Know your huanghuali from your chicken-wing? Common woods used in Chinese furniture
We are often asked about the woods used in our furniture and the Chinese antiques that we sell, as in many cases these are less familiar to us in the UK than pine, oak, mahogany and other woods that we more traditionally used in western furniture.
The materials used by Chinese carpenters over the centuries varied depending not only on where the furniture was produced, but also on its function and whom it was made for.
The lifting of a ban on the import of tropical hardwoods during the late Ming Dynasty saw the introduction of more rare, luxurious woods into China from Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, such as Zitan and Huanghuali. These were made into the finest furniture for the emperor and ruling classes of the capital and were beyond the means of most of the population.
For those outside the higher echelons of society, wood selection depended primarily on availability locally and suitability for the item being produced in terms of flexibility, durability, wood colour and grain. Various species of northern elm ('Yumu') were common in most northern parts of China whilst Zelkova or southern elm ('Jumu') was prevalent futher south. Often a combination of woods would be used in the same item of furniture - perhaps a softwood such as fir or poplar used for a cabinet's frames, with a harder, more durable wood such as camphor, used for decorative panels.
Whereas in the West the term ‘softwood’ refers to coniferous woods such as fir, pine or cedar as opposed to coniferous hardwoods, in China the term simply refers to the indigenous woods used for furniture making and so include woods like walnut and elm. We've outlined characteristics of some of the most common woods used in Chinese furniture making below:
Types of Wood: Chinese Softwoods
Northern Elm (Yumu): By far the most common wood used for furniture production in northern parts of China, ‘northern’ elm has a yellowish-brown sapwood and darker heartwood. It has a medium density and most varieties have fairly low strength, but is it popular in furniture making as it is easy to work, quite resistant to decay and has an attractive, wave-like grain. There are more than twenty varieties of elm throughout China but they are more concentrated in the north. Varieties particularly noted for furniture making include Japanese Elm (‘chunyu’), Manchurian Elm (‘lieye yu’) and Siberian Elm (‘bai yu’), which is slightly stronger than other varieties.
Above: Elm Sideboard, Shandong circa 1900
Southern Elm (Jumu): Popular for furniture making in the Suzhou region, ‘Southern’ elm has a slightly darker heartwood than sapwood, varying in colour from a yellowish-brown to a coffee brown. It is again widely distributed throughout China, but particularly in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui provinces. It has a more refined grain that distinguishes it from ‘northern’ varieties of elm, and is slightly denser and stronger.
Cypress (Baimu): Cypress, or cedar wood, is found in various parts of China, most notably Sichuan where ‘Weeping Cypress’, the most highly regarded variety, can reach up to thirty metres tall. The heartwood of Weeping Cypress is yellowish brown in tone but the colour becomes deeper over time. The weight, density and strength are all medium to high and, although it needs a long drying process, the timber is highly resistant to rot and to damage by insects. The wood has a strong fragrance, is easy to work and can be polished to a bright finish.
Walnut (Hetaomu): Walnut is similar in appearance to ‘Nanmu’ but has a more open grain and is more golden-brown or reddish-brown in colour. More highly regarded than the more common ‘northern elm’, walnut was used for fine furniture making in northern and north western provinces such as Shanxi and Gansu. China has several species of walnut that are suitable for furniture-making. True Walnut has a reddish-brown to chestnut-brown heartwood with a light-coloured sapwood. It is mainly found in the north and north-west, reaches 20 metres in height and produces the edible walnut that we are familiar with. Manchurian walnut is not used for producing fruit and is therefore often used in the place of True Walnut for timber. It is found throughout northern and north-eastern China and has a slightly lower density.
Above: Yoke-Back Chairs in Walnut, Shanxi province circa 1850
Laurel (Nanmu): ‘Nanmu’ is part of the laurel family, an evergreen tree that grows from 10 to 40 metres in height and up to a metre in diameter. It has a smooth, fine texture and is olive brown in colour. In China it is concentrated south of the Yangtze river, particularly in the south west. It is similar in appearance to walnut but is a softer wood. It is also shares characteristics with Cedar, including a strong aroma, but is not related. It was a popular wood for cabinet making as it is highly resistant to decay.
Camphor (‘Xiangzhang’ or ‘Changmu’): Camphor ranges in colour from a yellowish sand colour to a richer warm yellowish-brown. Because its strong aroma acts as a natural insect repellent it has been used for centuries in China for making cabinets and chests for storing clothes, bedding and fabrics. It is distributed across southern China, with concentrations especially on Hainan Island, Taiwan, Jiangxi and Fujian. Part of the laurel family, camphor trees grow to up to 50 metres in height and can reach up to 5 metres in diameter. The reddish-brown heartwood contrasts against the much paler sapwood, giving an attractive grain. In some varieties this is particularly pronounced. The wood is light to medium in density and is relatively stable, with a fine, even texture.
