Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture

Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture

by Sarah Handler



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520214842
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/30/2001
Pages: 417
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 11.00(h) x 1.76(d)

About the Author

An historian of Chinese art, Sarah Handler was Curator of the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture and has taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, University of Illinois, and the University of Michigan. She has published widely in journals, collected volumes, and is coauthor, with Nancy Berliner, of Friends of the House: Furniture from China's Towns and Villages (1996). She also edited and translated from the Chinese Wang Shixiang's Classic Chinese Furniture: Ming and Early Qing Dynasties (1986).

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Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture


University of California

Copyright © 2001 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-21484-6

Chapter One

RISING FROM MAT TO CHAIR A Revolution in Chinese Furniture

China was the only nation in East Asia, indeed the only nation outside the West, to adopt the chair-level mode of living before the modern period. This fact has intrigued visitors to China since at least the early seventeenth century, when the Jesuit Nicolas Trigault noted this radical departure from non-Western habit. From the earliest times until about the tenth century the Chinese commonly sat on mats or low platforms. Although from at least the Eastern Zhou period (770-221 B.C.) people occasionally sat on an elevated seat with their legs pendant, only in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126) did sitting on a chair at a high table become the norm. The adoption of the chair-level mode of living wrought a revolution in Chinese furniture. Indeed, it profoundly transformed many aspects of Chinese life, for the way a people sit and how they hang their legs a ect not only the shapes and sizes of chairs and tables, but also wall heights, architecture, and social and eating habits. Raising the height of furniture elevates the vision and has implications for the spirit as well. No longer was the high seat a privilege reserved for the emperor and a few priests and officials. As wealth in China dispersed, the adoption of the chair was both symbol and product of a new prosperity that entailed an entirely new mode of living.

Height and authority are often correlated. In English we speak of rising to power or being elevated to a position. We talk about the seat of authority. High judges sit on the bench. The chair and table, in particular, are among the oldest symbols of authority. For the Greeks the catheídra, meaning "seat," was the synonym of power, and for Christians it was the cathedral. In royal societies the name of the king or queen might change, but the symbol of authority remains the throne (from the Greek thronos).

In ancient China most people sat and slept on mats (xi), a custom reflected in the modern word for chairperson (zhuxi), which literally means "master of the mats." However, even in early times there was a minor distinction in level, since the wealthy and important also had low platforms. From as early as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) there are pictorial examples of what I call the mat-level mode of living. An Eastern Han (A.D. 25-220) pottery tomb tile unearthed near Chengdu in Sichuan province shows respectful, formally dressed students seated in the correct kneeling posture on long rectangular mats and a square single-person mat (fig. 1.1). The mats are made of woven rushes or bamboo, which might be lacquered red or black and bound with silk. The teacher, as befits his status, is elevated on a small low platform of simple box construction; he leans on an armrest (ji), which on each side has four curved legs attached to a runner. Seating is arranged according to a complex protocol reflecting social position and having symbolic, and sometimes even political, implications.

During the Han dynasty, platforms could be small, like this one, or long enough to accommodate a number of people. Both large and small platforms often had screens on two sides, such as those depicted in the stone engravings at Anqiu, Shandong province (see fig. 9.1), and in the o ering shrines of General Zhu Wei. Sometimes platforms are covered by canopies. For instance, a wall painting found in a tomb in Mi county, Henan province, shows a feast in progress, with the occupant of the tomb probably among those seated in the place of honor beneath a large canopy hung with patterned silk and bedecked with flags. In front of him, level with his seat, is a long low table with curved legs, a larger model of the armrest in the lecture scene (see fig. 1.1), laden with sumptuous dishes. The guests are arranged on mats in a huge U shape before the table.

A rare early platform belonging to Chang Taiguan, a fourth-century B.C. ruler of the kingdom of Chu, was found at Xinyang, Henan province (fig. 1.2). It is an elegant and sophisticated piece consisting of a black-lacquered wooden frame, 218.2 centimeters long and 139 centimeters wide, decorated along the outer edge with a red carved key-fret design. The frame is supported by six short legs elaborately carved in the form of double scrolls or coiled snakes. The legs tenon into the frame, a method of construction basic to all Chinese furniture. A low bamboo railing, mounted in bronze and wound with silk, encloses all but a slightly o -center portion of each of the long sides. Transverse braces originally supported some kind of seat. This type of large low platform, called a chuang in contemporaneous literature, was a daytime seat, often ceremonial, as well as a bed at night. A bamboo pillow and lacquer armrest were found in the same tomb, suggesting that these objects were for nighttime and daytime use on the chuang.

