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Category of Qing Dynasty Style Furniture

The Pieces  of Furniture and Accessories


Westermers might call them armoires or wardrobes, but the large Chinese cebinet showed more versatility than a mere closet replacement. It was used to store clothing and bedding but also just about anything the master or mistress of a household wanted to keep secure and out of sight. Precious objects such as a porcelain vase or root wood brush pot or a rolled-up painting might be stored in a cabinet when not on display or being used. Western buyers have kept pace with Chinese notion of versatility by using cabinets as entertainment centers. (Those early craftsmen showed great foresight in designing furniture to accommodate the large-sreen TV.)

Big cabinets come in two broad categories - tapered, usually with a removable center post between the door, usually with a removable center post between the doors, and rectangular. Hinges can be brass (rarely original) or wooden, carved in the shape of a lotus blossom or, occasionally, an acorn or some other object from nature. Wooden hinges allow the doors to be removed easily, which gave the Chinese easy access for storing large objects or laying clothes lengthwise - and which gives Westerners easy access for stereo systems and TVs. We have one cilent who brought a large tapered cabinets with a removable center post, and she keeps her 32-inch TV in it. When it comes time to watch the tuble, she pops the post out. The process takes about 2 seconds and gives her a television cabinet that looks infinitely better than a modern -day entertainment center.

One of the most popular varieties is the wedding cabinet - generally about 72 inches tall, 42 inches wide and 24 inches deep and painted red (the color of good luck and prosperity). A wedding cabinet was often the centerpiece of a bride's dowry. They are beautiful, with a large round brass plate - sometimes with carving etched into the perimeter - in the middle of the doors, and liven up a room. We have one that doubles as a bookshelf in our office. We keep the doors open, and it creates a warm presense as well as a practical work space.

A wedding cabinet works best as a decorator's piece. For collectors, they have dubious value. They are ubiquitous among Wester dealers, and they are very difficult to date. They look much the same whether made in the 20th or 19th century. Some, such as the one pictured here with its carved header, have detail that suggests some age, but such detail is no guarantee. Wedding cabinets are perhaps the most susceptible among Chinese furniture to alteration and refinishing, and it's not at all unlikely to find a wedding cabinets with an old detail and everyhing else new.

They are frequently rearranged to accoummodate entertainment centers. The traditional drawer and shelf combination that usually stretches across the middle of the interiot is often lowerd to the bottom to hold a TV. You will occasionally find a black wedding cabinet whose color is original - but when you find one painted green or yellow, it's color is new.

Finishes range from a natural wood to burgundy to purple to solid red or black - sometimes with painted scenes on the doors. The subject matter of those scenes offers clues about use within a Chinese household. Pictures of women or children (always males) usually suggest a wife's or concubine's quarters. More philosophical cal settings, such as a landscape of mountains and streams, might belong in a scholar's studio.

Other cabinets types include stacking cabinets (with a separate upper piece to store hats or seasonal clothing), and, one of our favorites, the medicine cabinet - bai yan chu, or hundred eye cabinet. Chinese doctors labeled each of the multitude of drawers with the names of herbs and medicines (various mushrooms, reindeer antlers, etc.) to fix what ails you.

Other cabinet sizes: You name, they made it. We've had cabinets as small as eight inches high - delightful miniatures of the biggest ones - and as tall as 13 feet. They come low to the ground, double-sided, delicately tapered to about 48 inches tall, and even cube-shaped at 18 inches on each side. We sometimes sell small, tapered, red caninets that stand about 24 inches tall and 18 inches wide.

Customers use Chinese cabinets for dining room sideboards, living room stereo storage, bookshelves, bedside tables, and kitchen cupboards. There is actually a traditional Chinese kitchen cabinet, designed to circulate air around fruits and vegetables without letting in light. The lower compartments housed live chickens and other fowl, destined for dinner.

The Chinese made cabinets in such variety because they were the primary storage facilities within a household. Closets are a Western invention, still a rarity in Chinese societies from Hong Kong to Taipei to Beijing, and drawers never received widespread useage. You won't find a chest of drawers or dresser in the Chinese vocabulary ... and with good reason. Drawers are harderm to lock.

Cabinets, however, could successfully keep valuables away from prying eyes and sticky fingers.

A wealthy Chinese household put a roof over lots of heads - servants, concubinets, and relatives. The ideal home was thought to have five generations living under one roof. And since it was considered a great insult to put a lock on the door to a room (the bitterest divisions within a family would result in doors being nailed shut), cabinets and trunks and boxes, most of which could be locked, allowed for secure storage.


