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Chinese Furniture

Posted Thursday, March 25, 2004


Chinese traditional furniture has a strong aesthetic appeal due to its apparently simple lines and the fact that it makes use of "natural materials" such as the finest hardwoods-no fusty stuffed couches here. Ready comparisons can be made to Danish furniture, with its sparse lines.

With Chinese furniture, you see what you get. Nothing is hidden, and the wood is polished, stained or lacquered to evoke its natural earthiness and grainy patterns.

Despite the appeal of this simplicity, scholars of Chinese taste inform us that in many cases, those minimalist chairs and side tables were draped in sumptuous brocades and embroideries, as their Chinese ownerS in dayS of yore had a strong distaste for whatever was plain and simple. And thus to some degree, modern connoisseurs have mistakenly assumed that they are the inheritors of the refined taste of the classical Chinese scholar.

Chinese furniture uses a number of types of wood that are only known by their is that some types of wood have several Chinese names, and the same Chinese name can be applied to several types of wood.

The two most valued types of wood are huali and zitan. The former is a tropical hardwood that grows in China, and has a wide range of colors. In its lighter variations, it is called huang (yellow) huali, and in its darker manifestations, lao (old) huali.

Zitan, with its purplish brown color, can be considered the most precious type of timber, and its expense and rarity are related to the fact that it was imported. More common timber types are oak, elm, maple, chestnut, poplar, birch, hongmu and nanmu.

No one knows why the Chinese gave up their habit of sitting on mats and begin sitting on chairs around the year 1000, during the Song dynasty. But early literary evidence suggests that the chair and the bed were clearly recognized as foreign inventions. Archaeological excavations have produced many examples of wooden
furniture from the Song (960-1279), but the real heyday of furniture making, and the period that provides us with most of the examples found in museums and private collections today, is the 16th to 19th century, from the late Ming to the late Qing dynasty.

The fact that most early chairs come in sets of two suggests that Chinese furniture was customarily arranged symmetrically in rooms, but there is little evidence to back this up. Here again, the Western mind seems to want to impose order where no order was originally intended.

Curios markets in Beijing and Shanghai offer rich pickings in Chinese furniture.

The price of Chinese furniture has rocketed in the past few years, most markedly in 1985-6. The market has settled somewhat since then, but prices remain high and fine pieces are naturally harder to find than before. Yet as it is true with any category of fine goods, "what is cheap is not cheap, and what is expensive is not expensive."

To become acquainted with Chinese furniture, one could start by collecting boxes in a variety of types of wood, and move on to bigger pieces. Or if you want to enter the
world of Chinese furniture in style, acquire a walk-in bed and sleep in your collection.


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