You are here > Home > Quick Navigation > Arts & Crafts > Antique Furniture

Qing Dynasty Style Furniture

Historically, Qing dynasty style furniture is important furniture. It comes from the last dynasty in China's long history of rule by emperors, and it represents, quite literally, the end of a cultural continuity that persisted uninterrupted for thousands of years. China was unified under a single emperor in 221 BC and more or less stayed that way unitil 1911 when the Republic of China was found.

The Qing dynasty, which started in 1644, brought with it a new cultural dynamic. It was under the Qing emperors that the Westerners first challenged the concept of China as the Middle Kingdom, and as their influence grew, their ideas and tastes both mixed and clashed emperors that a new, wealthy merchant class rose to prominence and wanted homes and furnishings in accord with their status. They demanded something quite different from traditional Chinese design. What they produced was something more energetic than traditonal Western ideas about Chinese decor.

Cultural activities and decorative arts of imperial China followed rigid rules and have been the focus of Western study of China. But there was life outside the court, and it was marked by regional creativety that ranged from conservative to flamboyant.

But those paramenters cover a lot of ground, from three-room peasant homes to enormous mansions with multiple dwelling and courtyards within their walls. When applied to furniture, the term tends to suggest rustic, simple, ordinary - furniture that was,and still is, used in farm homes and peasant villages. It was purely practical but nonetheless draws on centuries of design patterns and refinement that give it a sense of charm and grace.

At the other end of the scale is furniture made as luxury items for merchants with wealth of stunning proportions.

Some dealers use the vernacular moniker to cover the whole ground. Others distinguish between city and country furniture, the former being more refined. Some, like us, fly the "contry antiques"banner,a suggestion of country furniture from Europe and the U.S. Still others call it provincial furniture,bacause it was made for owners who lived in the provinces of China rather than the capital city.

Whatever its nomenclature, it is wonderful stuff, vastly different from the highly ornate, ebony colored pieces your grandparents may have acquired during travels to Taiwan or pre-Mao China. This "in between"furniture of the late Qing dynasty is the focus of this book. It was fine furniture made for a merchant class that reached its enconomic zenith, if not social prominence, for the first time during the 18th century.

It marks a brilliant departure from what you might have read about in books or seen in museums, the classical style so closely associated with Chinese pieces.

It's colorful. It's creative.It's too fine to lump in with the more rustic vernacular and too expressive to fall under the shadow of classical design. This book seeks to give antique collectors, dealers, and buyers an informed introduction and overview to the furniture and accessories from the late Qing dynasty of the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is often furniture that has been colored - red, black, burgundy, purple - or painted with scenery and designs. In that respect it differs sharply from perceptions of classical furniture, which is usually considered - inaccurately as it turns out - to have a natural wood finish.

A number of collectors consider the clear, hard-wood finishes of classical Ming furniture to represent the pinnacle of Chinese furniture making. But this seems a largely Western sentiment, rooted in a persistent theme of Sino superiority that colors Western perspectives on China from the eatly 18th to early of Ming hardwood furniture were considered evidence of an austere elegance and moral superiority in Chinese culture.

But it was a preference not shared by the Chinese, who apparently placed greater value on colored and painted furniture. This marks and important distinction for collectors of late Qing furniture, because painted furniture requires a different kind of wood than that used for the Ming classical furniture.

Ming and early Qing nobles apparently preferred a wood called zitan, grown in Southeast Asian and imported to China. It was extremely hard and lent itself to thin, graceful structural members - legs, armrests, chair rails, and corner posts, etc. It was so prized by the upper classes,that they cut it to extinction.

The others wood long associated with classical Ming furniture was huanghuali, found primarily on the south China island of Hainan. Also quite dense, it has a tight grain and honey-colored hue and was also thought, until recently, to have been cut to extinction.

The grains on these hard wood generally were too tight to hold a color. That task fell to softer woods, such as the southern and northern elm which dominate pieces from the late Qing. There is some thinking among collectors that furniture makers of the period turned to the softer woods because the hardwoods were all but gone. But one might just as easily conclude that only the softwoods were capable of expressing the creative forces that spurred on these craftsmen and their patrons.

