Suzhou-Style Furniture

Feb 27, 2019

In the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing there is an elaborate rosewood bed made specialy for foreign heads of state. It is made of 112 pieces of rosewood panels with 204 dragon designs. There are also copper decorations of flying dragons. The smallest dragon is only 2/3 of the length of a match stick. The most striking thing is that there is a huge “福” character meaning felicity in the middle of the top of the four main panels. You can see six coiled dragons on it if you look closely. This bed was made by the Suzhou Wood Carving Factory. It fully represents the features of rosewood furniture and rosewood carving produced in Suzhou.
The development of Chinese furniture was a long process of evolution. The idiom “席地而坐” meaning “sit on the ground as if it were a mat” in Chinese actually comes from the fact that ancient Chinese people used mats as seats or bedding. Mats were the first furniture that emerged in China. Then, during the Pre-Qin Period (about 2,500 years ago), a kind of simple table, made of two upright boards and one horizontal board in the form of the letter “H,” emerged. In the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) beds came into fashion and tables developed into different types like dining tables, study desks and office desks. In the period covered by the Wei and Jin Dynasties and the Southern and Northern Dynasties (265-581), Chinese furniture absorbed foreign elements and forms. New types of furniture, such as box-type square stools, hour- glass round stools, benches, foldable chairs and roped chairs, emerged. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907) high tables and chairs started to be used in China. People now had seats from which they could lower their feet. However, these seats were still in a transitional status in form and structure. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279) China entered an age in which high furniture was popular, especially in various gathering places, such as restaurants, teahouses and stores. After Emperor Gaozong (高宗) (1127-1130) removed his capital to South China, he recruited skilled craftsmen to build and equip his palaces. His efforts promoted the improvement of the technical standards of housing architecture and furniture production. At the time, there was a famous craftsman in Suzhou named Zhan Cheng (詹成) who was good at making furniture and small rosewood articles, and particularly redwood carvings. It is said that he invented the modeling of long tables. The tables he made show an antique and simple form; they are concise and clear in structure and show exquisite workmanship. This is called “Zhan’s style.”
In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the economy and culture south of the Yangtze River was already highly developed. We know from archeological research that there were dozens of furniture types in Suzhou during the Jiajing (嘉靖) (1522-1566) and Wanli (1573-1620) reign periods. Most of them are made of high quality timber such as palisander, padauk, nanmu and beech. At the time, government officials and intellectuals favored such furniture, and even directly participated in instructing, making and commenting on such furniture. For example, The Records of Various Articles (《长物志》) written by Wen Zhenheng (文震亨) describes the forms and styles of the furniture that was popular at the time, and rates their quality. Yuan Bian (元汴), Zhou Tianqiu (周天球), Gao Shenfu (高深甫) and Yan Daoche (严道 澈) personally designed such furniture. To some extent, such a situa- tion changed the status of natural development based on the work of craftsmen. With the input of such opinions from scholars, “Ming-style” furniture was gradually created, which combined art with science, and possessed simple, proportional and beautiful features. Because such furniture was invented in the region south of the Yangtze River centering on Suzhou, it was also called the “Suzhou-style” and became the main form of furniture at that time.
The stylistic features of such Ming-style furniture can be summarized by four words “conciseness, line domination, elaboration and elegance.” Conciseness refers to concise modeling that does not pursue splendor and complexity; line domination refers to the prominent use of lines elaborate workmanship and rational structure; and elegance refers to an elegant and composed artistic concept, and overall harmony. Ming-style furniture has another prominent strength in its structure, namely the rational use of mortise, tenon and peg. These things make furniture firm and endurable so that it can last several hundred years without any damage. There are over 20 types of commonly used tenon and wedge structures, such as lattice corner tenon, rice pudding corner tenon, exposed-end tenon and hiddenend tenon. Such tenons and wedges will not split no matter how roughly the furniture is used. Different parts of Ming furniture have curvatures and proportions that match human physiological conditions.
Qing-style furniture has its own unique features which are complete- ly different from the simple, elegant and graceful intellectual artistic concept of Ming-style furniture. During the Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (雍正) (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795) reign periods, the imperial court of the Qing Dynasty pursued luxury and magnificence. Popular furniture items of these times show thick and heavy modeling, massive size, and intricate decoration and carving. Some also have mother-of-pearl inlays or embeddings of other materials. Although such furniture has rich decorative beauty, some feels showy and unsubstantial because of excessive additions and affected carvings.
There were also numerous types of furniture worth mentioning produced during the period of the Republic of China. For example, Zhao Zikang (赵子康), a wood carving artist who also worked on furniture, exhibited unconventional creativity and carved a series of pictures of the “Tang Buddhist Monk’s Journey to the West for Scriptures” on an elaborate altar in the Divine Rock Temple.
In recent years, a large group of very exquisite furniture artworks have been created using Suzhou’s carving techniques. In 1986 the Nine-Dragon Floor Screen, twom tall and 1.62m wide was completed in Suzhou. In addition to the traditional Suzhou style, it also presents new explorations in production technology. It consists of the four parts of “Cap Patterns,” “Screen Picture,” “Patterned Board,” and “Corner Insert.” Three dragons on the screen were made using the wood piece gluing technique for the first time, so that the dragons’ heads rise out of the surface in a cubic form. Thus the artwork achieves an extremely strong artistic effect. Suzhou craftsmen have often been recruited for difficult projects in China. In 1989 the furniture in the Happiness Collecting Mansion and the gallery in Puyi (溥仪)’s Puppet Imperial Palace in Changchun (长春), needed to be restored. The project included 57 pieces of furniture in eight main rooms, including Puyi’s bedroom, studio and Buddhist prayer room, and Empress Wanrong (婉容)’s bedroom. After craftsmen from Suzhou completed the project the furniture was basically restored to its original look, winning high praise from experts. Later, craftsmen from Suzhou made three large exquisite rose- wood carved floor screens for the Purple Light Tower in the Zhongnanhai Lake compound in Beijing. These artworks look elegant, splendid, sedate and solemn, display the superb techniques of the Suzhou masters and have won praise from the leaders of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. In 2011 the Suzhou Lacquerware Carving Factory broke the convention that traditional solid wood carving should not have a large area. On a 2.1m high and 7m wide five-panel screen, the factory carved the Painting of a Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, a masterpiece by Huang Gongwang (黄公望), a famous painter and calligrapher of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The burin was used in place of the brush to delicately represent the traditional Chinese painting technique and artistic concept of the original work. Sheng Zubao (盛祖宝), a senior craftsman of Changshu (常熟), known as the “King of Lion Carving,” spent five years carving 1,000 lions with lively modeling and different poses on a padaukwood round table. This “One Thousand Lion Platform” won a gold prize at the China Folk Art Exposition.

About the Column

Carving Arts in Suzhou

Carving Arts in Suzhou is a book compiled by the Information Office of Suzhou Municipal People's Government and published by Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd. The good things in Suzhou are hidden and living freely in it without giving any hint of their existence. So you need to make extra efforts if you really want to get an eye-opening experience in Suzhou.

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