Trunks fulfill much the same storage function as cabinets in a Chinese household, and, like cabinets, they come in a huge variety of sizes - some as big as a bed, others as tiny as a matchbox. The larger sizes were used primarily for seasonal clothes and beding while smaller sizes held items ranging from hair ornaments to important documents.

Among the most popular among Western aficionados are leather trnks, ranging in size from a small suitcase to a large footlocker. They can be made out of wood with a painted exterior or out of leather - pigskin, actually - stretched over a thin wooden frame. The latter are sometimes finished with a clear coat of lacquer, which protects the leather and enhances the patina. Westerners sometimes use them for coffee tables (mounted on a low, wooden stand or just something derorative for the floor or atop a cabinet.


Cloud winds ... warm furniture

The arrival of winter in China brings a cold shift in wind direction, one whose eventual result is some of the furniture that makes its way across the Pacific and into Western living rooms.

Instead of hot, humid summer air flowing up from the South China Sea, winter brings cold winds down from Siberia, plunging temperatures in northern and central China well below freezing. But the Chinese, masters of form and function, designed their homes and furniture to keep them warm.

One or several rooms in a Chinese home usually included a kang, a large platform buit of bricks or packed earth. In the center of the kang was either a fire pit or stove flue, kept burning day and night to keep the kang warm.

Most of the day's activities - eating, working, sleeping, painting, reading, talking with friends, even cooking - took place on the kang, and furniture was specifically designed to accommodate it. Kang table, cupboards, and cabinets were short and designed to be lifed up from the floor onto the kang and used while reclining or sitting with your legs over the edge of the kang.

But what started as a way to keep warm in China translates into elegant designs for Western homes. Kang tables, end tables, or any place where a low table enhances design. Kang table often come 30 to 36 inches square, but they can also be rectangular and with exterior table top dimensions as small 12 inches.


Imagine yourself the dinner guest of a wealthy Chinese trader in the city Chengdu, Sicuan province. From the street, you approach the front gate of a massively walled mansion and are ushered inside . You see several buildings and multiple courtyards, all separete homes for different members of the family, but the main hall is an obvious structure, rising on a grand scale before you. Inside this great reception hall, you see a scene fairly typical of Chinese homes on any scale - on the north wall, opposite the entrance, sits a shrine to the ancestors, the core of religious worship in most of China. And in front of that shrine you would almost certaily find an altar table - arguably the most important piece of furniture in a Chinese home.

The standard word for table is an and perhaps the most common type of altar table is the qiaotou an - the raised end table. Long and thin with upturned ends, the altar table, when placed in front of a shrine, might hold incense or an offering of fruit, flowers, or food - an attempt to encourage the goodwill of the ghosts of ancestors when they visit the family home.

The alter table makes an important point about Chinese homes, because the table was not important for what it was so much as where it was. The home played a critical role in Chinese society becaususe it was the vessle that contained the family, the basic unit of survivak and prosperity. Three of the five relationships that form the core of Confucianism relate to families - husband an son, hunsband and wife, elder brother and younger brother. Homes were the center of life- birth, marriage, funerals, religious worship, artistic endeavor, and education - and their focus was inward. The face they showed to the outside world was usually a massive, forbidding wall. Architactural personality was saved for those inside.

The poit here is that furniture was only important within the context of the home. Indeed, the Chinese word for furniture, jiaju, literally means "implements of the house," tools used within a living enviroment. So the altar table became important because of where it was placed in the home. Remove it from the setting, and its importance changes.

The term " altar table," in fact, is probably a Western invention. They were used throughout a Chinese home for aesthetic purposes, set up against a wall, perhaps to display vases, sculptures, flowers, and objets d'art. Common sizes range from 36 inches to 8 feet long, 14 to 20 inches wide, and 33 to 36 inches tall.

The style of these fabulous tables - designed entirely to display beautiful objects - covers a wide range. They might have horsehoof legs, mati, or straight legs or solid vertical panels, recessed waist or straight waist or beaded, and a floating panel (made to contract and expand with temperature changes) for the tabletop or a single plank of wood. A flat altar table with no inverted ends, recessed waist, and horsehoof legs is commonly termed "Ming style."

