In the west, people are fascinated by Chinese furniture. There seems to be an unconscious perception that Chinese furniture is made using some arcane skill they can’t grasp. Through the evolution of Chinese furniture, we might be able to unravel this mysterious craft.
In the west, people are fascinated by Chinese furniture. There seems to be an unconscious perception that Chinese furniture is made using some arcane skill they can’t grasp. Through the evolution of Chinese furniture, we might be able to unravel this mystery. And if we go deeper, we’ll know that every transition in furniture’s development results from the changes in Chinese people’s lifestyles.
In ancient times, Chinese people who strictly followed feudal ethics, regarded kneeling as a way of showing respect. Part of the reason is probably that trousers then were designed more simply, lacking a piece of fabric to cover the crotch. Sitting high –up therefore was not polite as a private part of the body could be exposed accidentally. Even someone as honorable as Confucius, a model of morality for all ages, had to sit on the floor to give lessons to his 3000 disciples.
Based on that, the first piece of Chinese furniture was a mat (xí). Various prototypes of low furniture were then designed around it. Stools could be small, like this one, or long enough to accommodate a number of people, or a kind of armrest that people could lean on.
China was one of the first civilizations to invent the basic mortise and tenon joint, and use it in furniture making. Several pieces of furniture excavated from tombs from the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) used different joints that have persisted to the present day.
The year 220 marked the most critical transition in Chinese furniture history, which can be called a period of “HEIGHT AND AUTHORITY”. So when China entered an era of disunity and warfare after the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 A.D, the northern non-Han barbarians collectively known as Wu Hu, invaded central China and introduced the Hu bed. It was a tall piece of furniture, and Hu clothes covering the crotch also arrived. Meanwhile, Buddhism gained increasing popularity due to its promotion by the emperors. People then started to correlate height and authority in furniture because deities, like high dignitaries, were often elevated to indicate their status.
The cave paintings in the Mogao grottoes at Dunhuang, in Gansu province, depict many Buddhist deities and monks sitting on high thrones, chairs, and stools, which are the precursors of future furniture. This gradually raised people’s sedentry lifestyle to a more upright position.
Through a slow but continuous transition over the next 700 years, by the time of the Song Dynasty in 960 A.D., various elevated furniture designs had grown mature. Sleeker frame-structure, more sophisticated mortise and tenon joinery, and more comfortable shapes, all added up to the zenith of Chinese furniture: Ming and Qing Dynasty Furniture.
In 1405, Zheng He, a renowned Ming official, started his first maritime expedition under the patronage of Yongle Emperor. During the next 28 years, he and his fleet completed six more trade journeys, reaching 37 countries, as far as Africa. A large number of tropical hardwoods, were brought back to China. Craftsmen in the Ming Dynasty used this valuable material to craft exquisite furniture for the royal family.
So such items, unseen in the rest of the world, became the envy of the world, and treasures still to this day.