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Chinese Furniture Art and Craftsmanship: A Journey Through the Ming and Qing Dynasties

Updated: Apr 3

"The Night Banquet of Han Xizai," a painting attributed to Gu Hongzhong (顾闳中, 937 - 975), Palace Museum in Beijing."


Chinese furniture, particularly from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, is a fascinating subject that reveals much about the culture, craftsmanship, and aesthetic values of ancient China. This essay delves into the distinctive characteristics, cultural significance, and artistic innovations of Chinese furniture during these periods, including an exploration of materials, craftsmanship, iconic pieces, and foreign influences that shaped these eras.


EPOQUE MING, Modèle de lit dit Luohan Chuang, en bois de Huanghuali, vendu chez Sotheby's Crédits photo: Sotheby's



The Ming Dynasty: Refinement and Simplicity

The Ming dynasty marked a golden age for Chinese furniture, characterized by elegance, simplicity, and a focus on form and structure.


The beginning of the Ming era was marked by a production of lacquered furniture, surpassing previous periods in volume, quality, and diversity. Lacquer, a resinous substance obtained from the sap of the lacquer tree, has been used in China for millennia, but it was during the Ming period that it saw significant evolution in both application and style. The lacquering technique during the Ming dynasty was a laborious and demanding process. It involved applying multiple layers of lacquer to furniture, each carefully polished before applying the next. This process could involve dozens of layers, creating a smooth, mirror-like finish that protected the wood and enhanced its aesthetics. Artisans sometimes mixed pigments with lacquer to achieve vibrant colors, such as cinnabar red or deep black. Decorations, subtle and often complex, incorporated motifs from nature, mythology, and scenes of everyday life. Sometimes carved or incised (techniques of qiangjin and tianqi lacquer), the inlay technique was also popular, where materials like mother-of-pearl, ivory, or even semi-precious stones were inlaid into the wet lacquer. These inlays were then polished to blend seamlessly with the furniture's surface, creating intricate and delicate patterns.


CHINA, Ming Dynasty, Pair of rare Huanghuali cabinets, sold at Christie's for 2,150,000 euros. Photo credit: Christie's



During the Longqing period (1567-1572) of the Ming era in China, the emperor broke from the previous policy of maritime closure and opened certain ports to international trade. This decision, motivated by the need to stimulate the economy and counter growing piracy, led to an influx of precious woods and other rare materials. This increased availability of resources had a significant impact on local craftsmanship, particularly allowing Chinese cabinetmakers to experiment with hardwoods. As a result, Chinese furniture of the period underwent a notable evolution, with the emergence of hardwood models that marked a turning point in the design and aesthetics of Chinese furniture.



Design Philosophy


Reflecting Confucian ideals, Ming furniture emphasized minimalism, harmony, and functionality, embodying cultural and philosophical values through its design.

CHINA, XVIIIth century. Kangxi period. A large embellished black lacquer and hard stone inlaid two doors cabinet, appraised by Gauchet Art Asiatique, sold for 34,000 euros. Crédits photo : Yann Girault

Materials and Craftsmanship


he choice of wood played a crucial role in Ming furniture. Rosewood, known for its rich, dark color and fine grain, was favored for its durability and natural beauty. Zitan, a rare and dense wood, had a deep purple-black hue and smooth texture, making it highly prized. Huanghuali wood (yellow pear flower), with its soft yellow-brown color and distinctive grain patterns, was also popular. It comes exclusively from Hainan Island in southern China, where today only relatively young trees remain. Distinguishing these woods involves carefully examining their color, grain, and texture. In terms of craftsmanship, the Ming dynasty was renowned for its sophisticated joinery techniques. Frame-and-panel construction allowed for the expansion and contraction of wood, ensuring durability. The recessed-leg design, with a top frame supported by legs inserted into the corners, offered stability and elegance. Corner-legged tables, where legs are placed at the corners, were both functional and aesthetically pleasing. The bamboo style, imitating bamboo assembly in hardwood, highlighted the carpenters' skill in reproducing natural forms.




