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The Art of Traditional Chinese Furniture

On display in the National Palace Museum in Taipei is a 33-piece suite of 20 different kinds of carved red sandalwood furniture, which was formerly used in the residence of a royal relative during the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.). Modern people accustomed to using Western style furniture are inevitably overcome with a longing for past grandeur when they discover the quality of materials used, excellence of workmanship, and the fine ornamental carving of traditional Chinese furniture, as represented in this exhibit.

The development of traditional Chinese furniture went from the simple to the intricate, and was closely linked to the Chinese lifestyle and cultural and economic changes in China. In early antiquity, the Chinese sat mostly on straw mats on the floor. After the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.), beds and couches began to come into widespread use as seating. During the Wei-Chin (220-420 A.D.) and the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589 A.D.) period, Western-style chairs, folding stools, and other seating gradually entered China. From this point on, Chinese everyday living began to be conducted from chairs rather than sitting cross-legged on the floor. Straw mats came to be used as coverings for beds and couches.

Beginning in the late Ch'ing Dynasty, foreign living styles began to be adopted in China, with the result that originally predominant Chinese-style furnishings gradually became collector's items. Not only chairs, but also Chinese tables, cabinets, bookcases, and decorative screens reached the summit of their development during the Ming ( 1368-1644 A.D.) and Ch'ing dynasties.

Ming furniture features simple, smooth, and flowing lines, and plain and elegant ornamentation, fully bringing out the special qualities of frame-structure furniture. Influenced by China's burgeoning foreign trade and advanced craftsmanship techniques, furniture of the Ch'ing Dynasty period turned to rich and intricate ornamentation, along with coordinated engraved designs. Because of the high level of development of Chinese furniture in the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties, most Chinese furniture design today follows in the tradition of pieces from these two periods. In the Republic of China on Taiwan, traditional Chinese furniture has been preserved in excellent condition in the Lin residence in Wufeng, Taichung; in the Cheng residence in Hsinchu, which used to belong to Taiwan's first scholar to pass the Chinese civil service examination; and in the Folk Art Museum of Lukang.

As in traditional Chinese architecture, wood is the major material used in the manufacture of furniture. This was in response both to needs arising from Chinese lifestyles, and to China's rich forest resources. The two main types are lacquered furniture and hardwood furniture. Lacquered furniture was commonly used in palaces, temples, and in the homes of the wealthy. It includes the t'i-hung , or carved lacquer style; t'ien-ch'i in which lacquer is used to fill in an engraved design, then rubbed flat; miao-ch'i , or outlined lacquer style; and luo-tien , or furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Two or more methods might also be combined in the same piece. Hardwood furniture was frequently found in the homes of the wealthy, but was even more common in the homes of nobles and officials. Woods employed include red sandalwood, pearwood, padauk, ebony, and nanmu. Of these, red sandalwood is the most highly valued material for use in furniture making; it is dense, hard, and resistant to decay.

Bamboo and rattan furniture also have a long history. Bamboo is a product unique to Asia, and is an especially developed industry in hot and sunny Taiwan. Simple and ingenious techniques are used to make clever and useful products that can be ``knocked down,'' and modular pieces that can be used together or separately. Bamboo may be used in combination with other materials, such as wood, rattan, metal, and ceramic tile, in endless variation. Much bamboo and rattan furniture is exported to Europe and the United States, where it enjoys great popularity.

Chinese are fond of furniture with inlaid and carved work. In addition to shells and enamel chips, brilliant, colorful, and artistically grained jade, stones, ivory (and other animal teeth), horn, agate, and amber are used for inlaid designs. Marble, for example, is a stone often used for inlaid work; colorful ceramic plates are also a popular material for ornamentation. Another elegant technique used since ancient times is the inlaying of different kinds and colors of woods in a single piece. The methods of carving include relief carving, negative engraving, and free-style carving. Common subjects for furniture carving are flowers; dragons and phoenixes; the ch'i-lin, a Chinese mythical beast; and stylized cloud and leaf patterns.

Traditional Chinese furniture is generally arranged in symmetrical suites or sets. These are, however, supplemented with other more flexible arrangements to prevent the room from having too staid an atmosphere. For example, paintings or examples of calligraphy might be hung on the wall; ceramic, enamel or other knick-knacks might be placed in an antique display cabinet; or flower arrangements made of jade or stone might top a square occasional table. Any or all of these can add splashes of color and elegant form to the room. These delicate additions set off the heavy furniture to give a rich composite effect.

With Taiwan's increasing economic prosperity, just about everybody now places great importance on interior design and room arrangement, and is very particular when choosing furniture. And because of a corresponding enhancement in spiritual life, traditional Chinese style furniture now enjoys especial vogue. Many like to collect and use traditional Chinese furniture in all sorts of ways in their homes; it has become part of the modern lifestyle.

Traditional style furniture not only lives and thrives in the Republic of China; furniture aficionados of other countries who buy a piece of Chinese style furniture will usually display it with pride in a prominent place in their house. Exports of traditional Chinese furniture not only bring monetary wealth, but also enable more and more people of countries all over the world to enjoy and acclaim the beauty of the art of traditional Chinese furniture.

 



Cultural Division, Taipei Economic & Cultural Office in Houston
11 Greenway Plaza, Suite 2910
Houston, Texas, 77046
Tel: (713) 871-0851, Fax: (713) 871-0854, E-mail: houcul@houstoncul.org