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Chinese Domestic Furniture in Photographs and Measured Drawings

Chinese Domestic Furniture in Photographs and Measured Drawings

by Gustav Ecke


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Westerners have long admired Chinese furniture for its durability, inner strength, quiet restraint, and simple dignity. Especially attractive to the educated eye are its purity of line, devotion to detail, and flawless construction. This unabridged reprint of a rare classic provides lovers of Chinese furniture with an enlightened discussion of the accomplishments achieved by fine craftsmen over the centuries, including the aesthetic levels attained during the early Shang period (1766–1123 B. C.), the transitional phase of cabinetmaking during the Yuan Dynasty (1280–1368 A.D.), and the perfection in craftsmanship reached during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 A.D.). The text also reviews the origins and development of basic forms and methods of construction — from the selection of wood to its processing, cutting, joining, ornamentation, and final polishing.
Long considered the definitive work on Chinese hardwood furniture in a Western language, this indispensable guide contains 161 superb plates that include photographs and drawings of tables, chairs, couches, cabinets, cupboards, and wardrobes. There are also measured drawings for 21 exquisitely crafted pieces for woodworkers interested in creating authentic Chinese furniture.
When the first edition of this volume was published more than 40 years ago in Peking, only 200 copies were printed. Today, each of the few remaining originals is worth several thousands of dollars. Now available in a handsome and affordable reprint edition, this volume is a unique addition to the libraries of woodworkers, art lovers, and anyone interested in Chinese culture and décor.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486251714
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 10/01/1986
Series: Dover Books on Furniture
Edition description: Revised
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 8.25(w) x 11.00(h) x (d)

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By Gustav Ecke

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1986 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14122-0


La simplicité allant jusqu'à une sobriété sévère, la robustesse et la franchise des formes, livrant à même la qualité intrinsèque de la matière, annoncent les vertus éternelles de l'esthétique dl'Extrême-Orient.

René Grousset, on Kansu Neolithic Pottery (XVI).


Chinese furniture has retained its architectural character and the imprint of pristine dignity throughout changes of taste, unto the days of a dying tradition. Subordinate to the symmetry of the Chinese Hall (Fig. 2) it discloses methods which are likely to have arisen in the very beginning of Chinese culture (VIII, XXVIII).

While this holds true even for elaborately carved and lacquered work (VI, XXXIII), it is particularly evident in plain hardwood pieces with their emphasis on structure. The latter have provided our examples. In our choice we have been guided by the Creative Spirit of the Chinese, wherever it reveals itself in the wood and in the interpretation of traditional patterns. Reserved in ornament and free from pretence, the rational features of Chinese domestic furniture more openly bring forth the vigour of the type and its adequacy (Frontispiece). The purity, the plastic strength, and the flawless polish of these pieces constitute their chief aesthetic appeal.

Such qualities will arouse the interest of the Western decorator who is ready to accept the merits of Queen Anne and similar tectonic design. In functional joinery the Craftsman of Soochow manifests his respect for the spirit of the wood and his command of line, curve and cubic proportion. Here are found the rules of Chinese cabinet-making which, in the early eighteenth century, became the ideal of the English ebonist. He learned and borrowed from China.

Documents for a history of Chinese furniture are numerous. In addition to literary references we have pictographs of Shang writing (pre-twelfth century B. C.); Shang and Chou bronzes (pre-third century B. C.); fragments of actual furniture from Han sites (third century B. C. to third century A. D.); excavations in Central Asia and the valley of the Yellow River; stands of Early Buddhist statuary; stone carvings and pictures from the Han Dynasty down to Castiglione and the end of the Empire; above all, however, the magnificent Tl'ang articles of furniture preserved in the Shosoin, the Treasure House at Nara (seventh and eighth centuries A. D.). But throughout the basic forms vary little. In the following pages their origin and development will be briefly touched upon.


The period of artless makeshifts ended in China long before the Culture of Anyang. From Shang scripts and from contemporary bronzes we conclude that the quality of early Chinese woodwork was not inferior to the perfection of bronze-casting, and that it had an even more ancient tradition. In fact, we have every reason to believe, that the two principal modes of joinery, as they survive today, were in the Shang period fully developed.