As you read this book, an important word to keep in mind is "whimsical." We might not always associate China with whimsy, espacially since Mao, but a subtle sense of humor weaves its way through furniture design and ornamentation in these late Qing pieces, perhaps more than any other period of Chinese furniture. It's not frivolous. It's not silly; it's sometimes playful and sometimes ironic.We recently sold a pair of chairs, for example, with red seats and black structural members. On the legs and the back were repeated a ruyi symbol, something that looks like a scepter and is thought capable of granting wishes.

All of which sounds very earnest and sincere, but the chairs were both culturally correct and fanciful. You looked at them and knew that someone had fun making them.

Chinese furniture is full of auspicious sighs - bats (the word for bats,fu,sounds like the word for happiness or blassing),funguns(lingzhi,thought to give long life),clouds (which give water and therefore life),fish (a symbol of plenty,particularly for male children),and the color red (the color of prosperity and a prominent feature of traditional Chinese weddings),among them. And while the Chinese take these signs seriously, they also recognize that their application in life can seem whimsical, and this reflection shows up in furniture design.

These symbols also speak to the illiteracy of most Chinese. They might not be able to read the character for fu (happiness), but they could recognize a picture of a bat, whose name sounded identical. These symbols presented an important visual language.

For Westerners, the appearance of this late Qing furniture could not be more auspicious. It represents an unparalleled opportunity to own pieces from a society whose craftsmen long ago mastered some of the most basic concepts of art and design - simplicity and complexity, straight line and curve. The furniture is beautiful, and Western decorators have found that it enhances and completes rooms with Western themes, from Biedermeir to Bau Haus, from American colonial to French Deco.

It is available in enormous quantity and variety from China and at prices that belie its heritage, the end product of 3,000 years of civilization. It costs far less than American and European antiques as well as the more traditional, classical furniture from China.

It came about as the resutl of change in Chinese society in the 18th and 19th centuries,the latter part of the Qing dynasty. Qing emperors, descendants of the Manchus who conquered China from the north in 1644, brought political stability and an associated burst of prosperity and consumerism to China. The Manchus overthrew the last Ming emperor and ended a dynasty (1368-1644) that had sparked a cultural renaissance followed by civil war and political disintegration - a familiar pattern in Chinese dynastic history.

When most people think of great Chinese furniture, they likely picture the classical styles of the Ming- simple,elegant, authoritative designs made of rich-grained hardwoods. Ornamentation was, by some accounts, considered vulgar in loftier circles and was therefore kept to a minimum. The presence was austere and imperial. It bespoke a superior civilization.

And with good reason.Classical furniture generally belonged to the ruling elite of China.If you wanted to get ahead in China,you had to pass a series of rigorous exams based on the teachings of Confucius.Passing these exams meant a job with the government. The system had been in place for centuries and created a large class of both scholars and literati bureaucrats was the ticket to weaith,often vast wealth,and extensive household possessions.
One Ming government official,for example,listed more than 600 beds among his household possesions.

The Manchu conquerors who overthrew the last Ming emperor in 1644 kept this exam system in place,but they also,unintentionally,expanded the notion of who could own luxury goods.They had arrived at the invitation of the last Ming emperor,who asked the armies of Manchuria to come to Beijing and help him put down a civil war.They came,they saw,they conquered,and they stayed,becoming the latest in a series of non-Chinese rulers of China.

The stability of their Qing dynasty combined with expanding trade and contacts with the West to create a vigorous economic expansion that spread beyond the ruling elite. A new and prosperous merchant class grew up, and these new rich build big mansions and ordered big furniture to fill it. The rise of merchant class was a new phenomenon in China, although one that might not seem out of the ordinary to Western readers. Merchants, in Chinese society, occupied the bottom rung of the status lader. The rulling elite settled comfortably at the top followed by peasants and artisans, then the lowly merchant.

And they were either not as knowledgeable about classical designs or not as interested,because their furniture was often more creative,more colorful,and more ornamental than that of the Ming.

