The history of crafting and using antique Chinese furniture began during the first millennium AD when some Chinese decided they would be more comfortable sitting on chairs instead of squatting on the floor. Before this time, the Chinese usually conducted their lives and their business at floor level, as many Asian cultures did and some still do today.
Westerners may have used furniture before the Chinese, but once the Chinese cabinetmakers began crafting cabinets, chairs and tables they learned their craft and the intricacies of furniture making quickly. They learned to construct superbly designed and proportioned pieces without using nails, and with only a minimal use of dowels and glue. One of their greatest accomplishments are cabinets.
The architecture of a traditional Chinese home made no allowances for built-in closets. Closets are a Western innovation, and are still a rarity in Chinese societies from Hong Kong to Taipei to Beijing. Also, the Western concept of an armoire or a wardrobe cabinet did not exist in the Ming Dynasty China, as the Chinese would never hang clothes vertically inside a cupboard. Instead clothes and bed linens were laid flat inside a chest or cabinet, or hung on wooden racks. Dynastic robes were folded and stacked horizontally, rather than vertically on hangers,
The Chinese made cabinets in many varieties because they wanted and valued versatility, so cabinets became the primary storage facilities within a household. black cabinetLarge cabinets were used to store just about anything the master or mistress of a household wanted to keep secure and out of sight. Today, Westerners have kept pace with this Chinese notion of versatility by using cabinets as entertainment centers.
Precious objects such as a porcelain vase or a root wood brush pot might be stored in a cabinet when not on display or being used. Cabinets were also used in the study to store books and writing implements, and in the kitchen for food and cooking utensils. Similarly, paintings were rolled up for storage in cabinets. These cabinets were usually located in the women’s quarters or in reception rooms where official robes were kept. Such cabinets remain eminently functional and are much admired and sought after for their elegant shapes and ornamentation. The best examples combine the natural beauty of the wood grain with the design and degree of ornamentation.
TYPES OF CABINETS
There are two main styles of large Chinese cabinets, their names derived from their contours: the square-corner cabinet and the round-corner cabinet (also known as the tapered or sloping-style, wood-hinged cabinet). These types of Chinese cabinets were normally made in matching pairs, placed either side by side or symmetrically to balance the interior layout of the room or separated by a table. In practice, there are variations on this rule; which will be discussed further in this article.
SQUARE CORNERED CABINETS
Square-cornered cabinets had vertical side and the doors were mounted on metal hinges. This rectangular-shaped storage cabinet derives its name from its boxy roof overhang. The imposing size of the cabinet is softened only by the slight splay of the legs and the decorative lock panels on the front. The primary function of a square-corner cabinet was to store clothes.
Many of these cabinets were lacquered and decorated with pictorial landscapes. The open flat surfaces of its doors proved an irresistible canvas for artisans. Although cabinets of the Beijing elite were black enameled with mother-of-pearl inlays, cabinets from the other regions were more lavishly decorated. Both Shanxi and Fujian provincial cabinets featured red lacquer embellished with gold designs.
Hinges were made of brass (today, rarely original) or wooden, carved in the shape of a lotus blossom or, occasionally an acorn or some other object from nature.
ROUND-CORNERED OR TAPERED CABINETS
Round-Corner Asian CabinetRound-cornered cabinets tended to have rounded sides and overhangs, and the legs were slightly splayed, giving it a tapered A-frame silhouette, creating the impression of upward movement. They were crafted with removable doors with wooden pivots at each end and a removable center post. The doors could then be slotted directly into the frame of the cabinets, resulting in a design with extremely clean lines. Wooden pivots or hinges allowed the doors to be removed easily, which gave the Chinese easy access for storing large objects or laying clothes lengthwise. This functional innovation was intended to reduce the labor required to manage fussy garments. Besides these removable stiles, the genius in its design lies in the way the doors neatly swivel on rounded wooden pegs. Today this type of construction gives easy access for stereo systems and TV’s.
Asian Wedding CabinetOne of the most popular varieties of a round-cornered cabinet is the wedding cabinet; painted red-the color of good luck and prosperity. A wedding cabinet was often the centerpiece of a bride’s dowry. They are beautiful, with a large, round brass plates; sometimes with a carving etched into the perimeter or the middle of the doors. Today, a wedding cabinet works best as a decorator’s piece or as an entertainment center. The traditional drawer and shelf combination that is usually across the middle of the interior, today is often lowered to the bottom to hold a TV.
Finishes on large Chinese cabinets range from natural wood stains; to painted burgundy or purple or solid red or black, sometimes with painted scenes on the doors. The subject matter of those scenes offers clues about the use within a Chinese household. Pictures of women or children (always males) usually suggest a wife’s or concubine’s quarters. More philosophical settings such as a landscape of mountains and streams might belong in a scholar’s studio.
