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About Chinese Antique Furniture

Furniture of the Ming Dynasty

In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming Dynasty. Due to the stable political situation, social economy and overseas trade attained and unprecedented resurgence and development. With frequent economic and cultural exchange with foreign countries, and imports of precious timber form southeast Asia, a large number of palaces, residential buildings, and gardens were built on an unbridled scale. Meanwhile, many scientific and technical books on cabinet-making came into being, such as 'Lu Ban Jing', 'Xiu shi Lu' (Decoration Record), 'Zun Sheng Ba Jian (The eight letters of Zun Sheng), and San Cai Tu Hui (Pictorial Collection of three Talents). All of this helped the development of Ming furniture or reach an unparalleled level. The achievements of its modeling art, manufacturing techniques, and functional standards took on a distinctive style and gained important place among the furniture of the world.

We can see from either existing Ming furniture of the paintings and woodcuts of that time that the furniture of the Ming Dynasty was rich in varieties and styles. It can be divided by function into six categories: stools and chairs; tables and desks; cabinets and chests; beds and couches; platforms and racks; and screens. At this time, the concept of furniture sets was formed, and complete sets of furniture appeared in hall, bedroom, and study, divided by the function of each space. They were usually arranged symmetrically, for instance one table with two chairs or four stools. Sometimes furniture was arranged freely in accordance with tow chairs of four stools. Sometimes furniture was arranged freely in accordance with the size of the room and requirements of use.

The timber used in Ming Dynasty furniture was of tough quality, high strength, beautiful color and fine grain. This contributed to the production of extremely precise, scientific tenon structures. The parts were small but of high strength; the shape was simple but could be carved and processed ornately. The frame structure developed in the Song Dynasty advanced to quit a high artistic level in the Ming Dynasty, and this structure, combined with creative new styles and ornaments on the accessory parts, gave Ming furniture a pure and simple, but elegant and delicate style, unique in its complementary use of the hard and the soft.

Furniture of the Qing Dynasty

In 1640, the Ming Dynasty was overthrown in a peasant uprising led by Li Zicheng, butthe fruits of victory were captured by Manchu nobles. In 1661, the Southern Ming Dynasty was destroyed and the Qign Dynasty was founded. China was once again united.

In the early Qing Dynasty, the seeds of developing capitalism were destroyed by various suppressive policies. Furnitre at that time tended to follow and inherit the traditional styles of the Ming Dynasty, with no great changes in style or structure. But in the mid-17th century, the Qing economy began to resume and develop to a prosperous stage, flourishing during the reigns of Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong. Numerous royal gardens and buildings were constructed, and the private gardens of the nobles contended with each other for beauty. The search for material pleasure and the extremely decadent ideology is clearly reflected in the gaudy interior decoration. The application of precise craftsmanship, along with the absorption of Ming Dynasty furniture structure gave Qing furniture a unique style, distinct form that of the Ming Dynasty. As for structure, stress was laid on stability and impressive manner, and many new types of furniture appeared in the Qing Dynasty, such as the multifunction showcase, and folding and removable tables and chairs. In the Palace Museum in Beijing, we can find many immovable articles of furniture made with unparalleled skill.

In the interior arrangement of the furniture of the Qing Dynasty, al long table was usually set in the main hall with a square table in front of it and a wooden lounge chair on each side. The bed was placed on one side of the bedroom with a small long table on each side. Garden furniture was arranged in a symmetrical style. In the middle of the inner hall, a 'kang', or heatable brick bed, was usually used with a desk and music table on each side. Sometimes it was simply replaced with a round table and several stools.

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