volume 2 number 4

The stool was the earliest type of raised seating furniture in China. Throughout its long history, stool forms evolved with gradual developments and assimilations from foreign influences that migrated from Central Asia along the Silk Route. The folding stool from the Han dynasty has long retained the term ‘foreign seat’ (hu chuang); early platforms and other seat forms recall the waisted Greek pedestal and bear association with transmissions of Buddhism from India. By the Song dynasty, these influences had become fully integrated into the Chinese milieu of structural and decorative techniques.

The ubiquitous stool is wide ranging in its form, style, and quality, which also reflect the broad scope of its use. Large stools served as platforms to elevate figures of dignified rank or status. In formal groupings with chairs, the diminuative stool was a marker of subservient status. In casual gatherings, friends all gathered around to sit on stools without the pretension of hierarchical rank. Aside from seating, the multi-functional stool also served as a stand, step stool, low table and work bench.

Stools were commonly made of wood, bamboo, cane, root, porcelain and stone. High quality stools were made of precious hardwoods or finely finished with lacquer. However, of those made during the Ming and Qing dynasties, only the durable or well-cared for pieces have survived.

Webpages at <; explore the variety of traditional Ming and Qing dynasty stools with images from woodblock prints and paintings. A group of Chinese stools from the Shanju Shanghai Collection are also now on display at <>.

Of stools (wu) there are two types: square ones of (simianping) flush-sided construction and the long ones that can seat two people. Round ones should be large with four bulging legs. From antiquity are also those of cinnabar, black lacquer, or mother-of-pearl inlay. Bamboo and drum (taohuan) stools are all too common, and should be avoided.....Stools (deng) with narrow frame members are elegant; those made with Sichuan cypress panels and ebony frames are the most antique. Stools of black-lacquered softwood (zamu) are also acceptable.
~Wen Zhenheng, Zhangwuzhi (c. 1619)

Like the artistry and craftsmanship in wood furniture, paintings reveal that bamboo furniture-making techiniques were highly developed by the Song dynasty. Luohans seated in bamboo meditation chairs also suggest the parallel associations of common bamboo with asceticism and humility. Moreover, bamboo has long characterized the virtues of strength and endurance; it yields to the strongest winds without breaking; its hollow body has the capacity for usefulness, and its ascending nodules reveal the spirit of fortitude. Thus, bamboo was also popular amongst the aspiring Confucian scholar.

Amongst its myriad of uses, bamboo was commonly employed to make chairs, stools, beds, bookcases, tables, matting and curtains. Favorite types of furniture-making bamboo included golden bamboo, purple bamboo and speckled bamboo; the latter, with natural 'tear-drop' patterns.

Bamboo furniture constructions varied from simple to elaborate. Many were primitive constructions with frames of stout bamboo that were left open on the ends, and with strips of bamboo for panels and surfaces. Such works frequently appeared as common household furniture in the poorer rural regions. Although not of particular high quality, those with beautiful old surfaces exhibit an appealing charm.

Elaborate types were tightly packed with latticework or secondary inner frames. The horizontal surfaces often finished with black lacquer, and the ends may be capped with ivory or bone. The legs were sometimes composed of several lengths of bamboo pinned together rather one thicker growth. Such high quality works made with speckled bamboo were considered as tasteful luxuries, and were also used to furnish the Imperial Palace. See Piece of the Month.

Bamboo furniture was lightweight and was easily moved about. It was also well suited to the hot summer season when bamboo beds and chairs were brought out for use. The late Ming author Wen Zhenheng wrote, “The long summer is well suited for the open room…. A speckled bamboo daybed with bamboo matting placed along the north window provides an excellent place to rest…. Curtains of speckled bamboo hanging around the surrounding walls will make the room feel cool and refreshing.”

More information about bamboo furniture is now available at Materials: Bamboo.

Liang Yi Collection by Curtis Evarts
A Chinese/English edition of the Liang Yi Collection has recently been published. This Hong Kong based collection is now one of the largest hardwood furniture collections in the world. The updated catalogue set includes previously published works as well as one hundred additional works that were added to the collection over the past seven years. It is thematically organized as three books covering huanghuali furniture, zitan furniture, and small miscellaneous objects, each including related essays by the author. Liang Yi Collection is now available through the Chinese Furniture Bookstore.

Yin and Yang
For although the eccentric and the orthodox are opposed to each other, both should be mastered; and although the vigorous and the delicate are different, each should be used at the appropriate moment. If one loves the elegantly severe and dislikes the ornate, he will be one-sided when held up against the standard of comprehensive mastery. We are reminded of the two men of Xia, one boasting about his bow and another about his arrow, [not knowing that] with neither alone would it be possible to shoot
~Liu Xie (c. 465-522 AD), Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons

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Classical Chinese Furniture