volume 1 number 4

Over the past few years, zhazhen has come to light as a furniture-making wood found in the southern Jiangnan region, and most highly concentrated in the areas of Nantong and Huizhou where zhazhen trees are native.

Zhazhen, also called zhajing, is associated with the mulberry species; it is technically classified as zhemu in Chinese, and otherwise botanically identified as cudrania tricuspidata or cudrania triloba.  The heartwood is dark reddish-brown and layered with coffee-colored tissue, and fine medullary rays appear in the radial surface; the light-colored sapwood is stands out in sharp contrast. The material is of medium density, but has low resistance to decay.

According to one popular legend, the beautiful grain of a zhazhen tea tray attracted the attention of the Qianlong Emperor on one of his southern tours. When asked the name of the wood, a servant replied unintelligibly in the local dialect. The emperor then bestowed the name ‘zhazhen’, comparing its lovely grain with zitan and huanghuali. This tale and others have been appeared in the recent mainland publication Nantong Traditional Zhazhen Furniture.

Whether the Qianlong story is fact or fiction, the legend points to the popularity of zhazhen wood furniture following the mid-18th century. Prior to this period, evidence is extremely rare, and the majority of surviving works appear to originate from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Stylisticly, zhazhen furniture bears close relationship to the huanghuali, jumu, and hongmu furniture produced in 'Ming' classical- and Qing-styles throughout the Qing and Republican periods in the Jiangnan region. Works from the Huizhou region generally reflect an earlier style than those from Nantong.

A small selection of zhazhen works from the Shanju Shanghai collection demonstrates a range of classical styles.

Pure Form: Classical Chinese Furniture: Vok Collection
Seventy-some works of Chinese furniture belonging to Italy-based architect Ignazio Vok are presently exhibited at the Museum fur Ostasiatische Kunst in Cologne, Germany. The exhibition runs through March 28, 2005. A huanghuali barrel stool from the collection is featured as the current Piece of the Month. A beautiful exhibition catalogue is available at the Chinese Furniture Bookstore.

Losses and Restoration
Over the decades and centuries, antique furniture inescapably suffers loses and damage due to use, abuse, and attrition. The survival of multi-component constructions in perfect condition is an exception. In France, where connoisseurship for antique furniture has a long-established tradition, law permits the labeling of antique furniture as ‘original to the period’ with up to 30% loss or replacement to the original construction. While such rudimentary calculation may not be universally applicable, it nevertheless acknowledges the inevitability of losses and restoration. What then is acceptable in terms of restoration and how do losses or restoration affect value?

Acceptable restoration is relative to the rarity of a piece. For example, a higher tolerance is permissible in rarified forms (ie. a fragile clothes rack or round stand) than to common forms such as a standard recessed-leg table or square stool. Attrition may also be greater in work surviving 400 years than one of 100-200 years.

Faithful replacement is also standard of acceptable restoration—the replacement being true to the original concept based upon reliable surviving evidence. For example, the replacement of missing carved spandrels based upon the survival of at least one original is acceptable; otherwise, they are simply a fabrication of the restorer.

The significance of loss also has to do with its importance as an element within the construction. Minor replacement, such as the lower aprons or seat matting of a chair are insignificant; however, the loss the crestrail or back rest of a chair are detrimental to its value. Likewise, cabinet hardware is commonly lost and, while unfortunate, is not considered a serious defect; however, the loss of original door panels is of major significance.

Such considerations are important when selecting a restored or unrestored piece of antique furniture for collection or investment. Restoration at its best is also an art, and the quality of restoration will significantly influence the value of a piece.

Universal Aspirations
To unite elegance and utility, and blend the useful with the agreeable has ever been considered a difficult, but an honorable task.
George Hepplewhite, 18th century English cabinetmaker

To each is that which is appropriate.
Tranquil antiquity—is timeless,
Tranquil simplicity—is without clever intricacy,
Tranquil restraint—is not vulgar.
Strive for majesty and pure elegance.
Wen Zhenheng, late Ming period literati

With Best Wishes to all in the coming Year of the Rooster,
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The newsletter is sponsored by Shanju Shanghai
, specializing in fine antique Chinese furnishings for discriminating enthusiasts.

Classical Chinese Furniture

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