Also,unlike classical Ming pieces,it is available.Westerner collectors developed a taste for classical Ming furniture almost from the moment they arrived China in force in the 18th century.And they collected it to oblivion.

Virtually all the Ming furniture is either in museums or private collections,and if you want to buy some,you generally have to visit the auction houses of Christie's and Sotheby's,and you generally have to bring along a sizeable bank account.A pair of Ming chairs might easily run $50,000.

The opposite holds true for late Qing pieces. Museums own bits of it.Private collectors own more, but the bulk is still in China,either in homes or government warehouses,and its owners are eager to sell.Average incomes in China have been on the rise since 1979,but in the late 1990s they still scarcely tipped the scales above $600 a year. Selling a few sticks of furniture could bring an extra year's wage.

The furniture also,sadly, represents the end of a cultural era. Elegant furniture making has been a well-honed craft and prolific industry in China for over a thousand year.And the tradition has been continuous.It weakened considerably with the political instability that followed the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911,and splintered with the turmoil that cane with the Japanese invasion in 1931,followed by World War II,civil war, and Communist rule.

The latter ejected any outward signs of a class society.It also,in the 1950s,brought starvation on a mass level,killing millions of Chinese.So it's not difficult to understand why the craft of fine furniture making became superfluous.And while China grew more prosperous in the 1980s and 1990s,it is still a poor country governed by an authoritarian state,and cabinet making has seen little or no revival.It may be gone forever.

On the trial of Chinese furniture,especially from the late Qing,it's important to stay loose - be flexible and willing to shift your perspectives a few degrees.China is different,and cultural things that come from China shouldn't be viewed through Western-colored glasses.Chapter Two,on Provenance,delves into the subject more deeply,but,in brief,what is considered "real" and important Chinese furniture in some circles is not necessarily what is,in fact,real and important.

You might even take a note from the pages of Chinese scholars themselves.The elite - high government officials and scholars - have valued antiques for centuries.They especially liked furniture with a crackled lacquer finish,just as Westerners do.But their concept of what made an antique - gu - was different from ours.Age was not a determing factory.A successful antique might well have been made recently. Similarly,a 300 year-old piece of furniture might not make the grade. An antique was a piece of furniture that was "morally ennobling," according to one ancient treatise on the subject.

It's an idea that may not make the cultural voyage to Western shore in its entirety,but it merits at least a beach head - the idea of antique as art,someting that provokes thought and discussion or that encourages the contemolationof beauty.The gu of late Qing furnique makes for an exciting and adventurous prospect.indeed.

Late Qing collections are new to the market,and they have arrived in the hands of dealers,decorators,and retail custormers more quickly than those of major collectors and museums,so trends in fashion may overtake assumptions about authenticity.

We've noted,for example,that,in the West,assumptions about the best of Chinese classical furniture are based at least in part on Weatern assumptions about what should be the paragon of the genre.Western collectors and museums have impressive collections of Ming furniture made from huanghuali wood with a clear,natural finish.However, shuch piece have become the most sought after,and most expansive, at least in part because they became popular among Westerners living in Beijing in the 1930s and 1940s.The Chinese elite,through the early 17th century,by contrast, prized the much darker-colored zitan.When zitan grew scarce,craftsmen often dyed huanghuali - which was a much lighter brown - to match its color.When Westerners decided that the natural huanghuali was preferable,Chinese dealers often stripped off the dark dyes to suit their taste.In other words, what became the important and preferred finish on Chinese furniture may have depended more on Western preference than Chinese culture.

Tha same holds true for the pieces themselves.For decades,Western collectors have ignored furniture made of softwoods.Yet,while the written record on what the Chinese preferred is scant, what there is indicates a preference for softwoods.

All of which is by way of saying."Buy it because you like it," not because of preconceived and possibly inaccurate notions about what's important. The record is still being written on furniture from the late Qing, and what's valuable to an individual depends in large part on individual taste.The craftsmanship in a piece - sophistication of design,quality of construction,intricacy of decoration - should be readily apparent to anyone who engages in even a quick apparent to anyone who engages in even a quick perusal of this book.Beyond that,be adventurous.Expand your idea about what works in home decor(banish the phrase,"My grandmother had a Chinese cabinet,and I did't like it.") and try a small, delicate,altar table in the foyer or a food basket next to the living room couch.Antiques from the late Qing dynasty present an opportunity that may never pass this way again.

