Furniture is one part of the material culture of a society. The diversity of furniture reflects the way people lived and how styles and tastes changed with time. Most authorities on Chinese furniture agree that the widespread adoption of the chair as the preferred manner of seating by about the 12th century represented a watershed for Chinese society. The subsequent changes to the way all types of residences were organised led to a proliferation of furniture types and styles. It would be almost impossible to exhaustively cover all furniture. However, the following provides a brief introduction to a number of the major categories.
All items are from the Humble House collection.
CABINETS AND CHESTS
The earliest forms of storage were small boxes and over the centuries these evolved to larger chests. The basic form of the chest probably continued until the advent of the chair level of living when the raised lifestyle saw the introduction of cabinets and allowed for different ways to store articles.
China was the only east Asian country to adopt the chair as the major form of seating until modern times. The seat came to China from other countries about two thousand years ago and over the following thousand years was adopted and adapted.
STOOLS AND BENCHES
Stools have been known to the Chinese for over two thousand years. However, the derivation of the character “deng” for stool also means to ascend suggesting the stool may well have been used as a step on to the bed more than as a seat. Stools are very diverse in design and size and were widely used as the informal seat.
During the early periods of Chinese history when people lived at the mat low tables were used for day to day needs. The move to the chair dramatically changed the way people lived.
Low furniture has the generic term of kang furniture. The kang is a feature of many homes, particularly in northern China. It is a platform at about knee height made from brick or timber. It is hollow underneath and can be heated by burning fuel directly underneath it or, in the case of timber kangs, by running a flue from a nearby stove.
In Chinese society the bed is one of the most important pieces of furniture. Used at night for sleeping, the bed is the equivalent of the couch in western society. During the day the bed was where people sat or reclined. Smaller beds could be taken outside where friends and family could relax to enjoy fine weather. Beds were a measure of family wealth and were proudly displayed.
SCREENS AND PANELS
Screens were the first form of room divider in the home when houses were large open spaces with few if any internal walls. The screen gives privacy and adds shape to a room. The screen could be a single panel that stood in a base or rise in number to over a dozen pieces. The height varied depending on the part of the house they were to be placed. Taller screens were placed in the main hall while smaller screens were used in upstairs living areas.