symmetrical suites or sets. These are, however, supplemented with other more
flexible arrangements to prevent the room from having too staid an atmosphere. For example, paintings or examples of calligraphy
might be hung on the wall; ceramic, enamel or other knick-knacks might be placed in an antique display cabinet; or flower
arrangements made of jade or stone might top a square occasional table. Any or all of these can add splashes of color and elegant
form to the room. These delicate additions set off the heavy furniture to give a rich composite effect.
The Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) has been called one of the most interesting in the development of Chinese furniture. It was an age of
expansion and prosperity when the decorative arts flourished, and its furniture is characterized by soft curves, fluid lines and classic
Floor sitting was widely practiced in China well into the 10th century, but Buddhism dictated a more formal seating arrangement, and
with the advent of the Ming Dynasty, chairs were common furniture items. The development of the chair reached its peak in the late Ming
period, and its typical elegance and simplicity extended to all types of furniture made in the era.
An important feature of late Ming furniture is its use of plain hardwoods. Requiring superb joinery skills, good materials and little
decoration, materials such as rosewood were used to construct pieces of remarkable simplicity, distinguished by the technical
achievements of both workmanship and finish.
The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) began with the Manchu conquest of China, and the more extravagant taste of the new rulers is evident in
the furniture of this era. More ornate than the earlier period, it is a balance of the Manchu love of decoration and the prevailing
conservative culture. Furniture of this period is slightly larger and makes more use of carving, but is by no means garish.
The same high quality hardwoods, joinery and finishes distinguish pieces from the Qing Dynasty; the pieces also reflect the more
openly luxurious style of living. During this period China became more accessible to the West, and the elegant curves and carving of this
period influenced European furniture makers.
Classic Chinese furniture can be gathered into just a few groups: beds, stools, chairs, wardrobes, chests and tables: unlike Western
homes, Chinese houses traditionally required less furniture. Each piece was therefore more important, so excellent workmanship,
wood, and styling have become the hallmarks of classic antique Chinese furniture.