From Chair to Chairman Mao - Where Does It Come From?

Who/what/when/where/why? - it sounds like the opening line in your Journalism 101 class in college,but it's also one of the traditional keys to value for antique furniture... Western antiques, that is. Not so for furniture frome the Middle Kingdom.Remember,China's culture has been marching to the beat of its own drum for 3000 years,and in the 1950s and 1960s,its encouter with Mao Zedong added a truly bizarre and tragic twist.

The five "W's" describe provenance - the life story of a particular piece: who made it,where it was made,who brougt it,who has owned it,where did it live most recently? Find me a chair made in the late 1700s in Boston and I might write you a check for six figures.Show me a chair made (and signed) by the maker in Boston in 1768,most recently part of the estate of Nelson Rockefeller, and I'll show you a ticket to early retirement in your new beach house in Palm Beach.Provenance isn't everything ,but it covers items one through five on the top - 10 list of thing that will take you to antiques heaven.

But, as with most other things from the Middle King-dom of China,you have to adjust your ideas about provenance when dealing with its antiques. The "what" and the "why" are obvious.
A chair is what it loos like,and the why - white a bit more complex - is equally obvious.From there, things get problematic.

Furniture makers,for example,usually did not sign their pieces. Chinese culture was, and largely still is, immune from the Western inclination to glorify the individual - unless that individual happens to be the Son of Heaven himself,the emperor - so the idea of elevating a mere craftman to notable status would have seemed alien. The Chinese equivalents of John Townsend certainly plied their trade and transformed rough planks of southern elm into elegant, enticing table and sought after by wealthy clients ... but we don't know who
they were.

The buyer, not the maker,would have been the most likely candidate to have his chop (a stamp with a unique configuration of the ower's name, something similar to a signature) affixed to the piece, since he was the one with all the money and importance.And, in fact, some of the more exquisite smaller items,such as baskets, have the name of the owner and his address painted on them. The owner was sometimes responsible for the design itself.Furniture was frequently crafted at the home of the buyer, with close supervision and oral instructions on disign.

But even the ower's name on furniture or accessories represent the exception (and it is sometimes applied in the restoration process).Furniture certainly signaled rank and status in Chinese Society, but not as much as in Western circles.The few surviving,written descriptions of valuable items in a household, from both Ming and Qing dynasties, rarely pay much attention to furniture.And historical records have yielded few furniture inventory lists for spacific Chinese households.The best know is that of a Ming government official, Yan Song, who was disgraced and had his furniture seized by the emperor (the furniture list included more than 600 beds), but that list is unique. So we have no primary source that directly tells us what the furniture holding might have looked like for households up and down the income scale.

So the "who" comes up missing in the search for provenance."Where" and "when" offer a bit more help, but not much.

We can generally look at a table or cabinet and identify regional characteristics. A wardrobe made in shaanxi province, home of the ancient capital Xian (and the tomb of the Emperor Qin, with its famous terra cotta warriors), usually has a more substantial presence - thicker wood, heavier legs, more authority - than one made in Ningb, on the coast just south of Shanghai. In fact, some Chinese people say that residents of the coastal cities and towns were more superficial than those of Shaanxi, and the furniture design reflects that.

The craftsmen of Suzhou (Shaanxi and Suzhou were two of the premier furniture-making regions in China) were considered especially adept at bamboo tables and chair, and those in the southern province of Canton were often considered the best at intricately painted decorations on lacquered furniture.But while such statements are informed and helpful,they are not necessarily definitive. A Shaanxi-style cabinet could have been made in Shanxi,just to north, or in Suzhou, near Shanghai, or even way down south in Canton. Important furniture was made thoughout the south and central regions of China .Without a signature,it's impossible to know the exact origin of a piece.

