Ming and Qing Elegance Redefined

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Today’s fashions increasingly embrace simplicity and purity of line.  No wonder, then, that Ming dynasty (1368-1644) furniture is experiencing a resurgence.  Produced during what was considered to be the golden age of Chinese furniture, Ming’s clean classic lines and architectural elegance are coveted by collectors prepared to pay vast sums for rare, highly grained and intricately constructed pieces.  “It is the timelessness of Chinese classical furniture which places it in the forefront of modern tastes,” says Hong Kong- based premier Ming dealer Grace Wu Bruce. 

 

But it wasn’t always like this.   While Ming’s famous blue and white porcelain has long been highly valued in China and the West, the almost unbelievable thing about the dynasty’s furniture is that it has only been considered collectable during the past few decades.  The breakthrough came with a detailed study on Ming furniture published in Beijing in 1986 by the renowned scholar Wand Shixiang, which captured the attention of Chinese collectors.

 

Before that, Ming furniture had only been recognized by Westerners who lived in Beijing before the 1949 Communist revolution and a small group of connoisseurs in the West.  They appreciated its Bauhaus-like lines over the flashier, ornate and heavily carved furniture typical of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).  Although some early Qing pieces feature clean lines, from the mid-Qing period (around 1736), sumptuous carvings, bright lacquering and inlay were common.  Splendour and massiveness were the order of the day.

 

When China’s doors closed, the Westerners left and took their furniture with them.  Outside China, interest in the genre remained constant.  Then came China’s economic liberalization in the late 1970s and the market for Ming furniture began to grow dramatically.  Ming furniture’s basic structure possesses distinctly classical attributes.  Restraint, balance, clarity and grandeur are seen in a system of assembly that relies solely on joinery without the use of nails.  Other features are economy of line, lustrous surfaces, and color and grain of woods, such as huanghuali (yellow rosewood), zitan (purple sandalwood) and jichi mu (chicken wing wood).  However Ming is not just aesthetically pleasing to the modern eye: it also provides an understanding of Chinese culture during an affluent era and offers glimpses into the sophisticated lifestyle of the scholar officials and wealthy merchants of the 16th and 17th centuries.  Many lived a quietly ordered life, pursuing artistic and intellectual interests.  The scholars preferred plain wood furniture to that featuring Chinese decorative techniques, although some examples of the latter are found in this period. 

 

Private collectors around the world enjoy the thrill of living with these special pieces.  But as classical hardwood furniture becomes increasingly rare and expensive, more experts are turning to softwood furniture and re-evaluating its position in the domestic environment.  Hence, country style Chinese furniture made from Elmwood, cedarwood, and camphor wood has become more popular.  In addition, light, strong, durable bamboo is making a comeback in the home.  China is known as the kingdom of bamboo as it has the most species of any country (more than 400)  and for centuries it has been used for furniture, baskets and mats.


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