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Grandeur and gaudiness of the Ming and Qing furniture

Grandeur and gaudiness of the Qing furniture

Furniture produced during the early Qing Dynasty followed Ming styles and continued to display simple lines. However a change in style gradually appeared in the early 18th century, and Qing furniture showed its uniqueness in larger sizes and overly ornate carvings.

Furniture became more elaborate. Straight lines, simple designs gave way to elaborately carved decorations. But it was by no means garish. Engraving and color painting were popular and important means of decorating furniture. The backrest, arms, and legs of chairs were often carved with different patterns. A refined screen panel might have taken ten skillful craftsmen up to several months to complete.

Though superb in craftsmanship, Qing furniture sacrificed comfort, designed merely to please the eye. The Imperial "Dragon Chair" was good evidence of this. With the armchairs and the backrest at right angles, the vast chair looks rigid and uncomfortable. It became a symbol of imperial power when the emperor was sitting high on the chair presiding over a court meeting. At this, it was more of a hierarchical symbol than a practical furniture item.

Decorative motifs

Some auspicious patterns were frequently used to decorate Ming and Qing furniture. Dragons and phoenixes were considered an extremely auspicious decorative design, symbolizing good luck. Bats and happiness are both pronounced fu, therefore bats stand for happiness; the peony represents wealth; the lotus and Lingzhi, a kind of traditional Chinese medicine, are both symbols of good luck; geometric patterns were often carved, typically a swastika, or "Wan Zi" in Chinese. In Sanskrit, the swastika represents well-being and in Buddhism, it stands for prosperity and good fortune.

A wide variety

Ming and Qing furniture has a wide variety of items, mainly including chairs, tables, beds, cabinets, and screen panels.

Chairs

Sitting on the floor was common in China well into the 10th century. In the Ming Dynasty chairs became an increasingly common furniture item. Curving chairs, folding chairs, and the throne are among the best known of Ming and Qing chairs.

Curving chairs

This chair is not only designed to please the eye, but also to increase comfort. Made to support the elbows as well as the upper arms, the elegant curving arms and backrest are by no means inconvenient.

Folding chairs

This type of chair has a pair of hinged legs that take on an "x" shape when unfolded. Foldable and easy to carry, it was usually taken outside for nobles and aristocrats to rest on when they went on outings and hunting.

The throne

A stately large chair exuding sense of austerity and authority was a must-have furniture item in the living room of the wealthy and the noble in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The majestic throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City was good evidence of this practice. The regal supremeness permeated all over the hall when the emperors were sitting high on the throne and presiding over routine meetings with officials. In imperial China, the dragon was the most auspicious symbol of all, representing wisdom, strength and goodness, and it was often seen carved in the throne. Therefore, the throne was also called the "Dragon Chair."

Beds

Arhat beds and frame beds were the two most frequently seen types of beds in the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Arhat beds

It looks like a sizable chair. One can sit up or lie down on it. The arhat bed is distinguished by railings around the back and sides of the platform. This practice gradually gave rise to decorative railings attached to the seat frame of the platform.

Arbats are followers of the Buddha who have attained full enlightenment, peace and freedom. It's said that secular men and Buddhists often had enlightening conversations sitting on this type of beds, hence the name "arbat beds."

Frame beds

Raised posts are attached to the surrounding railings of the bed, rendering it as a small secluded "room." This "room" within a room provided nighttime enclosure when it was hung with draperies around the outside of the frame that suited the season. This type of beds denotes people's belief that bedrooms should be relatively dim and enclosed, while living rooms should be large and bright.

Screen panels

The screen panel is among the oldest furniture that has been popular for centuries in ancient China. Originally a practical furniture item used for separating space, the screen panel was later decorated with motifs denoting the social status of the owners. In the Qing Dynasty, the screen panel inlayed or carved with dragons always went together with the emperors' throne, displaying overwhelming imperial might.

Information on collection and purchasing reproductions

Exports of furniture made of yellow rosewood, red sandalwood, ebony, and chicken wing wood, are strictly prohibited, no matter when it was made. Foreigners living in China are allowed to purchase these four kinds of furniture only if they don't take them abroad.

Less than 10,000 pieces of Ming and Qing furniture have been passed down to today. Largely due to its rarity the furniture has witnessed a large price hike over the past few years at auction houses. In the spring of 2006, an embroidered screen panel of the late Qing period was auctioned off in Macau at RMB 85,330,000 (more than $10 million USD), setting a record auction price for Chinese classical furniture.

Although genuine Ming and Qing furniture might not be affordable, people can go to antique furniture markets to buy reproductions. There are dozens of antique furniture markets in Beijing, and Gaobeidian Market, Panjiayuan Market, Lvjiaying Market, and Zhaojiachaowai Market are ranked among the best.

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