An Overview of Chinese Furniture

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WWhen it comes to the history of woodworking, antique furniture styles and woodworking techniques, most carpenters think of William and Mary, Queen Anne, Federal, Chippendale and so on. It is questionable, however, that furniture as we know it would not be the same without Chinese furniture and that studying Chinese furniture leads to lessons in woodworking techniques applicable to today’s carpenters.

Contents

Historical background

Figure 1. Examples of furniture from the Ming dynasty. This chair and incense holder have many of the characteristics typical of Ming dynasty furniture: clean lines, graceful curves, and a minimum of ornamentation. The use of curved legs as seen in the incense holder influenced the development of cabriole legs in Queen Anne furniture.

The earliest examples of furniture in China can be traced back to the Warring States (475-221 BC) and Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties, where examples of lacquered furniture have been found in tombs from that period. The use of furniture began to expand in the following centuries, due to the Buddhist-inspired practice of formal sitting on raised platforms and low chairs. During the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties (AD 960-1127), tall tables and chairs became more common. The artworks from that period show furniture with some of the design elements typically associated with Chinese furniture, such as the life found on Chinese tables.

Figure 2. Detail of the huanghuali grain. Huanghuali wood has a characteristic grain. The motif in the center is said to represent the face of a young girl. Wood pieces displaying this motif were highly prized, just as tiger maple was desirable in Western period furniture.

But it was during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that Chinese furniture took the shape we know today. The lines of Ming Dynasty furniture are simple and clean, often incorporating graceful curves into the design. There was a minimum of ornamentation, to allow the grain of the wood to speak for itself. One of the primary woods used in this period was huanghuali (“yellow flowered pear”), which has a pronounced grain. This grain pattern has often been incorporated into formwork panels and chair slats as a way to best showcase the pattern.

Figure 3. Cabinet of the Ming dynasty, showing the huanghuali wood grain pattern in the panels.

The transition from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) was accompanied by an explosion of creativity in the arts. This was reflected in the aesthetic sensibility seen in Qing dynasty furniture. Unlike the clean lines and shapes seen in Ming dynasty furniture, Qing dynasty furniture features an explosion of detailed ornamentation, usually in the form of carved patterns and lattices. It is worth noting that the basic forms developed during the Ming dynasty can still be seen under the often elaborate decorations applied to Qing dynasty furniture.

Figure 4. Examples of furniture from the Qing dynasty. This round stand has elaborate carvings on the surfaces, but on close inspection the shapes of the Ming Dynasty furniture and fixtures can be seen under the carving. It echoes the shape of the Ming Dynasty incense holder in Figure 1, but has much more elaborate carvings on its surface.

During this time in Europe, there was a growing fascination and appreciation for Chinese art forms, including pottery and furniture. This interest in Chinese design and aesthetics was strongest in England. The lightness and graceful lines of Ming Dynasty furniture found their way into Western furniture as well, as can be seen in the transition from the relatively heavier styles of the William and Mary period to the Queen Anne period. The appreciation for Ming dynasty forms can be seen from the incorporation of curves into Queen Anne furniture. The cabriole leg often seen in Queen Anne furniture is clearly derived from the curved leg shapes found in Chinese furniture.

Figure 5. An example of a Queen Anne chair. The stave in the back is derived from the backs of Ming Dynasty chairs, while the cabriole legs echo the curves found in pieces like the incense holder in Figure 1.

Chippendale and Hepplewhite’s designs are almost direct descendants of Chinese forms. Indeed, Thomas Chippendale’s famous catalog, “The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker’s Director” is subtitled, “To be a vast collection of the most elegant and useful home furniture designs in the Gothic, Chinese and modern tastes.” It is not an exaggeration to say that without the influence of Chinese design, Western vintage furniture would not look the way it does.

Elements of Chinese furniture

Figure 6. Chippendale thought Chinese furniture wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Ming Dynasty furniture represented a great step forward in the development of Chinese woodworking. This was the period in which the more complicated forms of mortise and tenon interlocking developed. Although an overview of the many interlocking joints used in Chinese furniture is beyond the scope of this article, you can see an example of an interlocking joint used to connect the leg and apron of a table in Figure 7.

