When Francis Bacon remarked around 1620 that the world was being made over by printing, gunpowder and the magnetic compass, he did not mention that all three had appeared first in China. These days it is generally conceded that 11th-century China was at a level of economic development not achieved by any European state until at least the 18th century.
China was not only the equal of the Roman empire in size, but far ahead of medieval Europe in learning and technology. A century before Columbus and his fellow Europeans began to make their way into the New World, fleets of giant Chinese junks carried porcelains, lacquerware, copper coins and silks far and wide.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, which was the age of oak for woodworking joiners in Old England and the New World, Chinese cabinetmakers were working with the dark, closed-grained aromatic huanghuali -- a fine hardwood that has a translucent shimmering surface with abstract figured patterns that delight the eye -- its color ranging from reddish brown to golden yellow.
Even more highly prized than huanghuali furniture was that of zitan -- a wood that is extremely dense (to the point that it sinks in water) and laden with deep-red pigment that was used for dye.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, at the end of the Ming period (1368-1644) and the dawn of the Qing (1644-1911), the design and craftsmanship of Chinese furniture reached an unprecedented apex. Economic development, social mobility, a sharp rise in the interest in esthetics and the skills of the artisans, refined over many generations, all intersected for one elongated moment to bring the evolution of Chinese furniture design to its full radiant maturation.
The woodworkers were able to construct superbly designed and proportioned pieces without using nails, and with only a minimal use of dowels and glue. Today, over 300 years later, the elegant restraint and gentle lines of this furniture can still move those who contemplate, study and collect it. There is striking modernity in the simplicity and balanced lines of the surviving furniture from the Ming period.
In China's great cities during the Ming dynasty, those who could afford to do so created identities for themselves through their use of things. In the 16th and 17th centuries, these were often new and different kinds of things, things necessary and things luxurious, locally made as well as imported from afar.
Things that had only previously been available to a tiny minority came to be within the reach of a larger proportion of the population. Economically, China in the 16th century underwent a radical transformation through the development of proto-industrial enterprises such as ceramic and textile manufacturing.
As prosperity stimulated literacy among the populace, an increasing demand for printed books and works of art, including furniture, coupled with an upsurge in private patronage of the arts by wealthy officials and merchants, spawned the development of new regional cultural centers.
In the socially fluid and restless world of Ming China, where families and individuals could rise to fame and fortune and then plunge into obscurity and poverty quite quickly, possessions gave rise to one of the types of social meaning that were deployed in the struggle for prominence and security. Furniture was just one of the categories of goods so employed.
The history of Chinese furniture began, broadly speaking, sometime during the first millennium A.D. when, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, some Chinese decided they would be more comfortable perching on chairs than squatting on the floor. Prior to that time, the Chinese usually conducted their business and pursued their pleasures at floor level (as many Japanese still do).
As long ago as the third century B.C. the Chinese slept on raised beds, some of which were adorned with elaborate canopies. The Chinese raided bed, or chuang, apparently also served as a chair, since Hang dynasty (2020 B.C.-A.D.220) reliefs and wall paintings show men seated cross-legged on them.
The ancient Chinese were also familiar with at least one all-purpose fixture that would today be called a built-in unit. This was the kang, a hollow brick platform heated in winter by interior flues. The kang, which usually ran the length of a wall, was a combination sleeping platform, bench and stage from which a gentleman would entertain his guests over a cup of tea.
But it was the introduction of the chair that provided the real impetus for the rise of Chinese furniture. A table, for example, is more hindrance than help to a man sitting on a bamboo mat, but it becomes more or less indispensable when the same man is elevated 18 or 20 inches above the level at which he usual rests his teacup. The unwonted eminence brought about by the chair necessitated, therefore, the development of other pieces of furniture, built to proportionate heights.
Furniture can be classified according to its function into four groups: stools and chairs, tables, beds, and shelves and cabinets. Furniture frames in Chinese cabinetmaking tend to be pieces of wood, which are mitered (fitted together at a 45 degree angle) in construction at the corners and fastened by a mortise and tenon joint.
Typically these mortises are cut right through the wood so that the tenons are exposed. Chairs made prior to the 18th century show evidence of originally having had a soft, upholstered seat of woven matting. Chairs of the Ming period have a curved splat, or backrest, to increase the comfort of the sitter. The S-curve in the splat is a feature seen in Chinese furniture several centuries before it makes its first appearance in Europe.
The very fact that some of these chairs survive in pairs suggest something of the symmetry ideally aimed for in Chinese room arrangements. As in our own culture, inviting a guest to sit was an important social gesture.
Two of the most important hardwood furniture types were the couch (or ta) and the bed (or chuang), both of which were given prime importance by the Ming writers on taste. If the couch dominated the male study, then the canopied bed, with its rich silk hangings, was the center of life for the female members of rich families, the platform on which they spent much of their time.
Both couches and beds had existed before the change to high seating from the eighth century and they remained surfaces on which people knelt or squatted, as well as reclined. The full visual effect of a Ming bed is inseparable from its textile hangings.
Canopy beds have railings or balustrades, like those commonly on bridges seen in Beijing gardens, and exist in many variations. Very large Ming period beds stood on platforms, and footstools were generally placed in front of the bed.
The adoption of the chair in the domestic life of the Chinese naturally brought with it the need for a raised platform at which the sitter could eat, read, write and carry out other activities. This meant the development of the high table, which like the chair is unique in the domestic life of the Chinese among the peoples of East Asia.
Surviving Chinese rectangular tables today are divided into two useful categories of an (tables with set-in legs) and zhou (tables with legs at the corners). The plain rectangular tables seen in Ming woodblock illustration show them in use for casual meals, as a writing desk, and as a table set against walls for the display of flowers and ornamental pieces.
Since so much of the informal activity of daily life took place on the large canopied bed, a large rectangular table generally stood at the side of the bed, ready to be moved in front of it at any time for dressing, casual dining, writing and painting surfaces, or simply as something to lean on while lying on the bed.
The basic constructional unit of the Chinese table remains the mitered frame with a central floating panel formed of one or more planks. Below the top is a plain strip or apron, held in place only by the legs. Sometimes the table legs are connected on all four sides by stretchers, which counteract the tendency of the legs to splay when downward pressure is applied to the top, and the legs terminate with bulging feet knows as mati (horse hoofs).
Clothes cupboards were the largest pieces of Chinese furniture made, some at well over eight feet high; ladders were needed to reach objects stored in the upper compartments. The doors are mounted on external metal hinges.
These cupboards often had upper display sections suitable for the display of antique bronzes, jades and curios, with lower storage sections used to house stiff and heavy silk garments. Many of these large cupboards are distinguished by brass metalwork chased with designs of butterflies and dragons.
The first recorded Western notice of these cupboards of very large size was the observation in a Canton household in 1556 by the Portuguese Dominica Gaspar da Cruz:
Entering in the fist of these houses (which is large) it has therein some huge cupboards very well wrought and carved, but the work is more for strength and durability than for show. They have likewise chairs with shoulder backs, all made of a very strong wood and very well made, in such wise that their furniture is durable and of great repute and credit, which endures for their sons and grandsons.
The greatest development of Chinese domestic furniture took place in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when plain hardwood furniture was free from pretense, manifesting purity, simplicity and a respect for organic substance. Ming furniture, consequently, has a strong influence on contemporary design.
Chinese craftsmen, while creating ornate furniture, were also quite familiar with what modernists call functionalism. Hence many pieces of antique Chinese furniture can now be combined harmoniously with modern interiors.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.