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...a visual feast, designed to be viewed in three dimensions...

Of all forms of Chinese furniture, the chair is perhaps the most sculptural; at times they are animated and elaborate, but more commonly they are known for visual restraint, clean lines, and supreme elegance; a visual feast designed to be viewed in three dimensions.

Han Chinese culture from two millennia BC onwards  centred on the floor and mat level living. The introduction of stools led to the concept of elevated seating as described in more detail in the About Stools section of this website. 

The humble stool was the precursor to sublime Chinese chairs, and there were two routes of entry for it into Chinese culture: first interaction with the nomadic tribes of the Altai region of Siberia, and second, the influx of Buddhist monks from India. 


Following the Han Dynasty ( 206 BC -  220 AD), Buddhism and Buddhist monks entered and flourished in China. Pictures and paintings extant from that time clear show monks as seated when teaching their disciples, and over time, the form and variety of seats and stools evolved, something unique to China within Asia.


It was however only in the Tang and Five Dynasty’s period (618 - 960AD) that the raised, seated lifestyle, was firmly established in courtly circles. The impact on the way of life in a strictly hierarchical and communal culture was profound, and led directly to the treasures of Chinese furniture, with the chair leading the way. By the 12th century mat level living and floor level seating was rare anywhere in China.


In adopting seating and the raised level of living , China has more in common with western cultures than its Asian neighbours, where floor level sitting and living is still prevalent: anyone who has stayed overnight in a traditional Japanese Riokan, or who has been fortunate enough to be a guest at a traditional Thai home, will attest to this.

Woodblock prints and paintings of the Tang Dynasty (618- 907 AD) clearly show stools, side chairs, yoke back armchairs, and round back arm chairs. Thus the basic forms of the chairs we see today were established relatively quickly. The proliferation of chairs continued in the Northern and Song dynasties ( 960-1279 AD), with depictions in paintings and woodblock prints showing all types of high furniture throughout most circles of life in China.


Once the basic formats of the chairs were established, they evolved to the wonderfully restrained, elegant and refined chairs of the Ming period (1368- 1644). This trend accelerated markedly following the lifting of a ban on maritime trade in 1567, which led to the import of the most valuable tropical hardwoods from South 

Chairs

East Asia.  These woods were of higher quality and (most

importantly) denser, with greater tensile strength, which allowed the development and use of advancements in techniques of joinery.  This allowed the craftsman to create more open, elegant sculptural forms that were previously unattainable using traditional soft woods.


Thus the monetary cost and aesthetic value of furniture increased significantly, and this drove a refinement of design. This coincided with and may indeed have contributed to an increase in the stratification of society under the emperor, and the rise of a scholar class. The Chinese scholar was a highly intellectual and capable form of civil servant, who ruled the vastness of China in accordance with the empire’s needs and Confucian ideals (this role is described in more detail in About Brushpots). 


It is from this that great importance came to be placed on the hierarchy and rank of seating in China; where one sat on and what one sat on was a direct reflection of the status of the sitter. 

Another point to note is that uphostelry was never built into Chinese chairs. The only concession to comfort was the use of woven cane seat pans, which reflected higher status, and also had the advantage of being somewhat cooler to sit on. In place of upholstery, chairs were covered with rich fabrics or animal skins, with the more valuable being used for the comfort of the most important guests or the most senior members of the household.

A more detailed commentary on this seating hierarchy was made by the noted Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci who was in China from 1582 to 1610 and lived within the court. His observations give invaluable insight to the China of that era. As an aside, anyone interested in the interaction of China and western travellers of that period would find his life story truly fascinating.

The evolution of the Chinese chair then is in effect a mirror to the evolution of Chinese society, moving from the imported "Barbarian's stool," as the early forms were called in Chinese, to the supremely elegant round back or official chairs, executed in exquisite woods with exquisite joinery, filled with abundant symbolism, and used as a means to both reinforce and reflect the strictly hierarchical, almost feudal stratification of Chinese society.

They are objects of great presence and beauty, and are much prized by collectors.