Figure 7. An example of interlocking found in Chinese furniture. This joint would have been used to connect a piece of leg to a table apron.

All the pieces fit together to create a seamless joint.

This was also the first time in Chinese history that furniture design also reflected its function. For example, the arched armrests of a Ming Dynasty chair don’t gracefully lower from the center point just to look good. The angle of the fall corresponds to the natural fall of a person’s arm from the shoulder to the point where the hands rest on the ends of the armrests of the chair (Figure 8).

Practical lessons from Chinese furniture

Figure 8. In this Ming Dynasty chair, the drop of the arms is deliberately designed to follow the natural drop of a person’s arm from the shoulder, as seen in the side view.

IOne might wonder why Chinese carpenters developed the complicated woodworking typically found in Chinese furniture. I think the most likely reason is that it solved a woodworking engineering problem. The woods used in the Ming Dynasty furniture came from a variety of tropical species. As mentioned above, one of the most popular woods used during the Ming dynasty is huanghuali, which is a member of the rosewood family. Other woods used include red sandalwood, rosewood and ebony, all from Southeast Asia.

Being tropical woods, these woods contained oils and resins that would interfere with bonding. Not much is known about the glues used in the production of traditional Chinese furniture, but during that period (1300 – late 1500), leather glue (or some other glue of animal origin) and rice glue would have been the only choices available. Given the glue choices of the time and the woods used in Chinese furniture, it is doubtful that glue would have been a reliable method of holding window frames in place.

This may explain why Chinese carpenters have bothered to make the elaborate interlocking joints found in Chinese furniture. Given China’s climate and lack of controlled indoor environments during the Ming and Qing dynasties, Chinese furniture would have been subjected to large swings in humidity, and thus glued joints would have had ample opportunities to fail. The frame and panel structure would mitigate many of the problems with wood movement and the elaborate mechanical interlocking joints used to join the frame elements together would take care of the glue problem.

Building the frames and panels has also solved another design problem that Chinese furniture makers have been facing. The timber obtained from the tropical species used in Chinese furniture manufacturing came from relatively narrow diameter logs, because the trees were so slow growing. At most, these logs would be 10 inches in diameter. Furthermore, the trunks often had a large part of the center rotten, or in any case unsuitable for making furniture. Getting an 8-inch wide board out of these logs was going pretty well. In my travels to China to look at furniture, I have rarely seen a board much wider than 8 ”. So how do you make a tabletop meant for dining out at huanghuali when the widest table you have is 8 inches long and the glue is unreliable? Use the frame and panel structure.

An examination of Chinese furniture (Figure 9) shows that this approach, while certainly taking more time than simple gluing, can be extremely effective. I have seen a good number of tables made with frame and panel structure where the lines between the panels and the frame are incredibly narrow, in the order of 1?32“, Despite the fact that these pieces are about 500 years old.

Go see it for yourself

Figure 9. The top of this Ming Dynasty table is made of frame and panel structure, probably due to the limitations in the width of the boards available to Chinese carpenters from the trees they harvested and the inability of glues available at the time to join the rosewood species.

Most museums with a furniture collection will have at least some Chinese furniture to peruse. Museums I have personally visited that have good examples of Chinese furniture include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum, just outside Boston, has the Yin Yu Tang exhibit, which is a 200-year-old Chinese house that was brought to the United States and reassembled, and is a great way to see Chinese furniture in the context of the buildings in which it was used.

Although this piece dates from the early 17th century, the joints remain remarkably tight.

If you are in China, in Beijing, there is the National Museum of China, which has a large collection of furniture from the Ming and Qing dynasty. There is also the China Red Sandalwood Museum, which has an amazing collection of Ming and Qing furniture, as well as some very well done replicas. In Shanghai, the Shanghai Museum also has a good collection of Ming and Qing dynasty furniture.


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