Art of Ancient Chinese Furniture: Part 2

Art of Ancient Chinese Furniture: Part 2


By the Ming and Qing dynasties, Chinese ancient furniture became settled into a shape much higher than in the past. The Ming-dynasty furniture looks elegant, plain and ingenious and was commended as brilliant representative of Chinese classic furniture, known as Ming-type furniture. The rise of Ming furniture was closely associated with the social environment of the times, as the booming of cities and towns, the growth of commodity economy and the emergence of architecture in large numbers, made the demand for furniture continuously on the increase. Moreover, in the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He the great navigator made seven trips to the West and the ban on maritime trade and relations with foreign countries was once lifted, resulting in large quatity of timber brought to China from Southeastern Asia. Besides, woodworking implements had been improved to an extent as never before. The book Tiangong Kaiwu (Exploitation of the Works of Nature) records that the forging techniques were already highly promoted in the Ming Dynasty, with it different kinds of woodworking implements were invented, in planes alone there were pushing plane, thin-line plane, centipede plane, etc., to be used for different processes.

The Cannon of Lu Ban compiled by Wu Rong, head of the imperial workman department under the Board of Works of the Beijing municipal government, is the onluy extant specialized book about building and repairing of wooden things. The book sums up the designs and practices of master craftsmen over centuries since the Spring and Autumn Period. Included in the book are thirty-plus drafts for furniture in which each measurements, tenon and mortise structure, end of lines and adornments are allgiven in detail, with real object pictures attached. It is a significant reference material for the study of Ming Dynasty folk architecture and Ming-style furniture.

In Ming-style furniture making, materials were most particular about. Usually hard wood such as red sandalwood, huang-hua-li-mu (a species of rosewood) and the like, was chosen, which when polished with wax, reveals their natural grain and freshening luster, fully in accord with the taste of the men of letters in the Ming Dynasty who are always after primitive simplicity and elegance. As they advocated nature, they preferred yellow color to dark color, and huang-hua-li-mu which is fine in grain, having the color of amber and the touch of jade, became the first to be chosen in the late Ming Dynasty down to the early Qing Dynasty.

Furniture making procedures include: to cut open wood, to saw timber, to plane, chisel, drill, carve, polish, lacquer and wax. The precise and ingenious process of fitting a tenon into a mortise to make a joint is a unique feature of Ming-style furniture making in which all joints are formed with tenon and mortise without using nail or glue. Tenon can be divided into open tenon, closed tenon, square-and corner tenon, long-and-short tenon, swallow-tail tenon, etc.

The Qing Dynasty people valued dark color instead of yellow. They were partial to lucury and majesty. As the Qing royal family favored red sandalwood in particular, it became the first choice for the material used in making furniture. The existing articles are mostly from the court, all carved meticulously. In the middle of Qing Dynasty, huanghuali, red sandalwood, etc., became extremely in short supply. Then red wood started to be imported and used extensively. Red wood is similar in quality to red sandalwood. It is of hard texture, and appears grand and majestic. Its main disadvantages are such as not tenacious enough to be easily carved and it is susceptible to changing shape when affected with damp, dryness cold, or heat and is therefore unfit for meticulous carving.

The Ming-style furniture excels in plain shape while the Qing-style one is good at multifarious and elaborate decoration. The crafts in making furniture in the Qing Dynasty were so consummate that they had reached the apex of traditional furniture crafts. Not only had they inherited the traditional methods, but also absorbed exotic culture to form distinctive style of the times.