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“The Chinese…realised the chair their ancestors designed as early as the 2nd C. AD could not be greatly improved upon. The two types, curved back and crossed legs and straight chair with solid back splat and straight legs changed very little in their basic design through the centuries.” Louise Hawley – Stone, 1952.
While other commentators disagree about the date, most agree with the insight.
Certainly from the advent of Sung dynasty and the discovery of the chair dated to around 1110, the basic format of Chinese chairs is the folding round back chair, or the high back yoke chair or round back chair on a four-legged base, which remain the basis for the next 900 years.
“The yoke back is the chair of China. Prince and princess, merchants high and low, all sat comfortably erect on its seat.” Sarah Handler.
The yoke back is the most vertical of Chinese chairs, its height and form obliging the sitter to be elevated and upright, which in its beginning made it suited for deities and royalty. As such, in a hierarchical society, it became aspirational, a sign of distinction that scholars and wealthy merchants adopted quickly.
Seating hierarchy was observed in detail by the noted Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who was in China from 1582 to 1610. (His writings give invaluable insight to the China of that era and anyone interested in the interaction of China and western travelers of that period would find his life story truly fascinating. Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China 1579-1724 by Liam Matthew Brockey is recommended reading)
Thus as its ubiquity began, so did enhancements to ensure status and therefore hierarchy remain differentiated.
These were both in design – arms, continuous arms, curved arms, extended and upturned crest rail, sinuous shaped back splats, fortuitous carvings, splendours of the woven silk chair runners etc. – and in construction – use of valuable hardwood, finesse in structure particularly in the Ming dynasty, with all vertical lines sloping inwards giving a sculptural lightness.
Variants included “lamp hanger chairs”, “southern official hat chairs,”
All were designed to be seen in the round, as would a sculpture, something only the very best artisans and their wealthiest patrons could achieve.
The other major form was the folding armchair (jiaoyi), a direct descendant of the hu’chuang.
This magnificent form emerged with raised level living and was always offered to the most important person in any gathering. Mobile, light and imposing, the chair travelled with armies and emperors, scholars and merchants. As with the yoke back, as its form became more widely used, the same approach was taken to differentiation in design, symbolism and materials.
It is inherently a more fragile design than the yoke back, and far fewer survive
As with the yoke back, its perfect form emerged in the Ming Dynasty, after which little could be improved upon.
The proliferation of more refined designs of high back and round back chairs continued into the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). Elegant depictions of paintings and woodblock prints were used to illustrate the chairs and wood and clay models of chairs became valued funary objects buried in tombs.
The concept of elegant simplicity evolved and reached its apogee in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a period renowned for it’s wonderfully restrained, and elegant and refined furniture.
And though the apogee of the chair’s elegance design can be dated to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), chairs from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and afterwards still have that unique presence and beauty, and are much prized by collectors.
The introduction of printing and books for craftsman provided wider access to the standards and proportions needed to make practical and functional chairs. Across China, the chair became established as an object with a particular Chinese quality of design and craftsmanship.
A Ming Dynasty treatise on carpentry illustrates chair design of which these designs continued for centuries.
As the chair continued to evolve; its design and function remained heavily influenced by Confucian hierarchical thinking, prizing intellect, virtue and self-restraint.
Chairs, so beloved by hierarchical leaders, became the symbols of both the leaders’ status and their rejection of excess. As a result, Ming design is characterised by ascetic and aesthetic minimalism reflecting the moral virtues of intellect, purity, simplicity and humility. Despite the emphasis on minimalism, the wood used served to signal the wealth and power of the owner, with a hierarchy of wood value being led by Zitan and Huang huali.
The broad influence of austere minimalism of shape and form was carried over into Western design as evidenced by the Shaker furniture of C19th, and, perhaps more clearly, the inter-war Bauhaus movement and post-war Scandinavian design.
“The Chinese…realised the chair their ancestors designed as early as the 2nd C. AD could not be greatly improved upon.”