The Chinese aesthetic, with origins dating back to 1500-1000 BCE, is rich in culture. From the structures they build to the everyday objects they use, there is a style in fashioning things that is distinctly Chinese. It has an enduring appeal that has permeated to neighbouring countries.
Singapore, a country that traces its roots to southern China, identifies a majority of its population as ethnic Chinese. Though culturally diverse in nature, Singapore is one of the few countries that presents a picture of Chinese culture. This is evident in their traditions and, more particularly, in the Chinese antique furniture decorating Singaporean homes.
The Artistry in Chinese Antique Furniture
Present in early periods, woven mats on elevated floors and low tables were already developing. Either intricately crafted or simply painted, these pre-Buddhist furniture appeared in the era’s artworks.
When Buddhism entered China in 200 CE, it influenced the way the Chinese chose to be seated. Sitting on a raised platform was reserved for dignitaries and honoured guests. Lightweight folding stools were adopted from nomadic tribes, and were heralded for their convenience. Adding design to function, woven hourglass-shaped stools soon arrived.
The Chinese aesthetic flourished during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). The ruling class began to use round and yoke back chairs and, in the dynasties to follow, different stools, benches and chairs became a common fixture. Recessed legs and waisted tables were new developments. The ruling class fashioned more complex designs distinguishing their status.
Untouched by Western influences, Chinese furniture used thick layers of lacquer finishes, detailed engravings and polished paintings while implementing practical elements of design. Large varieties of wood were imported when trade bans had been lifted, allowing finer, ornate pieces.
Experiencing Culture through Design
In ancient Chinese furniture, an Imperial era Chinese hall was referred to as ‘ting’. It traditionally followed specific furnishings: four tea tables in the center with a pair of chairs for each table, adjacent walls featured carved wainscoting, and the two remaining walls were left plain, adorned with panels hanging. Serving tables, clothes racks, folding screens and arhat beds lined the walls. The preferred choice of wood for hall furniture was mahogany, though Chinese pear wood, red sandalwood and blackwood were also used.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE), considered the golden era of ancient Chinese furniture, is rustic in design, yet well-made and stylish in appearance. This is due to the development of mortise and tenon joinery, along with the abundance of un-lacquered hardwoods in furniture making. The furniture from this period had set a standard: practical use goes hand-in-hand with design.
Decorating a particular space with Chinese antique furniture can depict a certain era’s art and culture. Completing a set and recreating a ‘ting’ can fetch a hefty price, but even a singular piece, like a decrepit armchair, can evoke the ancient beauty of the Chinese aesthetic.