Folding Huanghuali Chair with 'Horseshoe' Shaped Backrest, appraised by Gauchet Art Asiatique, sold for 20,000 euros. Photo credit: Yann Girault

Iconic Pieces:


The 'horseshoe-back chair' originated from Buddhist monastic furniture, designed for comfort and elegance. The 'waist-height table' was a product of the emphasis on simplicity and utility under the Ming dynasty, often used for writing or displaying artifacts. We also find 'scholar's backrest chairs'. Each piece reflected the aesthetic values and technical prowess of the era.


The Qing Dynasty: Ornamentation and Diversification


During the Qing dynasty, particularly under the reigns of Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong, Chinese furniture experienced its golden age, marked by significant stylistic evolution. Under Kangxi, with cabinetmakers like Dashan, furniture was influenced by architecture, characterized by clean lines and robust construction. In the Yongzheng era, craftsmen such as Liu Yuan and Li Yu favored elegant simplicity, focusing on form and proportion. Under Qianlong, furniture became more opulent, incorporating Western elements and luxurious decorations. However, after this period, the quality and originality of Chinese furniture declined, reflecting the general decline of the Qing dynasty and the turmoil of the time.



Rare pair of stools in brown lacquered wood with gold highlights, appraised by Gauchet Art Asiatique, sold for 55,000 euros. Photo credit: Millon.


Influence of Foreign Styles

The Qing era saw a blend of traditional Chinese styles with Western and Middle Eastern influences. Notably, the European rococo style was adapted for imperial chairs and other furniture during the 18th century, introducing a new level of opulence and complexity.


Artistic Developments:

Furniture of this period featured elaborate carvings, lacquers, and inlays. The use of bright colors and detailed scenes added to the visual appeal of the furniture.


Variety and Complexity:

 The Qing dynasty expanded the variety of furniture, with screens, cabinets, and beds becoming more elaborate and symbolic.


Cultural and Social Significance

In both dynasties, furniture was a cultural symbol, reflecting the status, wealth, and taste of its owner. The design and decoration of furniture were often aligned with the philosophical and religious beliefs of the time.


CHINA, Very rare carved wooden chair, appraised by Gauchet Art Asiatique, sold for 155,000 euros. Photo credit: Yann Girault.


Preservation and Influence Furniture from the Ming and Qing dynasties remains highly valued. Their historical and artistic value is recognized by experts such as Gauchet Art Asiatique and Jean Gauchet, who evaluate and authenticate these pieces. Their expertise in identifying wood types and authenticating furniture is invaluable for collectors. They offer estimates by photos or by appointment in Paris and regions of France, Switzerland, and Belgium, ensuring that these pieces reach their highest value at auction. The value of Chinese furniture can vary greatly, the market reflecting an exponential demand means that the value of huanghuali furniture, for example, has been multiplied several dozen times in the last thirty years.


Furniture from the Ming and Qing dynasties represents the pinnacle of Chinese craftsmanship and artistic expression. From the minimalist elegance of the Ming era to the ornate complexity of the Qing, these pieces tell a story of cultural evolution and artistic innovation. The expertise of figures like Jean Gauchet and institutions like Gauchet Art Asiatique in evaluating and auctioning these pieces ensures that the legacy of Chinese furniture craftsmanship continues to be appreciated and preserved. This rich heritage of design and craftsmanship reflects not only the historical and cultural fabric of China but also continues to inspire and influence the global artistic and design community.



Discover an interview with Jean Gauchet, our expert, on this subject in Nice Matin: https://www.nicematin.com/amp/vie-locale/du-mobilier-chinois-a-prix-d-or-7-millions-eur-pour-un-van-gogh-a-paris-238786


References:

"Le mobilier Chinois" (2 volumes) Zhu Jiajin, 2006 ed. Charles Moreau, Paris

" Gauchet Art Asiatique's Collections" - Annual insights into the collections of Gauchet Art Asiatique have been published since 2015 and are available on their website www.gauchetexpert.com. Starting from 2018, these collections were also published in the form of paper catalogs, available in PDF format on their website, detailing their contributions to the appreciation of Asian art.



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