Above left: Camphor Blanket Trunk, Beijing, circa 1900
Pear (Li): There are a dozen or so varieties of pear distributed throughout China, with the majority being concentrated in the north and east. Although generally cultivated for their fruit, there are some varieties, notably the Birchleaf Pear and Callery Pear, which are highly regarded for their exceptional timber. The wood is ideal for carving and has long been used for making musical instruments as well as for carved panels on furniture. It ranges from a light grey to a reddish-brown colour, is of medium to high density and hardness and has a fine, even texture.
Catalpa (Qiu): Catalpa is considered as a secondary wood in furniture making but, being particularly stable and decaying very slowly, it is ideal for the panels of lacquered furniture. It was frequently used for making musical instruments as well as for panels in furniture. The wood is light yellow to yellowish-grey in colour and is found mainly in China’s southern provinces such as Sichuan, Hubei and Yunnan.
Poplar (Yang): Often found as a secondary material in furniture from Shanxi province, poplar is used mainly for decorative panels and other carved areas of a piece, such as aprons or spandrels. There are more than sixty species of Poplar found in China, most of which grow in the northern provinces. The heartwood and sapwood are both light in colour, with a straight grain and even texture. Poplar is easy to grow and the timber dries quite easily without cracking, but the wood has little resistance to moisture or to insects.
Fir (Shanmu): Fir and the related Spruce and Larch are distributed throughout China, generally found in areas above 2000 metres. Used mainly for construction, there are some varieties that are hard and dense enough and have an even enough texture to be used for furniture making. The grain is straight and even and the colour ranges from a pale cream to a pale brown. It was particularly popular for furniture making in Fujian province, where it grows in abundance.
Pine (Pinus): Pine is found in northern and western regions such as Mongolia, Gansu and Tibet. The wood is softer than northern elm and is yellowish in colour. The texture of pine is considered inferior to that of other woods and the furniture made from in these regions would almost always be painted so that the material was not visible.
Types of Wood: Chinese Hardwoods
Huanghuali: Considered to be the king of hardwoods, Huanghuali was first imported into China following the lifting of a ban on foreign timber from Southeast Asia in 1572, thus ushering in the era of fine hardwood furniture. Most fine furniture that has survived from the Ming and early Qing dynasties is made from Huanghuali, although it was seldom used after the mid Qing period. The timber was sourced from the island of Hainan off China’s south coast, but primarily from Thailand and southern Vietnam – the only area where it can still be found. The term ‘huali’ literally means ‘flowering pear’ while the prefix ‘huang’ refers to the yellowish-brown colour of the wood. The colour actually ranges from a pale honey to a purple brown, and the wood has a distinctive grain which is reminiscent of mountain landscapes. It has a golden sheen when polished, which gives an almost translucent quality, and is resistant to insects.
Above: Huanghualitwdo rawer coffer, circa 1800 (image courtesy Christies.com)
Zitan: Zitan is the heaviest, most closely grained and hardest of all the hardwoods. Its colour ranges from a dark purple brown to a reddish brown, with some examples being as black as lacquer. It may once have grown in the southern provinces of Guandong and Jiangxi but became extinct in these areas due to excessive felling. Instead it was imported in large quantities during the Ming and early Qing dynasties from India and the South Pacific Islands. Initially used for small luxury items like game boards and musical instruments, Zitan was later used for furnishing the emperor’s palaces, but supplies diminished to such an extent that the emperor ordered for it to be preserved. Despite this supplies were nearly exhausted by the end of the Qing dynasty. Very few examples of Ming furniture made from Zitan exist today but there are many pieces remaining from the mid-Qing dynasty onwards, suggesting that not many pieces were made before this time.
Above left: Zitan side table, circa 1800 (image courtesy Christies.com)
Hongmu: Hongmu is a variety of Southeast Asian rosewood, also referred to as blackwood, that resembles Zitan but lacks that wood’s lustrous surface and unusual grain. Large quantities of furniture during the second half of the Qing dynasty were made from Hongmu, particularly in Southern China, but there is almost no reference to it before the eighteenth century, suggesting that it was not a material commonly used before then.
Jichimu: Jichimu, or ‘chicken-wing wood’, has a fine tangential grain made up of purplish-brown and yellow lines which resemble feathers and which gives the material its name. It is a Southeast Asian hardwood although not as dense as Huanghuali or Hongmu. Varieties also still grow on Hainan Island and in Fujian province.
Christies Collecting Guide: 10 things to know about classical Chinese furniture,
Classical Chinese Furniture: Materials