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...there are numerous genres of tables...

On this website due to the numerous genres of Chinese tables,  the following is an overview of Chinese long tables and other tables as their evolution is closely related.


The profound changes to both Chinese culture and its furniture brought about by the change from mat level living to a chair level living has been outlined in the sections about stools and about chairs.

The most obvious change elsewhere in the range of furniture is in tables: the pre-existing low platform tables were kept, and used on the kang, the raised heated platform used within households during winter.

The evolution of the raised table followed a more 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 lead to variable supplies of food, and hence the Chinese greeting of “have you eaten yet” being the equivalent of our contemporary “how are you”.


With the advent of chairs and stools came the raised square dining table. Importance being given to the equal length of each side of the table, so there are no inferior positions. Known as “baxian zhou”, these tables share the same 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 Song dynasty, concurrently ( which can be no accident) with better agricultural production techniques and 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.


Long Tables


Today we are more familiar with the long thin rectangular side or altar tables.


There are interesting 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 latter 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.


Tables

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.


The larger rectangular tables evolved, in particular for calligraphy and painting, the two most revered arts of China and the legendary elite Chinese scholar/adminstrators.


The act of executing calligraphy and painting is the opposite of communal dining, requiring absolute solitude, individuality, as both are physical and deeply spiritual activities.


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.


These tables have no drawers, leading to the inclusion of drawers in bookcases, as well as collections of small boxes and cabinets for the scholars instruments and prized objects.


Of all the tables that are most obtainable today,  it is however the long side table, although with increasing difficulty. They are characterised by long thin rectangular single plank surfaces, carved side panels (often using the shape of the Ruyi, the sceptre that scholars believed helped his 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.