Appreciation of Classical Chinese Furniture

An article by guest writers Paul and Agnes Ma. Refer to “About the Writers” at the end of the post.

First time visitors who enter our home are often amazed that the house is furnished mainly with 500 to 600 year old Classical Ming antique furniture. And yet the effect of marrying the house (which is in contemporary style), and its contents is indeed not only functional and complementary, but also very pleasing to the eye. We have chosen to highlight the simple lines of classical Ming furniture to complement the simple lines of the building and show how these furniture could fit well into a contemporary home without the brutal stark hardness that one normally associates with displays of antique furniture in museums or houses. It is with the use of the right mix of soft furnishings, paintings, porcelain and other artifacts that soften the lines to make them fit in well without the house looking and feeling like a museum. The overall effect enables us, as collectors, to be able to live and enjoy what is close to our hearts. The combination of classical Ming furniture forms the essence of our home (photo 1 of living room).

Photo 1 – Living Room

Photo 1 – Living Room

We have often been asked how and why we got involved in collecting Classical Ming furniture. Tongue in cheek we would say that in the early years of our marriage and when we were beginning to start a family, we were too poor to have to replace furniture from time to time. So we acquired antique furniture that has withstood the test of time to furnish our home.

The truth is that both of us were fortunate enough, as overseas Chinese, to be exposed to and develop consciousness of our heritage, although we were not Chinese educated. During our growing Western educated years, everything in China was deemed negative to the English educated in Colonial Singapore. Many were averse to anything Chinese. However, each of us had the good fortune of being exposed to the ancient culture of China in very different circumstances to ignite our interest in Chinese culture and the arts. When I was young, I had to pass many antique stores in Orchard Road displaying beautiful works of Chinese art. I would often linger and peer into the windows to admire and salivate at the antiques and wondered when I could afford to buy a piece. I was too poor then to even dream of buying anything. My wife, who read East Asian history in the University, overcame her prejudice of China and became impressed with the greatness of the Chinese civilization. Instead of concentrating on the required text of her class, she explored subjects of the arts in Chinese civilization.
We were indeed fortunate to share our love and interest of the Chinese arts and especially for the art and culture of the Ming dynasty and particularly with the fine and elegant lines of Classical Ming furniture. We believe that the Ming dynasty is the epitome of the rule of the intelligentsia. It was a dynasty ruled by the literati who had a better eye for fine, simple and elegant lines. When the Manchus overran China, the rise of the mercantile economy followed with the Qing Dynasty. With the rise of the mercantile class, people who enjoyed commercial success wanted to show off their wealth and status. However, like the nouveau riche, they equated “more is better” with “class” and lost the discerning eye of the Ming Dynasty. Consequently, furniture found in the Qing Dynasty, especially in the later Qing period, generally became bulky and over decorated.

As early as the beginning of the Song dynasty, the construction and the joinery of Chinese furniture had reached a high degree of maturity but by the time of the Ming dynasty, the industry had further accomplished a high degree of sophistication, embracing the simple and clear concepts of form and function into their craft. The craftsmen too were also cognizant of the use of the best features of the wood to highlight the beauty of each piece that they made. It was during the Ming dynasty that the classical Chinese furniture was said to have attained the highest level of art form.

The classical Chinese furniture craftsmen were guided by the principles of how houses were constructed, starting from the base of the building and progressing to the roof, all with the use of only interlocking joints and without any nails. Similarly, the construction of furniture followed the same basic principles of interlocking joints. Some of the joints are so intricate that if the right sequence of taking them apart is not followed, it can cause irreparable damage to the furniture. In the Ming dynasty, there were also established guidelines on the construction of each type of furniture. These were documented in great detail in the Lu Ban Jing and the Jiang Jia Jing. These compilations of architectural and furniture making techniques and how they were used became the Bible for succeeding generations of house builders and furniture makers. Both compilations detailed guidelines on the dimensions and the proportions of the parts of the furniture to preserve the integrity of the elegant lines of Classical Ming furniture and also the appropriate use and placement in each room in the house.