When the Chinese lived at mat level, they used numerous kinds of small low tables. A Han dynasty pottery tomb tile depicts a feast with music and dancing for entertainment (fig. 1.3). On the left a musician plays the zither (se) for a guest seated on the far right. In the background sits a woman, identified by her double hair knot. They are watching a slow dance performed by a dancer dressed in a trailing, long-sleeved robe. A man beats out the rhythm on a drum. In front of each feaster is a small rectangular table for serving food. One common type is a low painted lacquer model with four wood or metal feet in the shape of stylized hooves. A luxurious example was excavated from the first- or early-second-century Tomb of the Painted Basket at Lelang, near modern Pyongyang, Korea. Lelang was a Chinese commandery at the time, and this table, like other inscribed pieces from the same site, was probably made in Sichuan province in China. The top of the table is decorated with undulating patterns of clouds, animals, and immortals framed by geometric borders; all are delicately executed in gold, silver, and other colors against a red ground. The legs are shaped like stylized hooves and ornamented in red and yellow.

Dining tables were often small enough to be carried from the kitchen already set with dishes. A low rectangular rimmed model holding cups, an oval bowl with two handles for wine, chopsticks, and dishes with remains of food (see fig. 12.4) was excavated from the tomb of the Marquess of Dai, who died soon after 168 B.C. Both table and dishes were costly, being lacquered red and black with painted decoration.

Different sizes of low rectangular tables, often with curved legs, were used in the kitchen. A long model is shown in a rubbing from an Eastern Han pottery tomb relief unearthed in Xindu, Sichuan province (fig. 1.4). Here two cooks preparing a meal are seated on the ground in front of a rack from which joints of meat are hung. On the right a person is fanning the fire, and behind him the dishes are laid out on small tables identical to those before the feasters in the banquet scene in fig. 1.3. A large curved-leg table-the earliest example of the type known to exist-was excavated from the Tomb of the Painted Basket. It uses the basic Chinese joinery that has persisted to the present day. On each short side of the table, five bent legs tenon into transverse braces beneath the top and a scalloped runner at the bottom. Exposed tenons are visible on the surface of the table as well as on the underside of the runner.

The mat-level mode of living clearly influenced the houses that people lived in at this time. The low furniture was neither abundant nor highly specialized, and it could be moved easily to serve several functions. It determined the proportions of the house, which might have one or more stories, and the lack of division into rooms. A pottery tomb relief depicting a Chengdu estate shows an entire compound surrounded by a wall with tiled eaves (fig. 1.5). The front gate (lower left) opens into a courtyard with fowl, and on the right is the kitchen with a well, stove, and rack similar to the one in fig. 1.4. In the courtyard behind the kitchen stands a tower that probably served as a watchtower and, according to contemporary literature, was also used for pleasure viewing. Beneath the tower a servant and a dog face a roofed wall or corridor leading to the main courtyard. A visitor would enter the front gate and cross the barnyard, in which we see a fowl, and then cross into the main courtyard, with the reception room at the far end. Steps lead up to the three-bayed building with fluted columns where the master of the house and his guests are seated on mats watching the dancing cranes-symbols of immortality and longevity-in the courtyard.

The building has no interior divisions, but screens would have been used to divide the space, protect from drafts and sunlight, and serve as marks of honor behind distinguished persons. A screen found in the tomb of the Marquess of Dai (see fig. 16.2) consists of two feet supporting a lacquered wood panel. One side is painted with a red dragon intertwined with clouds on a black ground; the other has a jade disk in the center surrounded by a black geometric pattern on a red ground. Both sides have identical patterned borders.

The interiors of the houses of the rich had brick floors and textiles on the walls for warmth and decoration. Light and ventilation came through lattice windows that literary records suggest were sometimes covered with silk. A number of pottery tomb models of houses show the lattice extending down to the floor beside the main door so that the inhabitants seated on mats on the floor would have light and air. Variations of the Han dynasty courtyard house are still found in parts of China today, and sitting on mats and using low tables remain the traditional way of living in Korea and Japan.

Even in ancient China people occasionally sat on elevated seats for ceremonial and practical reasons in a Buddhist context and at court. A fragment of a bronze vessel from the Eastern Zhou found at Liuhe in Jiangsu province shows a person seated on a high stool drinking from a horn-shaped cup (see fig. 7.1). Probably this is a ceremonial occasion. High tables too were not unknown. Another Eastern Zhou vessel fragment depicts a high o ring table with upturned ends (see fig. 14.1), a predecessor of the everted flanges of later times. A pottery tomb model of a high table with a jar on top was found in a late Eastern Han tomb at Lingbao, Henan province. This miniature table is a forerunner of the high square hardwood tables popular for dining in later times. It was made at a time when high seats were sometimes used for everyday household tasks, such as weaving. Sichuan was famous for its brocades and silk, and some of the stone tomb reliefs show ladies seated on high seats weaving at a loom and operating the treadles with their feet.

