Recently we restored a late Ming dynasty square table from Shanxi province. Beautiful table and I thought it might be interesting to show the images of the cleaning process occurs which primarily involves a careful wet sand. Known in Chinese as 打水磨, its a unavoidable part of any antique restoration.
Its always interesting to see the progression from idea to reality. When people come to me with raw ideas, my task is to walk them through process from the initial concept to final product. Usually that’ means helping them determine on the specific requirements, narrowing down the details and deciding on the “overall look and feel” before making the final selection. This is generally step one (aside from determining their budget, delivery time etc). The rest of the “magic” then occurs on the back end – and believe me it is magic. Actually sometimes it feels like a mix of art and voodoo if anything. From controlling quality, to anticipating unknown variables to understanding materials, construction and finishes the process is exceeding more complicated then most imagine. But the final product, especially when it finds its new home with a happy customer usually makes it worth while.
In this example, the customer wanted a sideboard that while based on an antique incorporated contemporary elements. Step two is usually narrowing down the specific style or “look of the piece.” Since nothing stood out to this customer from within our existing designs, we looked through various examples of antiques from which to build upon. Eventually we selected four pieces which had elements which appealed to them. Of course, none of these antique cabinets fit their needs exactly in terms of style, design and color/finish but rather provided us with a template in which to build upon.
Eventually we decided that we like the look and proportions of B and the size and configuration and of C. We also need to have fold back doors to allow for the maximum accessibility within the lowed compartment. Armed with this information, step three is the actual design drawing, where very specific dimensions must be worked out and checked by the carpenter. After all, carpenters work from detailed drawings specifying every measurement. They don’t work from vague ideas. While some customers do have drawings most do not. And many times when customers do have a drawing it either lacks the detail necessary for the carpenter or it does factor in specific materials and construction issues. Anyone can do a drawing but a drawing that makes sense in terms of carpentry is a different matter. Note that I have deleted the dimensions on the example below. After all, if you want to make a similar cabinet yourself, then you will need to work out the dimensions on your own. Joinery is not shown here either as it was not necessary in this case as the carpenters themselves will choose the specific joinery based on tradition construction methods.
We all love antiques, but I must admit, I see so many of them (obviously much more the average Joe). So once in a while, its refreshing to come across something completely new – even if it is with an old twist.
And this is why recently, I have really enjoying crafting these chrome-hybrid creations from stainless steel for some of our more stylish customers. Both trendy yet elegant, these are classical Chinese furniture designs reproduced in contemporary materials.
Encompassing elements of both past and present, the designs prove to be timeless, even when replicated in modern contemporary stainless steel. Eventually these will be “tomorrows antiques.” That’s the way I prefer to think of it anyway.
And while the materials may have been updated for today’s world, much like antiques, design proportions, details and craftsmanship are crucial elements. However, this is easier said then done. I have seen some poorly designed, ill proportioned cheap looking stainless steel furniture. Minimal attention to detail, wrong proportions, shoddy workmanship. Done wrong= cheap furniture. Done right = art.
Being out on the web, I get so many emails from people asking for help identifying pieces, woods, etc. I would love to be able to reply to them all, but its just not possible (hey – anyone want to pay me for this? ) But this particular one which came in a few days ago caught my eye:
“I came across your excellent website and was wondering if you’d be able to help me with a cabinet I recently purchased at auction. I would have happily said it was the usual modern copy except the hand painted panels are very unusual and too much effort has gone into them. A Chinese friend has translated them and they seem to tell the story of a girl asked to join the communist party to route out the enemy. I’ve never seen such panels on a Chinese cabinet before and guess its 1950′s just after the revolution. Given your experience in the matter I was wondering about your take on them and if you have seen similar pieces before? Is it a modern fake etc or a patriotic country piece?”
The short answer would be yes, the cabinet is old with more recent paintings likely applied in the late 1960ies on top of the original ones. But that’s the short answer. To properly answer this question, we need to rewind back to the late 1960′ies/early 1970′ies during the time of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, or more commonly referred to as simply “the cultural revolution” For those who are unaware of this unique period in China’s recent history, then STOP HERE.
You need to first have some brief historical background on these events and so have read at the wikipedia page on the cultural revolution. We will also discuss the role of the “red guards“ (紅衛兵) which you will already be familiar with (again – having already at least scanned the wikipedia page). In past posts we have also discussed the “great leap forward” and its effect on Chinese antiques, so again pause and have a quick read on this subject before moving forward. Both events are significant and had a devastating effect on Chinese antiques. I could easily sidetracked here as these are fascinating historical periods. So we will keep it simple and stick with discussing the “destruction of the four olds” campaign (破四旧立四新) and how it effected Chinese antiques.