"When" trips over similar stumbling blocks. Specific periods can tend towards certain styles.During the 18th century,for example,pieces with red or black lacquered coloring generally had a thicker coat of lacquer than similar pieces from the 19th century.Over time, that thickness produces a "crackling" effect in the finish, called duanwen - prized now by Westerners and bubbles and chips more than thinner coats.(On cabinets, the latter usually occurs around the edge of door and door openings,as well as at corners.The same process often occurs on legs as well,since,in recent year, cabinets may have been stored on cement floors.)

Similarly, more intricate painting and carving might indicate that a piece was made before the mid-1800s.

But, again,this is not difinitive. A thickly lacquered piece from the 19th century might be unusual,but it is not rare.It's ture that certain elements of style allow for general dating. The presence of westerners living in Beijing during the late 1800s, for example, brought the influence of Western, often Victorian, furniture design.

Bamboo sheleves or tables often developed a less delicate, more solid appearance under Western influence. Cupboards sometimes acquired glass doors in deference to the Western notion of using cupboards for display. The Chinese idea was to use cupboards to hide things away and secure them.

But stylistically, these same pieces could have come from the turn of the century or even the early 20th century, Some details of style as well as finish and construction techniques might help narrow the time frame, but it's difficult to come up with more than a genral sense of period.

So, while certain elements of style can allow an antique dealer to say that a piece is likely to be from the late 18th century,a more accurate characterization might be a range,i.e.late 18th to early 19th century.This could be construed as splitting hairs,howerver, and sincere, knowledgable dealers will often say a piece dates from the 1880s, 1820s, 1850s, etc., code for the late 19th, early 19th, or mid-19th century.

Chinese furniture design evolved slowly,slowly. A table that dates from the 12th century is not terribly different in design from those we see from the 18th and 19th centuries.So if a dealer tells you a piece was made in specific year, say 1762,that dealer is likely uninformed or ill-intentioned.

So we've eliminated three fifths of what goes into provenance. And keep in mind that the vague presence of these three "Ws" doesn't just apply to vernacular furniture. It's as true of the authoritative colections of Ming hardwood furniture at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art as it is of the wedding cabinet on the floor at an antique dealer in Ohio.

Tracing the thread of provenance became even more tangled when the culture clashed with Chairman Mao,and lost.

Mao and his Communist cadres eliminated much of traditional Chinese culture and rearranged the rest. The making and owning of luxury furniture was - understandably - not spared the turmoil.

During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, brigades of young Communists, Red Guards, attempted to rout out remaining vestiges of China's "olds," the class society that had dominated and oppressed ordinary Chinese for centuries.

Their zeal marked a change of heart on Mao's part. During much of the 1950s, Mao seemed to accept that while the concept of a classless society was revolutionary, adaptation to it would be more evolutionary. His patience vanished in mid-1960s, and the overnight goal became zero tolerance for class-consciousness and its trappings.

Red Guards rempaged through cities, villages, and homes - destoying or seizing art objects and furniture, and often the people who owned it. The furniture was sometimes burned in the village streets (often, after the Red Guards left, residents might rush out of their homes and pull furniture from the fire. The remaining burn marks can sometimes be seen on piece that survived.)

But the Red Guards carted much of it off to giant warehouses, "owned" by the Peoples Liberation Amy (PLA),where it sat for the better part of a decade.

After Mao passed and reformer Deng Xiaoping rose to power, government officals in the early 1980s apparently concluded that by imprisoning the furniture - bourgeois roots notwithstanding - they were punishing the masses, who could actually make use of it.

So much of it was redistributed, with no thought to its original owners. A farmer in a remote village in Xinjiang, near the northern border, might receive a table once owned by a scholar in Canton and intended for painting delicate landscapes on silk scrolls.Not too surprisingly, that farmer would have been more likely to use the table for butchering chickens or repairing farm implements than for the artistic exploration of Taoist concepts of man and nature.

Such "provenance" described the fate of a significant portion of the Chinese furniture that now finds its way to Western shores. It was given to rural households in China where it received use considerably rougher than its noble origins. It might have been left in the sun and rain, or shared quarters with farm animals. One collector refers to "ten thousand years of wear in few moments."

