CHINESE EXPLORER ZHENG HE would sail from China with his boats laden with gifts. He took treasures from his country to give as presents or to use in trade with people he met around the world. He once came home with a giraffe.
On the way back to China, the ships would be too light to sit comfortably in the water. So he filled some of the cargo spaces with a type of unusually heavy dark wood he found overseas as “ballast”—worthless material used to add weight.
But once the wood had been offloaded in Chinese ports, carpenters took a look at it. They discovered the wood was very hard, very strong, had beautiful subtle grain patterns on them, and smelt like flowers. It could be shaped and curved to make beautiful furniture that would last for centuries.
China had discovered rosewood. The history of Chinese furniture would never be the same.
These days, antique Chinese items of furniture made of top-notch and fragrant rosewood (紅木) are widely applauded as treasures with their classic appeal and meticulously-crafted design. The luxuriant Zitan (紫檀) and Huali (花梨), which are regarded as the highest class of rosewood species, are solid with an exquisite pattern, while also fragrant and rot-resistant.
Valuable Zitan and Huali timber was brought in bulk to China by Admiral-voyager Zheng He (鄭和) more than 600 years ago. Before Zheng’s voyages, Chinese furniture pieces were mainly made of elm (榆木) and pine (松木).
Between the period in the reigns of Yongle Emperor (永樂帝) and Xuande Emperor (宣德帝) in the Ming dynasty (from 1405 to 1433) , Zheng commanded seven expeditionary voyages on peaceful diplomatic and trade missions to Southeast Asia, Arabian and nations further afield. He traded Chinese silk, teas and porcelains in faraway places for exotic goods and treasures, plus large amounts of rosewood to take back to China.
Zheng’s enormous fleet of “treasure vessels” visited many places in Asia, including India and Vietnam, and then moved on to Arabia and east Africa.
All the rosewood was initially used as ballast, or weight cargo, when Zheng’s vessels returned to China. Later Chinese artisans found the dark beauty of the wood species and used them for producing furniture. The shimmering colour and beautiful patterns on the rosewood, when blended with elegant designs, became captivating antique furniture of its kind in Ming and Qing dynasties.
Zitan has natural purplish-black shine, whereas Huanghuali has shimmering golden-yellow and reddish surface.
ANTIQUE FURNITURE EXHIBITION
Recently, the Hong Kong Collection Exhibition was staged in Hong Kong Central Library to showcase antique Chinese furniture and decorations in Ming and Qing dynasties, along with invaluable artworks ranging from ancient Tang to Qing dynasties.
More than 100 valuable pieces of antique Chinese furniture, ranging from delicate chairs, panel screens, beds to immense cabinets, and some 200 sets of ceramics and bronze treasures from private collections, were displayed in the exhibition.
The artworks also included a giant bronze statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy (below), made in early Ming dynasty, and a hundred-deer vase (above) from Emperor Qianlong’s reign in the Qing dynasty.
EVOLUTION OF HIGH-LEGGED FURNITURE
In ancient times, sitting on the ground was still common and this inspired carpenters to produce furniture which had short legs.
The couch bed (羅漢床) represents one of the short-legged forms of Chinese classical furniture for people to have snooze during daytime.
Chinese furniture started to evolve when Buddhism became popular in Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern dynasties (AD 220 to 589).
FURNITURE LEGS GREW LONGER
The change in habits from kneeling, or sitting cross-legged on a platform or floor, to sitting upright on a chair, gave rise to furniture at some height off the floor.
High-legged furniture became extremely sought-after in Tang (AD 618 to 907) and Song Dynasties (AD 960 to 1276).
The Ming and early Qing dynasties marked a golden era for classical furniture development. The furniture sets are beautifully shaped, combining aesthetic principles and practical considerations into graceful pieces.
ELEGANT SUZHOU-STYLE FURNITURE
In Ming dynasty, Suzhou was once a production centre of furniture production. The Ming-style furniture accentuated simple and elegant designs and decorations. It did not entail complicated decorative patterns, however, the beauty of lines and curves still prevailed.
Perfect in shape and elegant in style, Ming-style furniture is unrivalled by those made in other eras.
In the recent exhibition in the Central Library, prominent antique furniture – including round-back chairs (圈椅) and officials’ hat chairs (官帽椅) made of huanghuali (黄花梨) in Ming dynasty – were showcased.
Meanwhile, canopy beds (架子床) were common in Ming dynasty. With an emphasis on clean lines, proportions and balanced simplicity, the furniture in Ming dynasty epitomized a sense of balance and harmony.
In late Ming and early Qing dynasties, western missionaries came to China’s southern cities, such as Guangzhou, to spread their beliefs. But the eastern and western cultures mixed during these periods. As such, many western elements were integrated into Chinese furniture. These Guangzhou-stye Chinese items of furniture integrated western elements.
BEIJING-STYLE FURNITURE WITH INTRICATE CRAVINGS
In early Qing dynasty, Beijing-style furniture, produced by the imperial court, started to flourish.
In the reigns of emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, skilled craftsmen were recruited to produce imperial furniture and other items.
The furniture pieces in Qing dynasty were mainly made of Zitan and decorated with intricate gold, silver, jade and ivory cravings. The furniture tended to be large in size and fully decorated.
To meet the aesthetic taste of emperors, the furniture designed by artisans had grand and elegant styles as well as extravagance.
Antique Chinese furniture is an art form combining both aesthetic with practical qualities. Thanks to its intricate hand-made process and elegant style, its artistic charm is enduring and it is still much-loved by antique furniture loves and collectors today.
Image at the top by Edwin Petrus/Unsplash