Another type of tapered cabinet was with a stand. It was popular in southern Fujian and Jiangsu provinces and differs from the standard Ming-style tapered cabinet in its proportions, the woods used, the decoration and the joinery. The depth of these cabinets is also narrower than usual. Many are made of jumu (southern elm.) Another noticeable feature among the southern Fujian cabinets is the removable latticework which served as a low shelf, perhaps for storing shoes or boxes.
SPECIALTY CHINESE CABINETS
Today we use Chinese cabinets for dining room sideboards, living room stereo storage, bookshelves, bedside tables, stacking cabinets (with a separate upper piece to store hats or seasonal clothing), and kitchen cupboards.
When a smallish storage chest is stacked on top of a regular-sized cabinet, the combination is collectively referred to as a compound cabinet. There was a clear division of use between the two units. Hats or out-of-season clothes were stored in the upper half, and everyday garments and bedding were packed in the lower half. Some compound cabinets are so large that ladders were needed to reach the items stowed up high. Needless to say, this piece of furniture dominated a room.
Asian Sideboard CabinetAlthough sideboards were not used in formal dining rooms as we use them today, large low cabinets would normally be placed in the center of a Chinese living area or on the kang-the hollow, heated brick platform used in northern parts of China. These cabinets would contain everyday items and sometimes included secret compartments for storing valuables.
Asian Apothecary CabinetA version of the square-corner cabinet is often referred to as a medicine cabinet (yaochu) or hundred-eye cabinet. It is generally lower and wider than a standard cabinet. These cabinets have numerous pull-out drawers used to store herbs. Chinese doctors labeled each of the multiple drawers with the names of herbs and medicines (various mushrooms, reindeer antlers, etc.) to fix what ails you. Many functional cabinets such as these have been reconstructed in order to store CD players-a popular marketing strategy for contemporary furniture dealers.
This cabinet features panels associated with the earliest styles of the Jin culture. The Jin culture is a term that now refers to the “unrestrained nomadic style” of the Shanxi region. The cabinets often have pronounced carving and cabriole legs. They also known simply as paneled cabinets and can be found in both black and red lacquer. Other adaptations include a joined double cabinet from Shanxi province.
There is actually a traditional Chinese kitchen cabinet, designed to circulate air around fruits and vegetables without letting in light. The lower compartments housed live chickens and other fowl, destined for dinner.
Other Small Cabinets
Shorter cabinets served as bookcases or storage space for scrolls and scholarly items. Because scholar’s studios did not have desks with big drawers for storage, the drawers within the inside shelf of the cabinet were loosely fitted, thus enabling the owner to easily pull them out and take them to his desk to work.
In the late Qing dynasty, around the seaport areas, a smaller form of square-corner cabinet emerged that was perhaps used as a bedside table.
In addition, an elongated square cabinet which looks like a cross between a square-corner cabinet and a coffer table might possibly have been used as a storage chest on a kang. It is otherwise known as a kang cupboard.
GENERAL CONSTRUCTION & DECORATION
Often neglected in the literature, accessories and decorations are aesthetically important. Prior to the nineteenth century, many cabinets had removable doors, enabling the cabinet to be readily disassembled. The hinge door is a variation on the mortise-and-tendon joint, and is a classic feature of Chinese furniture. With this style of furniture, a key to quality was matching the wood grain patterns on pairs of adjoining door panels. Collectors also look for scalloped over-hang edges and beading along the bottom apron.
Most cabinets included shelves that could be removed, and often a concealed storage area at the bottom, covered by removable boards.
Although most cabinets were wonderfully pure and simple in their construction, often with the only decoration being shaped aprons at the base, some were finished with painted and lacquered designs, or even with an inlay of semi-precious stones. Common themes for decoration included landscapes and garden scenes, or Chinese antiquities. Decorative styles varied across different regions, with furniture from the Shanxi region, for example, being noted for its more ornate and florid style.
The brass plates allow the eye to settle on the center of the cabinet rather than try to absorb its entire bulk. A bad restorer who sloppily chooses hardware replacements, can wreck and elegant piece of furniture. Original bronze lock plates, lock pins, and lockets, as well as metal handles, add further value to cabinets.
The metalwork that we often associate with Chinese furniture and that was mounted on various types of cabinets and chests was designed to be both functional and decorative. Made of brass or other alloy metals, these hinges, handles and lock plates were considered of major significance to the overall design of a piece and would often include intricate carving. Circular brass hinges and lock plates, often with pear-shaped handles (the pear symbolizes fortune and prosperity in Chinese) are a dominant feature of compound cabinets, providing and elegant contrast to the beauty and simplicity of the wood panels.
Drawers never received widespread usage. You won’t find a chest of drawers or dresser in the Chinese vocabulary… and with good reason. Drawers are harder to lock. Cabinets, however, could successfully keep valuables away from prying eyes and sticky fingers. A wealthy Chinese household put a roof over lots of heads – servants, concubines, and relatives. The ideal home was thought to have five generations living under one roof. And since it was considered a great insult to put a lock on the door to a room (the bitterest divisions within a family would result in doors being nailed shut), cabinets and trunks and boxes, most of which could be locked, allowed for secure storage.