In Europe, Chinese furniture meant exquisite lacquerwork and fanciful carving, but in much of China itself another, contrasting tradition of furniture making held sway.
There are two basic traditions in Chinese furniture. In the south of China, with its warm, semi-tropical climate, bamboo and lacquerwork hold sway. The latter is not only decorative but able to resist infestation from wood-eating insects. Pieces like this, imported to Europe since the 16th century, have helped to define oriental furniture in Western eyes.
Less well known is the furniture tradition of northern China, which had its Golden Age in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Abundant hardwood forests led to a style of furniture making which relied on simple, elegant design and the natural beauty of wood for much of its effect, though there were ornately carved inlaid pieces for imperial and noble use.
Pictorial records show that until about the third century, daily life in China was conducted at floor level on a low platform called a k'ang. People sat on straw mats and slept on thickly padded quilts. By the time of the Ming dynasty, most furniture was made for people sitting in chairs, although the k'ang tradition co-existed peacefully with this.
To Western eyes, Chinese rooms were sparsely furnished. Every piece of furniture was precisely aligned and ornamentation was never admired for its own sake. Construction was as straightforward as design, and based almost entirely on concealed mortise and tenon joints; sudden changes in temperature made glue and dovetails impracticable, while nails and screws were never used.
Timbers were almost always used in the solid, rather than as veneers, and given a high wax polish. Flat metal mounts and hinges of a plate brass alloy provided an attractive contrast. Metalwork was sometimes set flush with the wood and fixed to it with wires passed through a small hole; occasionally the wires formed a looped handle on the outside.
Carved decoration was largely confined to openwork friezes, railings, brackets and spandrels of lattice or 'cloud' design. Among other attractive decorative features were simple bevelling and beading and both concave and convex borders.
As the slow-growing trees used for hundreds of years began to get scarcer in the 19th century, Chinese furniture makers turned increasingly to quicker-growing, less densely-grained timbers. This 19thcentury piece is made of softwood and lacks the rich, waxy sheen of earlier pieces, but still shows important traditional features such as contrasting metal mounts, decorative exterior hinges and simple carved decoration in the form of a blind frieze.
There has never been a fad for Chinese hardwood furniture in the West, and it is rarely encountered, except in families with some past connection with the country. An exception to this general rule are the pieces - mostly plant stands and display cabinets - which were made purely for the export market towards the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, these were often over-carved and rather shoddily constructed.
High-quality Chinese hardwood furniture, a opposed to the more popular lacquerwork, remains a specialised taste, and you won't come across it except at large auctions with an oriental theme and at antiques shops specializing in Chinese and Japanese items.
The most common woods used were species of rosewood. The best pieces were usually made of blackwood (hung-mo), a dense, heavy wood with a rich dark colour, or richly-coloured huang hua-li, which has been unavailable since at least the 19th century.
A popular, cheaper material was chickenwing which has a very marked grain and varies from greyish-brown when fresh to a dark coffee colour when mature. Cedar was used for lighter-coloured pieces, while dark camphor-wood, which has insect-repellent qualities, was in demand for clothes chests.
If you're considering buying a piece of Chinese furniture, be sure to get one with well-coloured wood. Make sure the thick layers of wax polish are undamaged. Much of the appeal of old hardwood furniture is in its finish, and this can be difficult to restore. Any metalwork should be neither badly tarnished nor over-cleaned and new-looking.
The mortise and tenon joints may be loose. A certain amount of play is acceptable, but obviously you should avoid purchasing furniture that it is falling apart. On the other hand pieces that have been put back together with epoxy resin or other 'superglues' so that they are rigid are unacceptable. Damaged furniture is best avoided; it's difficult to match colour and grain when making repairs.
Dating hardwood furniture is generally a matter of style. One tip is that all curved borders were hand-shaped, even in the 19th century. A clean-cut edge indicates that a piece is of modern manufacture.