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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston



May 18, 1996 - May 18, 1999
Chinese furniture galleries, second floor


BOSTON, Mass. (May 15, 1996) -- On May 18, 1996, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston opened Beyond the Screen: Chinese Furniture of the 16th and 17th Centuries. The exhibition presents exquisite (and extremely rare) Chinese furniture from the latter part of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) within gallery space that has been designed to evoke the rooms and courtyards of a Chinese home of that period. This ongoing special exhibition showcases the elegant design and unparalleled craftsmanship of furniture that would typically belong to a scholar official or prosperous merchant. 

Beyond the Screen: Chinese Furniture of the 16th and 17th Centuries consists of over 130 objects including intricately carved standing screens, rose chairs and a canopy bed; sleek incense stands and armchairs; a chess board made of huanghuali (a fine hard wood imported from southeast Asia); and even large rocks, frequently displayed in Chinese homes. This exhibition was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and guest curated by Nancy Berliner, an expert on Chinese furniture.

HOME DESIGN In creating the exhibition, the MFA focused great attention on both the placement of rooms within a home as well as the placement of furniture within each room. “Visitors can walk through a reception hall, study, bedroom, and courtyards filled with furniture typical of 16th and 17th century China,” explains Nancy Berliner, guest curator of the exhibition. “Rarely does a Western audience get to experience what life was like in Ming China -- Beyond the Screen allows visitors to take a step back in time.” The typical Ming period home consisted of a group of buildings arranged around courtyards. Furniture within rooms was arranged according to centuries-old customs (e.g., a screen placed at a room’s entrance enhanced privacy and prevented the entry of evil spirits) and in accordance with the geomantic traditions known as feng shui. 
The architectural firm of Jung/Brannen Associates, Inc. designed the unique installation that places these elegant furnishings within the setting of an upper-class home from the Ming period. “The objective of the exhibition design is to create a contextual setting suggestive of the world in which the fine furnishings were used, and to evoke a sense of a Chinese domestic compound,” said Yu Sing Jung, Principal-in-Charge of Jung/Brannen Associates, Inc. “Visitors will feel they have entered a special space and experience the objects and craftsmanship from new perspectives.” 

FURNITURE DETAILS Chinese furniture from the Ming period is unusual for several reasons. First, its design was remarkably restrained and elegant. Second, it was usually constructed without nails or glue; pieces were held together by a complex puzzle-like joinery. Third, furniture was extremely portable. A table used in the dining room during meal time was then moved outdoors to courtyards and gardens. As a result, Chinese furniture was created to be folded or dismantled easily. Furniture parts were often marked with written characters to ease reassembly. The characters marking the four legs on a large table in Beyond the Screen read, 'the universe is vast and time is eternal' -- a line from a commonly practiced calligraphic essay. 
In addition to the furniture on display, the exhibition contains:

a magnificent set of miniature Ming furniture on loan from the Shanghai Museum of Art (these extremely rare wooden pieces, excavated from the 1587 tomb of Pan Hui and the 1589 tomb of Pan Yunzheng, were constructed on a reduced scale with proper proportions and used as burial objects); 
a workshop area of carpenters tools (e.g., a molding plane and chalk line); and 
replicas of Ming period furniture, including a chair and a footstool with rollers, for visitors to try. 

THE MUSEUM The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is one of the greatest encyclopedic museums in the world. Its outstanding collections, consisting of an estimated 500,000 objects, are drawn from eight curatorial departments. The Museum is a private, non-profit institution located at 465 Huntington Avenue in Boston.



May 18, 1996 - May 18, 1999
Chinese furniture galleries, second floor

Until the tenth century, most people in China sat on floor mats or low platforms. Chairs and high tables became popular only during the Song period (961-1279). Over the following 500 years, designs and structural techniques developed and matured until, by the late Ming period, a distinct and highly refined style had emerged. Arranged in Beyond the Screen is furniture in the wide variety of elegant styles that co-existed in China in the late 16th and 17th centuries.



  • Feng shui (pronounced fung shway), the Chinese art of placement of furniture and houses, is over 2,000 years old and is still widely practiced today.
  • The main buildings of Chinese homes traditionally face south; if they are facing a different direction, occupants often place a goldfish tank inside to bring prosperity.
  • Traditional Chinese homes are typically a group of buildings, arranged around courtyards and enclosed within high walls. Each room is often a separate building. Moving from room to room usually necessitates going out of doors and through a courtyard.
  • Screens or walls were often placed at the entranceways of houses and rooms to obstruct malevolent spirits and forces which only travel in straight lines.
  • Rocks are often found within Chinese homes on tables and in gardens representing a reverence for nature as well as symbolizing longevity.
  • One of the most favored woods used to make Chinese furniture in the 16th and 17th centuries was a purple sandalwood. A dark and very hard wood, it is so dense that it sinks in water.
  • Many intellectuals of the 16th and 17th centuries had furniture made from animated forms of root wood to reflect their interests in nature and Taoism.
  • The restrained, elegant designs of Chinese furniture heavily influenced both Chippendale and Danish modern furniture.
  • Socializing and visiting takes place in Chinese gardens while Japanese gardens are used primarily for meditation.
  • Chinese furniture is usually constructed without nails or glue. The pieces of wood are held together by complex puzzle-like joinery. Architectural structures were also built in this style.
  • Furniture was often easily dismantled for moving. The canopy bed in the exhibition breaks down into more than 20 pieces. Furniture parts were often marked with written characters to ease reassembly.
  • Folding stools existed in China as early as the 2nd century. By the 17th century, elaborate folding chairs, as well as folding tables and beds, were desirable furnishings.
  • Furniture was often moved about in Chinese households. A table was brought into a hall for dining at mealtime, then carried away when diners were finished. In nice weather, chairs and tables were taken outdoors to the courtyards and gardens. (In Beyond the Screen: Chinese Furniture of the 16th and 17th Centuries, some furniture is displayed in a setting evocative of the out-of-doors.)





Kawase Hasui - Pagoda in Moonlight
Pagoda in Moonlight
Kawase Hasui
Buy this Art Print

The Dawn of the Floating World 1650-1765: Early Ukiyo-E Treasures from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

by Timothy Clarke, et al Hardcover
The carnivalesque urban culture of Japan's Edo period is captured in The Dawn of the Floating World 1650-1765: Early Ukiyo-e Treasures from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.