The later years of the Ming dynasty were a period of rising affluence among the elites of China following the austerity of earlier years. Those with wealth and power, and many of more modest means besides, wanted to express themselves socially through their possessions. It was a time of progress in the design and quality of Chinese furniture. This trend continued as the Ming were overthrown by the Manchus of the Qing, until that dynasty too reached the peak of power and prosperity in the late 18th/early 19th century.
Furniture of The Ming Dynasty
The late Ming of the 16th and 17th centuries was a period of elegant furniture that was fluent and well-proportioned, but quite simple to suit the needs of the day. The influential scholarly class had previously distanced itself from mere material possessions. But by the late Ming the scholars and the mandarins had started to take a more active interest in contemporary society, and under their influence furniture evolved that was practical and functional. Comfort was not sacrificed in the pursuit of simplicity. Designers carefully built in the lines and proportions that would suitably accommodate the human form.
In the production of Ming furniture the natural features of the material used, timbers of the highest quality, were shown to best advantage. Ostentatious decoration was frowned upon, the preferred form of adornment being the engraving of calligraphies and paintings in the pieces to increase their artistic and aesthetic value.
Furniture of the Qing Dynasty
During the early years of the Qing dynasty the use of furniture continued as a means to indicate status. At the same time fashions were evolving aling with the imperialism of the Manchu rulers. Qing pomp and ceremony began to be reflected in the furniture of the time. The result was a more bulky, much heavier style of furniture that made a statement about power at the expense of comfort.
Qing period furniture became much more elaborate with its intricate carvings and inlaid decoration. Scale and complexity took precedence over the elegant lines of earlier times. The heyday of the imposing Qing furniture that made a statement about power and authority was during the reign of the third Manchu emperor Kanxi (1654–1722).
Timbers Used in Chinese Furniture
All Ming and Qing Furniture of quality had one thing in common: the use of timbers that had their own distinctive natural features the craftsman could exploit. Many of these were rare and hard to come by, making the end product exclusive and thus increasing its appeal.
The most highly prized timber was zitan or red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus). The dark purple of this slow-growing tropical hardwood native to Southern India resembles the colour that in Qing times was reserved for the use of the dynasty’s rulers. For a time therefore it was decreed that only imperial household could own furniture from this species. Accordingly zitan furniture is extremely rare.
More commonly used and also noted for the quality of its finish was huanghuali, or fragrant rosewood (Dalbergia odorifera). Grown mainly in Guangdong and Hainan provinces of China, this timber is purple/red in colour and has a fragrance that the Chinese liken to incense.
Tieli (Mesua ferrea), a large hardwood from Sri Lanka, where it is the national tree known as Ceylon Ironwood. It was used in Southern China for large pieces of furniture such as tables.
Ju (Zelkova sinica), is a member of the elm family. It grows commonly in Jiangsu and Zhenjiang provinces, so was popular with the furniture-makers of Shanghai and Suzhou. It has a distinctly red colour, and its pronounced grain was given the name “pagoda pattern”.
Many fine pieces of furniture were produced using the burls of trees. These are the large knotty masses that grow naturally under certain conditions of the tree’s life cycle, and which produce unique and distinctive patterns. Burls were particularly used in table design and ornamentation.
Antique Chinese furniture is in strong demand, and pieces that left the country over the years can fetch very high prices at international auction.