TITLE Return

...cabinets epitomise elegance, proportion and restraint...

The evolution from floor level living to seated living has been described in some detail in the About Chairs and About Tables sections. This evolution also led directly to one of the most graceful, classical and powerful expressions of Chinese culture as expressed in furniture, the Cabinet.


Domestic Cabinets became popular shortly after the advent of chair level living, and their design and that of bookshelves reached its apogee in the Ming period (1368-1644).


Cabinets vary in size from the small used on the K’ang, to monumental pieces, often placed side by side, to create a sense of massiveness and power in an important family courtyard home.


Given that there is little or no provision of inbuilt storage in the Chinese Hutong courtyard house, possessions, however grand or however humble, had to be stored in cabinets, thus the choice and status of the cabinets themselves became a reflection of the status of the household.


Once again, therefore, form and function combine to create that unique aesthetic so characteristic of Chinese antique furniture.


Prior to the seismic shift to raised level living, storage was in boxes.  Some were very elaborate, some very large,  they were widely used before the advent of stools and chairs. Some of these boxes resembled low cabinets and trunks on the floor.


The earliest existing representations of cabinets in drawings show small pieces, which are essentially boxes with legs, and a side opening door rather than an opening top. There is an excellent example in the Heilongjiang Museum, dated to the Southern Song dynasty (1127 -1279).


Similarly depictions of the early Ming period show scholars using boxes placed on tables to provide the functionality of cabinets.These then appear somewhat later represented as coffers with legs, being the amalgamation of both table and box.


After this the true cabinet evolved, and it is regarded as one of China's most refined and aesthetically pleasing pieces of design. 


The box itself subsequently evolved to fulfill other functions, more specifically the storage of small items like jewellery, or herbal remedies.


Essentially, and regardless of size, cabinet makers produced two core designs: the round cornered tapering cabinet (yuanjiaogui), and the square cornered cabinet (fangjiaogui). There are two further evolutionary variants of the cabinet, bookcases and medicine cabinets.  


Round cornered cabinets usually have splayed legs, and wood hinged doors, which copy the design for hinges on architectural windows. Square cornered cabinets have doors usually attached by decorative metal hinges, with further functional decoration in the metal centre plate and, on occasion, horse hoof feet or lattice pattern used in the upper quadrant of the very tallest of cabinets.


These square cabinets are defiantly rectangular, and are almost pieces of architecture in their own right. While the square cabinets can be massive and make a bold statement about the wealth of the owner, the tapered cabinet has become regarded by many in our generation as one of the most beautiful forms of furniture of all time. 


They epitomise elegance, proportion and restraint, which collectively convey a sense of completeness, perfection and serenity. For those who admire the simple, clear lines of Bauhaus furniture, these are the Chinese equivalents of that perfection. The legs each slope inward in two planes, creating a subtle tapering, that is visually compelling. The eye of the craftsman that visualises such a piece combined with the skill to execute it is remarkable.


Larger cabinets were essentially wardrobes, which held garments and bed linen that was folded flat. A removable central stile ensures that garments can be laid flat without having to be worked around the stile itself. This is important if the master of the house was an official at court, as the wardrobe would contain his courtly robes. Indeed some of the square cornered cabinets have an additional matching box like structure which functions as their top quadrant, which is where the hats of court officials would be stored. These upper quadrants were sometimes open fronted, or used a lattice finish.


That these square cabinets are massive and impressive is perhaps reflected in the comments of a Dominican monk Gaspar de la Cruz  who observed in 1556 that these wardrobes were ‘huge cupboards, very well wrought and carved."  The best cabinets were placed where they could be best seen, leaving no doubt as to the importance of the household.


It is also worth mentioning that scholars, whose adminstrative role in society has been described elsewhere, used these cabinets to store their scrolls, calligraphy and  books, which led to the evolution of the wonderfully minimalist bookcases of the Ming period. They are essentially cabinet frames without any covering.


Given the variety of size and scale of cabinets, great thought is given when we source in China as to which styles and sizes would best fit contemporary housing and decorative themes.