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...the evolution of the table has a dramatic path into several genres...

There are  numerous genres of Chinese tables. Giving a detailed history of each genre would make for excessive reading, and thus what follows is an overview, with greater detail on long tables and square tables,  given their evolution is closely related. There is a large variety of other tables (incense table, music tables etc) which are covered more briefly, but we would be very happy to provide you with more detail on these if you wish.

The profound changes to both Chinese culture and its furniture brought about by the change from mat level living to chair, or raised,  level living has been outlined in the sections about stools and about chairs. Having made this profound change in seating all other types of furniture evolved in response.

The first and most obvious change was in tables: the low platform tables of mat level living were kept, and evolved for use solely on the k'ang, the raised heated platform used within households during winter.

The table had no option but to evolve to  give the newly seated Chinese a surface on which to eat, to gamble, to gather and gossip. This became the raised table, which followed a dramatic path into several genres.

Square Tables

Chinese society was communal and hierarchal to a degree unimaginable today. The central reinforcing feature of communal living within the family compound was communal eating. This is particularly so in a land in which the vagaries of nature often led to variable supplies of food; hence the Chinese greeting of “have you eaten yet” is the equivalent of our contemporary “how are you”.

Thus with the advent of chairs and stools came the raised square dining table. Importance was given to the sides of the table being equal, meaning there  are no inferior positions. Known as “baxian zhou”, these tables share the same linguistic phraseology of the legendary Eight Immortals of the Chinese pantheon, reflecting the symbolic importance of this communal act of eating.

These tables were in common usage by the beginning of the Song dynasty(960 AD).  A concurrent development( which can be no accident) was better agricultural production techniques and internal transportation links , and thus the advent of a sophisticated and regionally differentiated cuisine.

With such growing prosperity came the inevitable refinement of design, carpentry and the uses of exotic hardwoods as seen in the evolution of the chair, the apogee of both chair and table being in the Ming period.

The square dining table has not survived in such numbers as the long side tables, presumably because of their frequent and daily usage.

All tables borrowed their construction from domestic architecture. The round pillars of traditional buildings slanting slightly inwards, connected at the top by crossbeams. Tables copy this in miniature, with recessed rounded splayed legs, with the use of stretchers, and finally spandrels to support the tabletop in the same way braces support the roof of a building.

Missionaries to China provide fascinating evidence of the role of chair and tables in communal living. Gaspard de la Cruz wrote in 1556 of the use of the square dining table and the square gaming tables, while Johann Nieuhof was in China from 1655 to 1657 and describes banquets around these tables in great detail.

Other Tables

The same evolutionary story is seen in the other types of table, be they incense stands, music tables, painting tables, wine or plant stands, and scroll tables. The change is less dramatic as the function of the table remains the same, but at a different level. This has led to some exquisite forms, in tall plant stands, or large scroll tables, in which the form has become sculptural, with the designs being designed to be seem in three dimensions rather than against a wall. The more stratified Chinese society became in the late Ming, early Qing periods, there were expectations and rituals surrounding what type of table should be placed where in relation to the other items in the room.

Thus in our collection you will find a number of variations on these themes, each with a more detailed history that relates to that specific piece. 

Long Tables

There are interesting early pictorial records of the square dining table and the long rectangular tables interacting. In making the ritual offerings to the ancestors, the square dining table is seen with offerings on its surface in front of the massive long table running along the wall. The long table is higher than the dining table and has everted ends: it holds choice antiques, ancestral relics, or simply flowers. The table is flanked at each end by an armchair to be made available to an honoured guest.

Larger rectangular tables evolved, in particular for calligraphy and painting, the two most revered arts of China and the jealously guarded preserve of the legendary elite Chinese scholar/administrator class (a more detailed description of the scholar can be found in About Brushpots).

The act of executing calligraphy and painting is the opposite of communal dining. They require absolute solitude, as both are deeply personal physical and deeply spiritual activities, which defined the nature of the man who executed them.

These tables were the most prized by the scholar/bureaucrat, and were supremely elegant models of restraint, balance and grandeur, created by the simplicity of form and function, and immensely complex carpentry. They do not have the everted ends of the altar table.

They have no drawers, leading to the inclusion of drawers in bookcases, as well as collections of small boxes and cabinets for the scholar's instruments and prized objects.

It is however the altar table with which interior designers are more familiar with. They are characterised by a long and relatively narrow rectangular single plank surface, carved side panels (often using the shape of the Ruyi, the sceptre that scholars believed helped their wishes to materialise), and everted end flanges which give the table spatial definition when placed against a large wall.

They are designed to impress, while providing an elegant surface to hold the display of family treasures and occasional ritual offerings to the ancestors and the spirit world.