History of Oriental Furniture

History of Oriental Furniture
A Brief Guide to the History of Oriental Furniture by Oliver Lee.

The primitive form of Chinese furniture found when ‘mat culture’ was prevalent is quite distant from the sophisticated collections we see today. This was due to introduction of more wooden furniture in the Tang and Song dynasties and a renaissance of woodworking craftmanship which spanned from the 15th century to the early 20th century, encompassing three different periods in China, namely the Ming Dynasty, Qing Dynasty and the Republican era.

Artistic creations of furniture we see from the pre-historical Western Zhou Dynasty and Shang Dynasty are at most knee height. From peasants to aristocrats, socialising, having meals or resting were all done by reclining, sitting cross-legged and kneeling on woven mats or occasionally in the case of wealthier households, on a low-rise daybed.

The architectural invention of ‘dougong’ (Brackets inserted between the roof column and a crossbeam) allows construction of significantly larger buildings during the Sui dynasty, thereby resulting in higher demand for larger size furniture for bigger spaces.

However, the evolution from mat to chair did not occur overnight. It was until the Tang and Song Dynasty that the style of furniture gradually evolved when China received an influx of all things foreign from the Silk Road and maritime trade routes. Even when taller furniture becomes slowly part of daily lives, we can still observe from ancient paintings and artwork that people still sit cross-legged and reclining as if they were still on mats. Many prototypes of classical Chinese furniture that we are familiar today started to take form in this period.

It is during the Ming dynasty that the wooden furniture production reached its peak of artistic expression, with amazingly creative styles eliciting aestheticism, ergonomics, functionality and versatility. The design is however still relatively conservative and minimalistic when we compare them to the more ostentatious and lavish style of the succeeding Qing Dynasty.

Qing Dynasty is probably the most mature period of artistic woodworking with sophisticated carving and embellishments. From the reign of Emperor Yongzheng to Emperor Qianlong, we see a rapid evolution of classic furniture in terms of increasing size, sophistication and intricacy of carvings, and elegance in style. An abrupt stop of artisanal production of fine furniture after the reign of Qianlong by his son Emperor Jiaqing, who fiercely opposed such lavish spending. This followed by the turbulent decades of civil wars and conflict with foreign powers, the heyday of fine furniture production was never seen again in the Far East.

Tragic loss of countless cultural relics, fine furniture included, occurred during the Cultural Revolution in China under Mao's rule. Many priceless artifacts faced unprecedented systemic destruction by the dreadful red guards, leaving behind irreversible damage to tangible assets were once prized by this ancient civilisation. But tucked away in the backwaters in China, remote provinces like Shanxi and Gansu, extremely fine masterpieces with some traced back to the heydays of Ming Dynasty, survived by sitting quietly in the living hall or bedrooms of village cottages.

Unlike other genre of artistic expression like sculpture or painting, most artisans of carpentry seemed to have been sidelined almost to the point of anonymity, thus it made classifying and identifying furniture pieces a very challenging, and at times, an impossible task. It is common to see specific pieces being subjected to scrutiny by leading experts in this field and still end up in heated debates with everyone taking their own favored sides when it comes to validating age and authenticity.

This nevertheless does not affect the aesthetics or beauty of every breathtaking masterpiece that still function perfectly as a furniture or ornament despite its old age and still exude nostalgia. In conclusion, to determine the value of a piece depends on several criteria namely wood material, craftsmanship difficulty, region, rarity, state of preservation and restoration work done if any.

For the wood material employed for the masterpiece, it ranges from zitan (red sandalwood), ebony blackwood, locust, Northern elm, pine, cypress, camphor, poplar et cetera. However, identification of wood types for Chinese and Japanese furniture is extremely challenging and usually done by visual observation as tests for botanical origin will incur significant cost.

While oriental furniture is extremely versatile when it comes to matching them with modern interiors, we can largely distinguish them into armoires, sideboards, consoles, latticework cupboards, daybeds, altars, chairs, screens and display shelves and the style may come with extremely intricate carvings, elaborate hand painting as well as minimalistic lacquer.

We at Oriental Impressions are excited to bring you the breathtaking and mesmerizing world of Oriental woodwork and ornamental art. Come browse our e-store for new surprises as we update our collections on a daily basis.
  • Oliver Lee