It was during the 1930s and 40s that a group of Western scholars and diplomats residing in Beijing became rather excited about a particular genre of antique Chinese furniture. This was to be found in the grand houses of the cultured elite, the literati of Chinese society that was just beginning to open its doors to foreigners. It was unlike the ‘palace’ furniture, the intricately carved or lacquered pieces that the West had registered as ‘Chinese’, and plagiarized as Chinoiserie. This was furniture of simple and dignified form, in rich dark, aromatic hardwoods with beautiful grain and figure, and a restrained use of moldings and carved decoration. A consistent and sophisticated structural integrity, flat surfaces alongside gracefully curved and rounded members, and above all, the most exquisite workmanship made sure that this furniture just could not be ignored.
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The Chinese of today call it ‘Ming Shi Jia Ju’ (Ming style furniture), and much of it was made during the late Ming(1368-1644) and early Qing(1644-1911) dynasties of China’s long history. Some of the best pieces were manufactured in the towns and cities of the Yangtze river delta area (most notably Suzhou) in ‘knock down’ form for shipping along the Grand Canal to the capital city of Beijing, where they were assembled without glue. Since then, surviving pieces have probably been dismantled and refurbished many times.
The large mansions of the wealthy Chinese elite sported vast quantities of furniture, as portrayed in the 18th Century novel ‘Dream of the red mansion’ by Cao Xueqin and translated by David Hawkes as ‘The Story of the Stone’. The placement of pieces in the large halls was important and done according to strict principles of balance and order. Vast four piece cupboard combinations, some 3 or 4 meters high, side tables and chairs were placed in pairs on opposite sides of the entry axis. For dining, square ‘Ba Xian Zhuo’ (‘Eight Immortal’ Tables) were assembled in informal groupings as required, and skirted with cloths of fine silk or damask. In the North, living quarters contained a raised area built of brick, with under floor heating, known as a ‘Kang’, where smaller, low level furniture was used.
This furniture was never intended to fulfill a passing fashion requirement. Stylistic development in pre-modern China was imperceptibly slow, to the extent that the dating of ‘Antique’ pieces by Western ‘Experts’ is a matter of personal opinion and conjecture, and the seriousness which we westerners give to such matters is treated with some amusement by the Chinese. In the guide to elite interior design ‘Zhang Wu Zhi’ (Treatise on superfluous things) by Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645), furniture made the previous day was described as ‘Gu’ (Antique) meaning ‘morally ennobling’, or ‘Jin’ (Modern). Traditional Chinese attitudes towards chronological dating and authenticity were more flexible than those of the West.
The sole surviving source of written ‘instruction’ for carpenters is the ‘Lu Ban Jing’, Wanli (1573-1620) edition. Lu Ban was the mythical master craftsman and patron of the carpenters art, and the Lu Ban Jing annotates the 35 ‘Shi’ (types) of furniture as strings of words without reference to illustration. ‘Yi Tui San Ya Luo Guo Cheng Fang Zhuo’ for example, means a ‘square table with three aprons to each leg and humpback stretchers’. In a culture where learning by rote was the main form of instruction, this would have been passed from master to apprentice as a mnemonic rhyme. In a country where respect for elders and ancestors is a keystone of society, the resulting emphasis was on perfecting designs rather than changing them.
It was the second world war and the ensuing communist revolution that precipitated an exodus of foreigners residing in China. The result is that there are now many fine collections of antique Ming style furniture in Western museums (see end note). Such a tradition of excellent furniture does not however deserve to exist solely behind glass cases. One European designer craftsman who took note was the young Dane, Hans Wegner. In 1944, his ‘Kinastol’ (Chinese chair) placed the top half of a Chinese round back chair onto a very European padded seat and legs; this became a reference for designers throughout the West.
In 1987, Nicholas Grindley mounted a highly successful exhibition in London showing 16th – 17th Century Ming style furniture alongside the pictures of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and others of the New York School of Modern Painting. This is furniture that is as old as Chinese civilization, and as alive as the land where one man stopped six tanks in Tian An Men square. It will never fade.
Wang ShiXiang, Classic Chinese Furniture, Han Shan Tang, 1986.
Craig Clunas, Chinese Furniture, Victoria and Albert Museum Far Eastern Series, Bamboo Publishing Ltd, 1988.
Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii, U.S.A.
The Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, Renaissance, California, U.S.A.
The Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri U.S.A.
The Victoria and Albert museum, Kensington, London, UK.