Prior to September 1996, the Classical Chinese furniture market was dominated by a few knowledgeable and serious collectors. However, the Christie’s September 19 1996 auction of pieces assembled from the Museum of Classical Chinese furniture collection, opened the eyes of non-collectors and dealers to the world of Classical Ming furniture. The auction prices achieved exceeded expectations and created a surge of interest in Classical Chinese Ming furniture. As prices of Classical Ming Chinese furniture skyrocketed, many entered the market to profit from the high prices. Unscrupulous dealers had craftsmen making reproductions or cannibalized pieces and passing them off for the real stuff. Many unknowing collectors ended up with expensive pieces whose provenance or originality was doubtful. Reproduction pieces were passed off as old, some woods were passed off as huanghuali when they were not, and some pieces were even sold as “coffee’ tables when this table form did not even exist. Fortunately, we made very few mistakes and often, when we acquire a piece, we would engage skilled craftsmen to dissemble the piece so that we can look at the joints to establish the authenticity of the piece and to see if serious repairs had been made. We documented the disassembled parts by photographing them before we sent them for cleaning and minor repairs (photo 2 of disassembled piece).

Photo 2 – Disassembled Rose Chair - Huanghuali

Photo 2 – Large Official Hat Chair – Huanghuali – Disassembled

Our very first acquisition was a simple blackwood (suan zi) bench of Qing vintage (photo 3). Once we started, there was no looking back. From this first piece, we now have a collection of beds, cupboards, side tables, coffer tables, balance scale, benches, chairs, book shelves, scholar bookcases, boxes, scroll box and screens. To learn more about what we were collecting, we bought and quickly read up on as many publications on Classical Chinese furniture as possible. We also made it a point whenever we travelled, to visit museums and dealers that had a collection or were dealing in Classical Ming Chinese furniture. Talking to dealers and seeing authentic pieces, helped us learn more about each type of furniture, the different types of wood they were made from, how they were used and generally pick up information that may not be gleaned just from reading publications.

Photo 3 – Qing Bench – First Purchase - Blackwood

Photo 3 – Qing Bench – First Purchase – Blackwood

Our collection is largely focused on Classical Ming hardwood furniture, mainly of huanghuali wood. During the Ming period, many similarly beautiful furniture were also made from softwood, but a lot of them have not survived the years. Though we started with a few blackwood pieces and have some pieces in zitan, walnut, elm and jichi (chicken wing) wood, we progressed mainly to huanghuali, The beauty of the grain and lustre of this wood were the reasons for our choice. Most of our pieces are of classical form and only a few are in vernacular form. The pieces in vernacular form were collected because of their unique form or proportion.

As collectors, almost all the pieces that we have acquired are placed in rooms of our home to be used and enjoyed. A six-poster Jichi mu canopy bed and a huanghuali louhan bed are used in our living room in place of modern sofas (photo 1). A huanghuali day bed placed in the middle of the living room serves as a “coffee” table (photo 4). We were fortunate that we were able to acquire a large part of our collection before 1996 and before the rising affluence of the Mainland Chinese in the last 15 or more years and their buying power crowded us out of the market.

Photo 4 –Luohan Chuang (Waisted Day Bed) – Huanghuali

Photo 4 –Luohan Chuang (Waisted Day Bed) – Huanghuali

We will now pick a few interesting pieces from our collection to highlight:

Softwood Vernacular Furniture

Elm Round Corner Cabinet (photo 5)
The merit of this piece is the graceful taper of the sides of the cabinet and the matching wood panels on the doors and also on each side of the cabinet. The cabinet has two removable shelves and three drawers below. A secret lever in the cabinet is used to lock the drawers.

Photo 5 – Round Corner Cabinet – Elm

Photo 5 – Round Corner Cabinet – Elm

Elm Scholar’s Small Table (photo 6)
The simple lines and the proportions of the members is the hallmark of Ming design.

Photo 6 – Ming Scholar’s Small Table – Elm

Photo 6 – Ming Scholar’s Small Table – Elm

Walnut single back rail armchair (photo 7)
Walnut wood or He Tao Mu cannot be categorised as softwood. The unique feature of this chair is the single back rail. The back rail has been “trained to bend symmetrically into a single piece of back support for the chair and tilted back at about 30 degrees to make resting on it very comfortable. The lines are simple despite it being a vernacular piece.