The Tuan-fang bronze tray (Fig. 3), from about 1300 to 1000 B. C., ranks as the foremost example of a platform construction with the box design, one of the two primary patterns for the construction of Chinese furniture. The bronze appears to be a metal translation of a wooden contrivance. The supporting frames enclose four panels on the long, and two on the short sides. Each panel has two rectangular ornamental openings and a decoration in relief that may correspond to painted designs. In this model the kind of jointing is not clear. A bronze of the Middle Chou period, however, imitates panel doors with frames (XXIII). These suggest the tongue and groove device, the mitre, and the dovetailed clamp of the panel so typical of Chinese joinery (joints 1, 1a, 11a, Pls. 152, 153). Considering the efficiency of the Shang bronze worker, one might assume that the Chinese joiner was very early acquainted with the technique of the mitred frame and with its aesthetic value (XIV).

This box-like structure can be imagined in varying sizes, as a low table, a seat, and as a large platform in the middle of the reception hall. The frame and panel construction of the dais in Fig.2, and its ritual position, have survived throughout three milleniums until the end of the Chl'ing Dynasty.

Two thousand years after the Tuan-fang tray the construction of the movable platform has not yet changed. Fig.4 is a reconstruction in the Tl'ang style and shows this clearly. Yet the pattern of the ornamental cutouts is an innovation probably developed during the Han period and the following centuries. The cusped and ogeed arch is known through many examples, particulary from the Tl'ang Dynasty. The form illustrated in Fig.4 is one among several varieties. Occasionally the panel is without the bottom part, and the upright sections finish on the sill in footlike enlargements. Even further simplifications are met with in Tl'ang and earlier examples: such as the omission of the bottom frame, a fusion of the quoin supports, and so on (Fig.10); but they are not the rule. For centuries to follow, the complete biparted frame and panel construction of the carcase remains the standard.

About the end of the ninth century new forms are developed, and with them new modifications of the cusped arch, while the ogee is not forgotten. The clear separation of frame and panel is preserved at least in principle. The lower portion of the panel, however, disappears for good; and the upper part becomes a kind of indented apron-like notch-board.

The footlike endings of the panel uprights are fashioned into far-projecting, crocketed, and pointed scrolls. Fig. 5 shows a couch in this style. The drawing is from a copy attributed to the Sung Emperor Hui-tsung, and made after an earlier original, perhaps of the tenth century. The elaborate design of this structure is of mongrel character. It represents a transition in the development towards a later manner of movable platform.

The first indication of this final change appears in the type of Fig. 6. Here the bipartition definitely has been given up, and the carcase unified through a fusion of the frame with the panels. The corner uprights consist of narrow slats, the remnants of the former panel ends, jointed at a right angle. The outer edge preserves the line of the former separate stiles and thus is straight. The inner borders of the slats retain the curving of the panel cutouts; and the lower edge of the apron has the form of a cusped arch with lateral ogees which swing into the curves of the supporting slats. Above the bottom frame these quoin slats flare into wing-like scrolls that are boldly curved and pointed. This style seems to have flourished in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (cf. the footstool of Fig. 24); in the making of lacquered furniture as also in some forms of carved stands for bibelots and bronzes it has continued to the present day.

The only survival of the former bipartition at this stage of development is the bottom frame. It remains important for reasons of structure and protection. The strength of the carcase depends on it more than ever, and it keeps the supports from the moisture of the flagstones. The bottom frame was still in use at the beginning of the fifteenth century; the quoin slats had by that time solidified into square legs. Only few pieces of this kind remain complete in their original condition, since the bottom frame is the first part of the structure to suffer or to be lost.

The quoin device of a stand of early character (Piece 71, Pl. 92) has an inner frame that is a remnant of the separate panel. The outer, supporting frame slats (cf. Fig. 4) of the original construction are here solidified into square legs. It is probable that such constructions were used during the transition time to strengthen the carcase of larger platforms (cf. Fig. 5).