But let's go back to the reception hall, the most important room in a Chinese home. Increasingly, in the Qing dynasty, you would have seen another table set in front of and up against the altar table. It would likely have been square and pulled out into the center of the room for eating or as a place to sit and converse with guests. More often than not, this table was a ban xian zhuo, an Eight Immortals table. It got its name from a play on words. The Eight Immortals belong in the Buddhist pantheon, and these table were made to seat eight people, two to a side, on benches or stools.

(These benches were generally 36 to 40 inches long, about 8 inches deep and 20 inches tall. The top might have been a solid piece of wood but just as likely it could have been made of cane. Benches served another function in this made of cane. Benches served another function in this home, one similar to the altar table. Scholars used them in their studios for displaying precious objects.)

In more humble homes, the Eight Immortals table was even more versatile, serving as altar table, eating table, and kitchen table.

Back in our reception hall, you would not have seen furniture in the middle of the room - a Western concept - but you would probably have seen furniture against the wall, with windows overlooking a courtyard. There would likely have been pairs of chairs with a low table set between them. Chinese often fevored groupings of threes, and as an honored guest in this house, you might have been invited to sit in one of these pairs of chairs for an intimate conversation. The table between you might have held some food or a vase with flowers. And it would have measured about 24 inches square and 18 inches tall, just about the correct size for an end table set next to a couch in a Western living room.

When tea arrived, the servants would have gone to another wall in the reception hall to pull out a tea table, standing about 33 inches tall and perhaps 16 inches long and nine inches wide. They invariably come in pairs, and our customers buy them as flower stands or hallways tables. They can be made of solid wood or bamboo.

The fact that you, a guest in the home, are seated in a chair at all indicates that you enjoy some status in the eyes of your host. Especially during the Ming dynasty, chair were reserved for the most important people. Everyone else - including, often, the wife - was show to the nearest stool.

The evolution of seating in China starts with reed mats about a thousand years ago, and works its way up low platforms, then to portable stools, thought to be an import from nomadic tribes to the north. Sometimes in the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). Chinese upper classes went from sitting on mats to elevating themselves onto stools and chairs. The first recorded use of a stool is a picture showing the emperor using it to mount a horse, and somewhere along the line it was adapted to seating. But the elevated seat, a physical symbol of elevated status, retained its high rank, and only the most important people were given chairs. Such exclusivity had no doubt eroded by the late Qing dynasty, but the chair was, nonetheless, considered an important place to be.

It was also considered a relatively warm place to be. Homes in the cold central and northern provinces generally had stone floors, which, obviously, became quite cold. So the Chinese often made their chair high enough to keep the occupant's feet off the ground ... which makes them a worktable size for Westerners. One charming addition to the seating plan was the footstools, low (8 to 10 inches off the ground) wooden platforms that allow one to stretch the legs while avoiding the floor. Park one of these mini-ottomans in front of your favorite, overstuffed living room chair, and you will wonder why Ethan Allan never came up with the idea. These stools also make delightful small tables, or they can be stacked to hold magazines or remote control devices.

Unfortunately, the Chinese somehow neglected to associate high rank with high comfort and did not produce their own version of an overstuffed chair. Some Chinese chair, though, are actually quite comfortable. Those with a horseshoe-shaped (a Western moniker) back coax the spine into a languid slouch that virtually defies any effort to work. When fashioned from bamboo, such chairs often provide a splat that comes right up and hugs the lower back. Similarly, yoke back chairs often have a curved vertical support that links nicely with the lumbar.

Otherwise, Chinese chair have a decidedly Confucian posture. Confucius taught that there is only one proper course of action in a civilized society, and it invoves strict moral parameters on relationships between father and son, husband and wife, subjects and rulers - in other words, the philosophical equivalent of sitting up straight.

Offical's hat chair - with a square back, horizontal top rail that extends beyond the back posts and squared horizontal arms that protrude over the front posts - don' t offer much in the way of comfort, nor do their southern cousins, the southern official's hat chairs, whose notable difference is horizontal arms that do not extend over the front posts. By the way, the use of the term "official's hat chair" is apparently a modern Chinese one, probably taken from the fact that the backs of these chair resemble the hats worn by government officials.

