volume 2 number 2

Museum of Classical Jumu Furniture, Shanghai
Strong and finely figured jumu (ju wood) has long been enjoyed as furniture-making timber in its native Jiangnan region. In terms of quality of workmanship, finely crafted Ming-style jumu furniture is frequently indistinguishable from classical-style huanghuali furniture. The sophistication of these provincial works directly reflects upon the eminence of the Jiangnan furniture-making tradition.

A museum devoted to jumu furniture has recently opened in Shanghai. The Museum of Classical Jumu Furniture brings attention to the artistry of the Jiangnan furniture-maker as well as the influence of the region's literati inspired traditions. One-hundred some works of classically styled antique jumu furniture are presently on display in the 1000 square meter museum space, which is located along the northern stretch of the Bund at 713/5f Dong Daming Road. Visitors may call to confirm opening hours at 86-139-0178-5578.

Thin Clear Lacquer
Many examples of jumu and huanghuali furniture retain a thin clear lacquer coating, which was also a common finish for finely figured woods. Such lacquer is traditionally called qingshui (lit. clear water) by Jiangnan locals; a variant term shuimo (lit. water polish) also appears amongst the miscellaneous jottings on furniture in Eight Discourses on the Art of Living by Gao Lian, a late Ming period writer from Hangzhou.

There are two heights of incense stand used in the study.....constructed of various types of wood, they can either be finished with [opaque] lacquer or thin clear-polished lacquer (shuimo)....

Armrests are finish with thin clear lacquer (shuimo)....

The meditation chair is deeper than the average chair, and nearly half again in height. Only those finished with thin clear-polished lacquer
(shuimo) are beautiful....

During the early 17th century, the editor of the Longqing period (1567-1572) lacquer treatise Xiushi lu, who lived in nearby Jiaxing, explained that ‘shui’ (water) was a colloquial term for a refined and thin-bodied lacquer. This thin, watery-like lacquer was produced from the thick, milky raw lacquer through a series of refining techniques. It has served as a natural transparent finish for fine furniture and scholar’s objects for centuries.

Plain Lacquer
The use of sophisticated lacquer coatings on Chinese furniture is an ancient tradition that is evident on works excavated from 6th century BC tombs. Hundreds of lacquer techniques developed over the centuries, ranging from primary plain protective coatings to countless permutations of materials and technique. While significant attention has been given to the complex decorative lacquer finishes, the majority of traditional furniture produced during the Ming and Qing dynasties was finished with plain, undecorated lacquer.

Three basic types of plain lacquer include: 1) semi-transparent lacquer; 2) opaque lacquer, and; 3) clear lacquer. These are derived from raw lacquer that is tapped from the lacquer tree (Rhus Verniciflua), which grows throughout much of China. This freshly tapped substance is milky white in color and sticky. After exposure to light and air, it transforms to natural semi-transparent colors ranging from amber, purplish-red, reddish-brown, brown, and black. These and other variations in quality are attributed to tapping season, region of origin, and size of tree. Filtration, exposure to sunlight, and evaporative dehydration further results in a refined semi-transparent product. Pigments are also added to produce opaque lacquer; the addition of iron oxide yields black lacquer; and cinnabar, red lacquer.

Thin transparent lacquers (touming qi, qingshui, shuimo) were used to reveal and enhance the natural color and grain patterns of wood. Greater transparency was achieved through more extensive processing. Large trees as well as those from certain regions were also known to yield a naturally light-toned lacquer. Blends with refined tung oil also yield a transparent lacquer.

The clarity of processed natural lacquers degenerate over time, gradually reverting towards their original cloudy state. The old dark lacquer finishes that are frequently found on old furniture, in many cases, may well exemplify this process of degeneration.

Wax Finish
Throughout modern times, the use of wax polish has become a standard for refinishing antique Chinese furniture. This practice was commented upon by William Drummond, a furniture dealer who lived in Peking during the early 20th century.

The finish of exposed old woods in modern times was always beeswax applied with heat and rubbed to a transparent brilliance, making the wood look quite new, with no patina in the Western sense of continued care and repeated waxings.  In fact it was the cleaning and renewal of the wood surfaces, followed by waxing to give it a new look that caused much early concern about its age. Its classic design bespoke age, but the like-new condition and appearance of the wood itself led to uncertainties.

The use of wax may well have been introduced by Westerners living Peking at that time, as there is little evidence of its use in the ancient tradition of Chinese furniture making.

The 5th China International Export Antique Furniture and Decorative Artworks Fair
Shanghai Exhibition Center
May 18-21, 2006

Shanghai's China International Export Antique Furniture and Decorative Artworks Fair is the largest and most professional of its type in China. While the fair is largely focused towards the trade of reproduction furniture and other decorative furnishings, this year the organizers have dedicated an area for dealers of genuine antique furniture. The venue will also include a series of lectures by professionals. We look forward to seeing you at the Shanghai Shanju booth: D3. For further details, check out

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The newsletter is sponsored by Shanju Shanghai. Visitors to Shanghai are welcome to visit our new gallery near Jiangqiao. Browse our webpages at for details.
Classical Chinese Furniture

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