Chinese Cabinets & Armoires

Chinese cabinets from the Ming period are commonly classed today as either ‘square cornered’ or ‘round cornered’ cabinets. Square cornered cabinets had vertical sides and the doors were mounted on metal hinges - similar to our own Ming Wardrobe. Round cornered cabinets tended to have slightly sloping sides, and included removable doors with wooden pivots at each end. The doors could then be slotted directly into the frame of the cabinet, resulting in a design with extremely clean lines. Our own sloping cabinets are an excellent example of this style. Both types of Chinese cabinet were normally made in matching pairs, placed either side by side or symmetrically to balance the interior layout of a room.

Most cabinets included shelves that could be removed, and often a concealed storage area at the bottom, covered by removable boards. The Western concept of a wardrobe did not exist in Ming Dynasty China, as the Chinese would never hang clothes vertically inside a cupboard. Instead clothes were laid flat inside a chest or cabinet, or hung on wooden racks. Cabinets were also used in the study to store books and writing implements, and in the kitchen for food and cooking utensils.

Although most cabinets were wonderfully pure and simple in their construction, often with the only decoration being shaped aprons at the base, some were finished with painted and lacquered designs, or even with an inlay of semi-precious stones. Common themes for decoration included landscapes and garden scenes, or Chinese antiquities. Decorative styles varied across different regions, with furniture from the Shanxi region, for example, being noted for its more ornate and florid style.

Although sideboards were not used in formal dining rooms as we use them today, large low cabinets would normally be placed in the centre of a Chinese living area or on the kang – the hollow, heated brick platform used in northern parts of China. These cabinets would contain everyday items and sometimes included ‘secret’ compartments for storing valuables.

The metalware that we often associate with Chinese furniture and that was mounted on various types of cabinets and chests was designed to be both functional and decorative. Made of brass or other alloy metals, these hinges, handles and lock plates were considered of major significance to the overall design of a piece and would often include intricate carving.

Read more:
An introduction to Chinese Furniture
Information on Chinese Tables and Chairs
Information on Chinese Trunks and Chests
Information on Chinese Screen and beds

See our resources section for a list of recommended books and for links to other websites about Chinese furniture.