“The Four Olds” (破四旧立四新) were essentially old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas, with the reasoning that these “four olds” were responsible for the holding back of China’s development. Of course, today now know these events were in reality essentially just an internal power struggle. Nevertheless, this was not a very good time be an antique or even an owner of antiques. While numbers have never been completely tallied or estimated, massive incalculable damage was sustained to all of China’s antiquities and cultural heritage. Antiques were destroyed and/or confiscated (and in some cases simply stolen) by the red guards (紅衛兵) who searched and ransacked homes of those considered to be bourgeois. Chinese literature, scrolls and other classics were burned, paintings torn apart, murals defaced and priceless antiquities shattered to pieces. Even families’ long-kept genealogy books and ancestor paintings were confiscated or worse, burned to ashes. Tangible history in large batches was lost forever.
Nothing was safe. In addition to attacking and destroying private property, the red guards went after (and often succeeded) public property as well. Libraries were ransacked, monuments destroyed or severely damaged and religious sites and tombs of historical figures were desecrated. In Beijing, Red guards stored the Ming Dynasty tomb of Wan Li and destroyed not only priceless artifacts but the emperor and empress’s remains were then publicly denounced and burned. According to the book “Mao’s Last Revolution” by the end of the cultural revolution, 4922 of the 6843 sites in Beijing officially designated as of “historical interest” had been destroyed. The forbidden city only barely managed to escape this mass chaos.
In one of the worst acts of vandalism towards a priceless cultural relic, over 200 students from Beijing Normal University traveled by train in 1966 to the 2000+ year old temple of Confucius in Shandong with the express aim of thoroughly demolishing it. While the temple itself survived, over 6618 cultural artifacts from paintings to scrolls to graves were destroyed. Documented in the images above and below, these photos are striking as they depict red guards vandalizing the temple. Today this very same temple is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Super quick post regarding a recent discussion I was having about cleaning antiquities, particularly those which would have been buried underground. While there are many highly specialized and scientific ways to authenticate a piece (for example TL testing), there are also some very practical clues one can look out for. For example dirt. When an item has been buried underground for millenia, the soil itself will likely take on certain characteristics, which are easily seen when compared to some of the more obvious fakes. There are differences in climates to account for but a general rule is that dirt does not equate to age. Fakers, particularly in the case of lower end fakes, will opt for lots of dirt under the assumption that the uninitiated buyer will equate dirt with age. This is particularly true with pottery, earthenware and ceramics, though holds true to a degree with furniture as well. So lets quickly compare the soil compacted on the surfaces of both an authentic piece and an obvious reproduction.
The fake on the left is about 2 years old. The jar on the right is about 2000 years old. Notice the extreme differences in the soil compacted on the surface of each jar? The fake has had mud compacted on its surface to simulate burial. Its dry, crumbly and peals away easily leaving little residue. It feels more like its been sunk into a muddy field for a short period of time, rather then in a tomb for several thousand years. The one on the right is covered in a thick, very finely compacted build up of hard soil. Nor does it crack away easily. This is the product of gradual build up over a very long period of time. Its completely dried out, yet extremely dense and does not remove easily.
(The following is a few slides from one my classes on Chinese Antiques. Sooner or later I hope to post all the slides here along with videos.)
A Bit of Background
The Great Leap Forward was a socialist mass movement designed to harness China’s enormous peasant labor force in order to rapidly transform China from an agrarian society into a modern industrial society. The main goal was to simultaneously surpass England and “catch up” with the United states in terms of economic and living standards All this within 15 years! Rapid industrialization and collectivization were the primary strategies.
Some Facts and Figures
I must be careful here not to get sidetracked as the history is fascinating. So, in order to stay focused, I will touch on the main points only (despite my strong desire to get lost in such a interesting part of China’s history).
- In 1957 steel production in China was approximately 5 million tons. In comparison, steel production in the United States was around 102 million tons.
- It was hoped that the target of 80 million tons of steel would be met or exceeded by 1962, in other words within five years.
- All farms were gradually collectivized into “people’s communes,” essentially rural collectives of sometimes up to 5,000 families.
- Mao believed that the production targets could be achieved using small traditional blast furnaces throughout the countryside, often in the communes that had recently been established.
- Part this plan called for people to make steel by smelting scrap metal reclaimed from farm and/or household items such as pots and pans.
Unfortunately the plan was a disaster. Most of the pig iron produced could not be turned into usable steel for industrial use and was a total waste. And because farmers were encouraged to make steel rather then tend to crops, harvests were missed and crop yields declined which eventually led to country wide famine. It is said that up to 45 million people starved over the next few years. Entire mountainsides were stripped of trees to provide fuel for the furnaces. Farming tools such as rakes and shovels were lost to the furnaces as were millions of pots and pans.