Deities, like high dignitaries, are often elevated to indicate their status. The cave paintings at Dunhuang, Gansu province, depict many Buddhist deities and monks raised up on thrones, chairs, and stools, which are the precursors of later furniture. The most extreme examples of elevation are the canopied beds in illustrations to the Vimalakirti Sutra that, together with their accompanying curved-leg tables, are elevated beyond realistic possibilities (see fig. 10.4). Nonetheless their basic form is comparable to representations of canopied beds in a secular context. Various types of stools show seated deities with their legs pendant. In cave 275 a painting from the Northern Liang (421-439) shows a bodhisattva sitting, one leg pendant and the ankle of the other resting on his knee, on a cylindrical stool with rounded top, probably made of cane. Another painting in the cave depicts an hourglass-shaped stool. In cave 295 a pensive bodhisattva sits on a more fanciful stool with a lotus leaf-shaped seat, base, and matching footstool in a painting from the Sui dynasty (581-618) depicting Sakyamuni entering Parinirvana. On a mid-sixth-century Buddhist stele in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, a monk holding an incense burner sits on a low round stool. Folding stools, still common today, are thought to have been imported into China during the late second century. Perhaps the earliest depiction is on a Buddhist stele dated to 543 found near Luoyang that shows the Nepalese seer Asita seated and holding the infant Buddha (see fig. 7.3).

by the Tang dynasty (618-906), the habit of sitting on stools with legs pendant was prevalent among the ladies at court, marking the beginnings of an elevated mode of sitting in the daily life of the elite. For example, three-color glazed pottery tomb figurines show women seated on hourglass-shaped models (see fig. 7.5). In paintings of life at court that are believed to be close copies of Tang dynasty works, such as Ladies Playing Double Sixes, the oval wooden stools have four legs with cut-o cloud-head feet, cloud-head motifs repeated halfway up the legs, arch-shaped cusped aprons, and continuous beading along the inside edges. Sometimes cushions are tied onto the stools.

Before the tenth century there are isolated examples of honorific chairs used not for easy access to tables but as a means of giving stature to important people. The earliest representations of such chairs in China are all in a Buddhist context. A depiction in Dunhuang cave 285, dated 538, shows a monk meditating in a cave in the mountains. He is seated in a kneeling posture on a highback armchair, which clearly has a woven seat (fig. 1.6). At this time there were also chairs with high backs and no arms. A rubbing from a Buddhist stele in the collection of the late Laurence Sickman shows a monk seated with legs pendant on such a chair with a back consisting of two high side posts joined by a single low horizontal bar.

In the Tang dynasty, chairs are also occasionally connected with high officials as well as priests. A wall painting in the tomb of Gao Yuangui, a general who died in 756, shows him seated with legs pendant on a large armchair. A century later the Japanese monk Ennin visited China, and his diary describes important officials as well as priests sitting on chairs which he calls by the modern Chinese term yi. That Ennin bothers to mention sitting on chairs indicates that the practice was unusual.

Mid and late Tang depictions of banquets show parties of men or women gathered around large rectangular tables. They are seated on benches or stools that are the same height or only slightly lower than the tables. For instance, in a wall painting in a tomb in Nanliwang, Chang'an county, Shaanxi, men are seated on long benches around a table laden with food (fig. 1.7). They sit in various postures-cross-legged, with one knee raised, or with one leg hanging over the edge of the bench. None of the diners has his legs stretched out or under the table.


Excerpted from Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture by SARAH HANDLER Copyright © 2001 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Chronology of Dynasties

Introduction: A Taste for Austere Luminosity

Revolution and Discovery
1. Rising from Mat to Chair: A Revolution in Chinese Furniture
2. A Ming Meditation Chair in Bauhaus Light
3. George Kates Discovering Chinese Furniture during the Years That Were Fat

4. A Yokeback Chair for Sitting Tall
5. The Folding Armchair: An Elegant Vagabond
6. The Lowback Armchair with Carvings of Bamboo, Magic Fungi, or the Three Friends of Winter
7. A Ubiquitous Stool

8. Life on a Platform
9. A Couchbed Day and Night for Comfort and Joy
10. The Canopy Bed: A Little World Made Cunningly

11. On a New World Arose a Kang Table
12. A Square Table Where the Immortals Dine
13. A Clean Table by a Bright Window
14. The Side Table: A Surface for Treasures and Gods

Cabinets and Screens
15. Cabinets and Shelves Containing All Things in China
16. The Screen: A Movable Wall to Divide, Enhance, and Beautify

17. The Incense Stand and a Scholar's Mystical State
18. Lamp Stands and Lanterns: Carriers of Light
19. Perfumed Coals in Precious Braziers Burn
20. Washbasin Stands for Ablutions and Washing Clean

Works Cited

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