The use of imported hardwoods and the furniture industry boom after the Ming dynasty
Chinese furniture enthusiasts often talk of a 'Golden Age' of Chinese furniture; a period that came between 1500 and 1650. This period was the latter part of the Ming Dynasty, and furniture makers had rules to adhere to which were set by government decree. This meant that their furniture was set apart from their predecessors.
How did Chinese Classical Furniture makers benefit from this decree?
As the decree lifted a ban on imports, more exotic hardwoods were able to be imported from other parts of the world, opening up the scope for materials for classical Chinese furniture makers. The woods ranged from yellow boxwood (huangyang), deep purple zitan, black ebony (wumu) and golden huanghuali.
Types of wood used in Chinese Classical Furniture
Huanghuali in Chinese literally means 'yellow flowering pear' wood and is a member of the Rosewood family. Originally this wood was known as huali, but in more modern times the modifier 'huang', meaning yellowish-brown, was added to describe the subtle yellowish tone of the older furniture pieces, although the colour can vary from this yellowish tone to a reddish-brown.
Zitan wood is also a member of the rosewood family, and is extremely dense; so much so that it sinks in water. Ranging from blackish-purple to blackish-red, this wood has a very fine texture which is very suitable for intricate carving. Being very slow growing, the trunks of zitan trees never exceeded around one foot in width.
Wumu is another fine closed grain slow growing wood which doesn't produce large pieces of timber. Because of this, wumu was never used as the primary material for larger furniture, but was often used for secondary decorative elements.
Boxwood (huangyang) is a small tree or shrub, so the size of available timber meant that it was again, rarely used for full articles of furniture, but rather for decorative inlays.
Which were the favourite woods for classical Chinese furniture?
Whilst these new timbers available during the Ming dynasty were popular, there is evidence to suggest that during the late Ming dynasty and later still into the Qing dynasty, ornate furniture made from lacquered softwoods became very popular, more so than the hardwoods. The evidence comes in inventories from household items from a deposed government official. Beds, tables and other items of value were listed in order of value, and plain furniture made from hardwoods were consistently listed at the bottom.
The lack of remaining examples of fine softwood furniture from this period is possibly due to these soft woods being more prone to rot, with them not being able to withstand the centuries of damp stone and hard-packed dirt floors.
Chinese furniture industry boom after the end of the Ming dynasty
Craftsmen during this period worked in Guilds, or imperial shops. Working under the direction of government officials, the imperial shops were slow to make stylistic changes, as furniture was often made to traditional patterns of an older design.
It was only later, after the Ming Dynasty, that commercial shops came into their own. There came about a new merchant class who benefited from the increase in foreign trade, and who found that furniture was a relatively inexpensive way to show off their new found wealth.
The writer Fan Lian (b. 1540) remarked that the new imported hardwood timber furniture was rarely seen until after the import ban was lifted, and then it was common even in middle class houses.
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