Since late Qing furniture was "discovered" by Western collectors in the 1990s, its owners have generally been delighted to sell.For the decade of the 1990s, the average annual income in China was about $600, so selling a few sticks of furniture could have a much greater impact than using them. But these pieces were, and are, often in terrible condition - broken, worn, discolored, modified. Some of them are refinished and repaired in China, in the workshops in the south, near the distribution points of Macau and Hong Kong, or around Shanghai. Some arrives in the U.S. and, to a lesser extent Europe, in "as is " condition. But the rustic appearance belies its original use and what little we know of the provenance . The most recent Chinese owners rarely bad any connection with its original owners.

There's more to this bizarre story. Not all the furniture was redistributed out of the PLA warehouses. Much of it apparently stayed put until the army needed to raise money - either for individual commanders or to help finance the PLA itself. The PLA was, and is, a self - finacing organization. It owns factories and even entire industries so that its budget can remain independent of the country's economic well-being. It appears that antiques marched to the same beat.

We hear from various sources in China of vast warehouse organized by categories - large painted cabinets in one, bamboo furniture in another, tables in another, chairs in another, etc. - which the PLA periodically put up for sale, flooding the market with a particular type of furniture.

The last three years have brought an abundance of bamboo furniture, courtesy of the PLA, for example. And antique shoppers on the streets of Macau and Shanghai in the summer of 1999 might have marveled that so many shops suddenly carried large stacking cabinets.There was even a virtual parade of processional chariots when we visited Macau in October 1999. Chinese antique dealers don't like to talk about PLA warehouses full of furniture because they know it doesn't appeal to the romantic notions that Westerners sometimes attach to antiques. But they are a fact of the business.

We're told that when these warehouses go on the block, the antique dealers - Western and Chinese - who have the best connections and know how to spend money in the most productive ways get first choice. And vast array of the best of these pieces will probably remain tucked away, part of some general's retirement plan, until prices soar in five to 10 years.

There's noting wrong with this process. In fact, it means that many of the better pieces of Chinese furniture were saved the indignity of the farmyard or, worse, the bonfire. The PLA storage facilities probably lacked anything approaching temperature control, and wood furniture stored on cement floors may explain why the colored lacquer on cabinet legs has chipped away.

But the entire process adds an interesting dimension for Western enthusiasts attemping to apply the concepts of provenance to Chinese antiques. It just doesn't work. The idea of family furniture heirlooms cherished from generation to generation, then sold at an estate sale, is nonexistent. It is possible for Westerners to travel the villages of China and buy old furniture that belongs to descendents of its original owners, but such occasion is rare and such furniture is usually rustic, not fine.

The real chain of ownership starts with the original owners, moves to the state, the either directly to new Chinese owners and to antiques dealers, or else directly from the state to antiques dealers.The whole process has a decidedly institutional stamp.

But remember this is China, a country dominated by institutional self interest and institutional inertia. The Chinese don't operate the way Westerners do.They bring vastly different traditions and motives to similar situations. The dynamic is different, just as it was told by the emperor that Western inventions, to say nothing of attitudes, were of little use in China.

But keep in mind that this process, while lacking in romance, creates tremendous opportunity for Western buyers. Most Chinese antique dealers really aren't connoisseurs as nuch as they are traders - buy low, sell a little bit higher. So antiques are priced as much by availability as by market value. And since these pieces often flood onto market by category, their availability is usually ready, and their price is low.

So at the risk of sounding like a real estate broker, when you see a piece you like, "there has never been a better time to buy than now." That piece and its price probably represent a market dynamic - more supply than demand - which has kept the price low for a window of time. And that window will eventually shut.

Consider this: we recently sold an eight-foot long altar table made of walnut. It was made in the mid-to-late 18th century,was in flawless condition and drop-dead gorgeous. It went out the door for $5,000,on this way to living room of a large estate in Virginia. An 18th century English or French walnut table in that condition would cost at least double.

Quick Navigation

New Article