According to legend, a man named Yeou Tchao Chetaught the Chinese, more than five thousand years ago, the art of making a wooden dwelling in the trees in order to better protect themselves from wild fauna. And several centuries later, the Yellow Emperor another legendary figure, taught them the art of building palaces on the ground.
Definite historical documents have finally established that under the Chang dynasty (16th – 11th BC), carpentry was already very well developed in China . And since then, Chinese architecture has been attested to by historical works, archaeological documents, reports which leave us the possibility of carrying out deeper studies.
As for the furniture that furnished the interiors of these ancient buildings, there is little information, written or otherwise. Even Marco Polo, a keen observer who, after his 26-year journey across the Orient, whoseChina, strove in detailed descriptions of the great palace of the great Mongol khan*, Khoubilaï khan, did not make a single mention of a piece of furniture.
The History of Chinese Furniture
InChinaancient, furniture was essentially considered for its utilitarian value, and its manufacture was mainly artisanal. This is why there are hardly any detailed descriptions of them. This is a great gap in following the evolution of Chinese cabinetmaking. It can, however, be concluded that from the art of woodworking which developed rapidly in Chin, the true taste of furniture that we are so familiar with today is a relatively recent aspect in the long history of China. It is obvious that the best way to study Chinese furniture is to be able to observe it concretely. If this is possible for the last two dynasties Ming and Ch’ing, a period which covers approximately six hundred years, it is not so before,
From the first millennium of our era, when the use of furniture and its layout entered a period of significant transformation, there is practically nothing left to observe. The reason, more than anything else, is that wood does not have the same quality of preservation as other materials such as bronze, jade or ceramics, which have come down to us in fairly good condition. Fortunately other sources are at our disposal to acquire better knowledge on the evolution of Chinese cabinetmaking. Among them are the old paintings, the wall decorations and the rubbings on stone and especially some of the cabinetwork from the excavation of burials.
So why not furniture?
The ancient Chinese buried their dead with the objects (or their models) which could have a use in the other world. In the case of a less well-to-do family, this could be reduced to a few basic necessities, whereas a noble or a member of the ruling class was buried with the whole household, including slaves, in high antiquity.
Among the furniture found in these graves unearthed throughChina, a part is usually smaller in size and made of clay for the purposes of the cause. This allows us despite everything to enlighten our knowledge on the cabinetmaking of this period of which we have a model.
Why import furniture from China?
Cabinetmaking, relatively late in China, was certainly born of taste and habits. However, the civilization of the Chant dynasty was advanced enough to have experienced bronze casting, astronomy, silk weaving, palace construction and… carpentry. So why not furniture?
Si ti eul tso to sit on a mat on the ground] was the custom of all, nobility and common. It was customary to sit on the heels with the legs folded under you and the upper body straight (in the position which is improperly said to be of Japanese origin and called seiza in Chinese tsing-tso ]. An armrest was sometimes used for the left arm. In less formal situations, men could sit with their legs crossed and women with their legs stretched out to the side. Sit with their legs hanging vertically in front of you, as it has long been the custom in Europe, was irreverent, as the original Chinese term for a chair, hou tchouang , seems to indicate.[胡床, Barbarian Siege]. Suffice it to note that the Chinese custom of sitting on mats on the floor has prevailed for centuries and had a great influence on the evolution of furniture in China.