Craig Clunas, in Chinese Furniture, notes that they may have been called meditation chairs, but he also appropriately indicates that nomenclature doesn't really matter as much as design. He refers to "striking modernity in the simplicity and balance of their lines," which explains why these chairs are so popular in Western homes. They offer the quintessential example of the refinement that is Chinese furniture making. Their appearance almost suggests the Art Deco period, while at the same time calling up classical shapes - the wonderful juxtaposition of straight line and curve. We have seen chairs that clearly demonstrated a sense of whimsy, chairs that were rustic enough to display saw-tooth marks in unseen spots, and chairs with a higly poloshed, lacquered appearance and a wood grain that makes hard matter seem soft and warm - whatever the appearance, these chairs lend their room settings unquestionable elegance.

The chairs that Clunas writes about in his authoritative book date from the Ming and early Qing dynasties and might cost from $50,000 and up. A similar pair of chair from the late Qing might cost $3,000 to $5,000. And to our taste, chairs from the late Qing are more interesting. With a clear finish, the elm has a richer, warmer grain, and in colors - black, black and red, red - they are wonderfully creative rather than auspiciously austere.

Other tables you might well find in this magnificent house - if you host decide to bring you past the reception hall and into the living quarters - would be work-related: a bright, red three or four drawer desk, for example, where correspondence might be undertaken and the family books balanced with an abacus stored in a nearby cabinet. Other work tables might include a painting table, some 34 inches tall, 20 inches deep, and 7 feet long. If your host were an educated man, he would surely indulge his creative urges by painting landscapes and village scenes on wide silk scrolls, rolled out flat on the table while he stood above (unfortunately, only your host would have likely fanned such creative spark. Women, in this male-dominated society, did not paint, nor did they attend school.)

And if you had a Western decorator's eye, you might look at the painting table an realize that such a long, shallow table works well in the small dining room of a New York apartment, stored against one wall and brought out when the occasion warrants - your own version of the Eight Immortals table and a very Chinese approach to home furnishing. Because while the Chinese had specific uses intended for certain pieces of furniture, they had a penchant for practicality and were not at all shy about rearranging the rules on decorating.

Curiously, by Western standards, the room in this house with the greatest attention to interior design would be the gentleman's study. Most likely adjoining his bedroom , the study is the place where the master practices gentlemanly arts - reading, writting, painting, playing music, composing poetry, and studying antiques.(The Four Treasures of the studyi were a brush, ink, ink slab, and writing paper.) The central feature in your host's study would probably have been the day bed, ta. Not really a bed so much as an elevated platform, the ta would have been about 6 feet long. 2 feet deep and 20 inches high with a cane top for comfortable sitting. A gentleman would sit on the day bed and engage in conversation, write poetry, or meditate on the nature of life. From it, he might look out on the adjoining garden with its delicate arrangements of rocks and trees, or he might gaze at a piece of sculpture displayed on a small bench. From the vantage point of an Internet-actived Western society, it seems wondrous to imagine a culture that placed its highest values on such pursuits.

And isn't that much of the appeal of these antiques? We live in a society that values speed and efficiency above almost all else. We seek instant gratification, computers that are seconds faster than their predecessors, and a virtual lifestyle that can be double-clicked into reality. Yet here was a society that cherished examining antiques, studying the crackled lacquer on an old cabinet, appreciating the delicate weave of a food basket. This was a society that focused much of its intellectual resources on the display of beautiful things. No wonder Westerners regarded China as a superior society.


Accessories, perhaps more than anything else, tell the story of daily life in the Qing dynasty and the unique sense of form that makes Chinese antiques so compelling and delightful.

Baskets, jewelry boxes, food comtainers, lunch boxes, birdcages, calligraphy brushes, brush pots, rice baskets ... there is a rich variety of these smaller items and they speak volumes.

Rice containers, for example, come in several size and shapes, often with painted exteriors. Red wedding baskets were taken to a bride on her wedding day and contained food or a small gift. Rice basket with a thick weave transported grain from the market. And birdcages came in small, delicate sizes for grandfathers to take their pet birds out for a daily walk.

Document boxes designed to double as pillows tell us something of the dangers of travel in China. These boxes let travelers sleep on their valuables. Clever jewelry boxes could open to reveal both a hiden mirror and hidden compartments to store valuables.

And leather boxes made to hold a lady's hair ornaments or accessories were often painted with scenes of children at play or groups of ladies at their leisure.

But more than utility, these accessories display wonderful shapes. The wedding baskets with hourglass handles. The rice measures shaped somewhat like a beehive. Necklace boxes in the form of a donut! Words fall short in these descriptions, so peruse through the photographs of some of our favorites. And imagine them on tabletops, on the floor in the corner of the living room, flanking a sideboard in the dining room, acenting a boolshelf almost antwhere.

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