Fig. 7, a Japanese piece of early Ming design, illustrates the final evolution of the solid legs. While the bottom frame is retained, the actual platform structure is now further unified and strengthened through a fusion of the two quoin slats into solid square legs. The most conspicuous feature of this solidification is the survival in the feet of the pointed panel scroll. The result is what the Chinese cabinet makers call ma-tl'i [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], a 'horse-hoof' (Pl. 1), which has remained a peculiar characteristic of the square leg ever since the beginning of the Ming period, but disappears as a weak scroll with the decay of artistic taste (Piece 19, Pl. 25). Our examples 27 and 28 (Pl. 40), or 72 and 73 (Pl. 94) illustrate the original vigour of the horse-hoof foot, and what had become of it towards the end of the eighteenth century. The scroll in the style of Piece 19 (cf. XLVII, passim) had almost replaced by that time the old horse-hoof. A sad example is seen in Piece 7 (Pl. 8). Formerly a magnificent table, it has recently lost about 40 cm from its height. To the original foot which was like the one shown in Piece 10 (Pl. 11), the dealer substituted a combination of weakly carved bits of wood glued to the mutilated legs. Examples 14a and 14 (Pl.17), show the open foot form contrasted with the solid horse-hoof, and once more suggest the transition from jointed slats to square legs. Pieces 6, 3a and 110 (Pls. 18, 137) give diverse forms of this prototype of the Western club-foot.

Interesting to note in these formal developments is the growth and final triumph of the curvilinear principle. It originated with the sweeping bends of the panel cutouts (Figs. 4 - 6) and ends up by dominating the outlines of the entire carcase (Figs. 7,8). With the evolution of the horse-hoof leg the external edges of the quoins, originally straight in accordance with the frame and panel device (Figs. 3-6), become curved by assimilation with the internal edge (Piece 4, Pl. 5). This is at the very least true of the edges of the feet. It is difficult to decide if, in the choice of the name 'hoof', there survives the remembrance of a leg motif common in the Han style (cf. L, Pl. 70; LIV, Pls. 48-59; LIII, vol. IX, Pl. 50, the latter a Tl'ang adaptation), and which had Central Asian and Hellenistic-Roman affinities (Fig. 9). Its cabriole curve even may be related to the form of the Li vessel that can claim a neolithic ancestry. The ancient Western prototype, fused with later Chinese forms, inspired the 'pied-de-biche', the cabriole curves of which engaged Hogarth's aesthetic speculation. The legs of pieces 3 and 3a(Pls. 3, 18) are in their compressed proportions close to the Han motif of Fig. 9. In Japanese tables slender cabriole legs of Sung or earlier inspiration have been preserved (LI, Pl. 90). Piece 111 (Pl. 139), of about 1600 A. D., shows a similar slender leg with a foot form that has been taken over almost exactly in the West by Boulle and other masters of his day.

But the classic Chinese solution of the curvilinear problem is found in Piece 110 (Pl. 137), perhaps a fifteenth century design. This tripod stand, unified through its circular plan, has been reduced to the bare essentials of construction. The slender legs have an elongated S-form and flare into weighty club-feet, which are tenoned into the bottom frame (Pl. 138). Continuous cabriole and ogee curves, together with the points of the apron cusps endow its form with rhythmic grace and vigour. The elastic freedom and the purity of this lotus-like creation has perhaps not been surpassed in China, and certainly not in the West where the bronze stand from Pompeii (XIII, Fig. 25; cf. also Fig. 24) represents the height of perfection.

We now revert to the rectangular plan, the final form of the platform construction. Even here the bottom frame is not quite abandoned. It survives especially in small, in ornamental pieces, or where stability makes it indispensable (Piece 29, Pl. 41). Tables and couches, however, are constructed more and more without this last remainder of the bipartite substructure. This requires further simplification and, from the craftsman, greater skill. Pieces 1 and 15 (Pls. 2, 19) indicate what may be achieved. A new and independant version of the platform has been evolved which one would associate with the Tuan-fang tray only by tracing its pedigree (Figs. 3-8).