Photo 7 – Single Back Rail Armchair - Walnut

Photo 7 – Single Back Rail Armchair – Walnut

Hardwoods

Huanghuali Balance Scale (photo 8)
One of our favourite pieces is the huanghuali balance scale. The frame was found without the scales and so we went looking for a matching pair of scales. Not only was a set of scales (of the same period shown by the markings on the top of the scale) found, a full set of weights accompanied the scales.

Photo 8 – Balance Scale - Huanglhuali

Photo 8 – Balance Scale – Huanglhuali

Huanghuali Luohan Chuang with Open Work Railings (photo 9)
Another interesting piece is the huanghuali luohan bed with three open-work railings. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards were said to have inflicted slashes to the frame of the bed. Thankfully, due to the dense hard wood, little damage was sustained except for slight slash marks that were easily filled in and repaired. They failed to inflict serious damage that would compromise the integrity of the entire couch. However, some of the rails were broken and were replaced. We deem a piece of furniture good and acceptable if not more than 10-15% of the piece has been replaced.

Photo 9 – Luohan Chuang with Open Work Railings - Huanghuali

Photo 9 – Luohan Chuang with Open Work Railings – Huanghuali

Huanghuali Rose Chairs (Meiquiyi) (photo 10)
This pair of Rose chairs (Meiquiyi) is a very elegant piece with slim members. The delicate proportions of the rose chairs indicate that they were intended for use by ladies. The rear legs were deliberately made very slightly shorter so that there is a slight incline for better seating comfort.

Photo 10 – Rose Chairs (Meiquiyi) - Huanghuali

Photo 10 – Rose Chairs (Meiquiyi) – Huanghuali

Huanghuali Scholar’s Travelling Bookcases (photos 11 & 12)
We have two scholar’s bookcases of different sizes. Both have two fixed shelves and a shallow drawer, presumably used to store paper and brushes. The doors of both bookcases have matching “ghost eye” panels.

Photo 11 – Scholar’s Small Travelling Bookcase - Huanghuali

Photo 11 – Scholar’s Small Travelling Bookcase – Huanghuali

Photo 12 – Scholar’s Large Travelling Bookcase - Huanghuali

Photo 12 – Scholar’s Large Travelling Bookcase – Huanghuali

Huanghuali Burl Wood Top Painting Table (photo 13)
This table has five panels of burl wood joined together to make the tabletop. As burl wood is basically root wood, and the grain runs in all directions, it is difficult to work with such wood. What is unique about the five panels of burl wood is that they are not joined together in a straight line but in a wavy line.. As burl wood panels are also very thin, the whole top is supported underneath by a latticework wooden frame.

Photo 13 – Burl Wood Top Large Painting Table - Huanghuali

Photo 13 – Burl Wood Top Large Painting Table – Huanghuali

Huanghuali Large Compound Cabinet (photo 14)
We managed to secure the lower part of this compound cabinet. The full cabinet (with a top portion) would have been difficult to fit into modern homes as they are very tall and bulky and usually come in pairs. The doors of the cabinet have matching wood grain. The cabinet is embellished with butterfly shaped door hinges in bai tong. There is a removable centre post between the two doors. A protective bai tong metal plate placed over the doors and post for the lock is embellished with the motif of four-clawed dragons.

Photo 14 – Large Compound Cabinet - Huanghuali

Photo 14 – Large Compound Cabinet – Huanghuali

 

Today it is difficult to find skilled furniture craftsmen. The skills required take years of apprenticeship and lots of patience, attention to great detail and also the understanding of Chinese traditions. It is also difficult to find authentic pieces. Too often the pieces that are now offered in the market are either reproductions or cannibalized pieces. Even if an authentic piece is available, demand has driven the price to lofty heights. We are indeed fortunate to have been able to collect and live every day with such lovely pieces.


About the Writers

Paul Ma was a practicing accountant before he retired. He remains active professionally as an independent director on a number of listed and non-listed companies. He also sits on the board of the National Heritage Board. His wife, Agnes is a retired banker. Paul and Agnes share a common interest in antiques and usually are able to agree on the pieces to collect. They started collecting Classical Ming furniture in the mid-80s and collected most of their present collection between the mid-80s to the mid-90s.

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