The elegance of couch table 1 is obvious. The most has been made of the possibilities contained in the tensile quality of the red sandalwood; for its curves and proportions could not be bettered. The bend of the legs, the paw-like thrust of the feet, the bulge of the outline, carry the mirror-like plane of the top from which they are separated by a deep hollow. The design of this table reveals a mature sense of harmony and tension not even foreshadowed in the archaic box with its frame and panel carcase (Fig. 3).

Couch 15 (cf. Frontispiece), however, ought to be compared with its relative, the ceremonial dais reproduced in Fig. 2. This platform has remained in principle part of the house construction, preserving the original frame and panel device unaltered; the couch, after evolving over twenty-five centuries, has become in itself a piece of architecture.

We reproduce the foot of this structure in actual size on Pl.1. It shows how the peculiar essence of the huali rosewood, its grain and its fibric energy, harmonise with contour and volume in the very function of the solid foot.

The perfection of this plain couch, self-supporting and self-sufficient, makes one regret that back- and arm-rests ever should have been introduced. Yet the attempt to combine the Chinese platform with an imported railing may, after a period of experimentation (Fig. 24), lead to harmonious results (Piece 16, Pl. 20). For the design of chairs similar problems were met with and successfully solved (IX, passim).

In couch railings and in the lattice-work of testered bedsteads, motifs were employed which are known to the student of Chinese architecture. Square, swastika and other simple patterns are seen in pieces which may be early Ming. They are included in Professor D. S. Dye's Grammar of Lattice Work (VII). The lattice bars of huali wood are usually slightly fluted with the exception of the sides that face the wall. For wood of a different character a convex moulding may be preferred (Piece 20, Pl. 26). Plates 37, 38 and Joint 12 on Pl.153 show the kind of mortising commonly used.

A comparison of two couches with board railings again helps to throw light on the growth and change of taste. Piece 21 (Pl. 27) shows a prevaL-ence of the straight line along with features that seem to indicate an early Ming date (cf. Piece 6). Its austere strength is enhanced through the inner splay of the legs. With its large-figured single-board rests, its arched metal mounts, and flawless linear proportions, this couch is one of the most representative examples of patrician household furniture.

Couch 22 (Pl. 28) by itself is also quite an impressive piece. But, when compared with the other couch, its massive design looks heavy, the broken horizontals lack clarity, and the cumbrous feet fail to achieve the effect of the monumental. The double hollow between substructure and seat frame connects the style of this couch with that of stool 73 (Pl. 94); the feet and moulding, with the stand of ice-box 29 (Pl. 41). Stand 5 (Pl. 6) belongs to the same group of late pieces. They represent a Chl'ienlung or Chiachl'ing style, which continued down to the end of the Empire. Thus between the two couches, 21 and 22, it would be reasonable to assume a difference of three or four hundred years in age.

The early illustration of a testered bedstead (fourth century A. D.), included in the London copy of Ku Kl'ai-chih's Admonitions, has been often reproduced (LIV, Fig. 30). Other examples are preserved among the Tun-huang paintings. Our Fig. 10 shows a less known example from a stone carving of Vimalakirti in the style of the Six Dynasties (sixth century A. D.). It is a kind of four-poster bed, naturally with separate construction of bed and canopy. In its simplified design the bed of the Ming period (Piece 23, Pl. 29) seems to be anticipated. The bedstead reproduced as Piece 26 (Pl. 39) again displays the simple magnificence of early huali furniture. It is a veritable alcove architecture.

With the introduction of Buddhism, the Chinese gradually got accustomed to the Western sitting posture. While the type of the low table survives from the days of squatting and cross-legging, there now originates a new kind of table resembling in form and usage the European form. Pictorial evidence proves that, into the days of the Sung and Yüan periods, the bottom frame was employed also with these high structures. An extant example, probably an early Ming piece, is stand 6. It is an occasional table with the bottom frame complete.


Excerpted from CHINESE DOMESTIC FURNITURE by Gustav Ecke. Copyright © 1986 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents


Original Chinese title,
Publisher's Note, 1986,
List of Plates [general groupings],
Note [on furniture terminology],
List of Pieces [detailed descriptions],
Original Chinese colophon,

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