Reader Question: what is this antique cabinet?


I get several emails each week asking for information on pieces. Questions regarding origin, value, age etc. Unfortunately I can’t answer them all, though  I do try to answer as many as I can. Anyway, here is one from the latest batch of emails in the interest that my answers can be shared with others who may have the same question.



“I found your website on Your background is very impressive! I thought, perhaps, you might be able to answer some questions for me about Chinese furniture, if you have time. I am interested in learning about a piece of furniture we got as a wedding gift. We were told that it’s a Chinese Antique cabinet. It’s 3″ X 3″ and about 2″ deep. Would you happen to know anything about this type of piece? Such as the approximate age, what it’s worth, etc? Any information would be greatly appreciated. There is a Chinese symbol on the front, at the bottom. I’m wondering what it means? I am attaching some pictures of the cabinet. It’s sitting by a window, so the lighting isn’t that great with my camera…”



These are often called “book cabinets” 小书箱/小书柜 (or also sometimes shrine cabinets) however these are just colloquial western names. Generally cabinets like these were not placed directly on the ground, and were often on the tops of both higher and lower cabinets or even low platform like stools. Often they were in sets and over the years, both the sets themselves as well as the tops/bottoms were separated and are now found as individual pieces. In fact, many smaller cabinets and low tables were in fact bases for larger trunks, shrines or other cabinets.


I have seen a few variations of these like the one from Gansu (see below) with the trunk built into the top of the cabinet. Personally, I find the most attractive ones being the top portions of compound cabinets,especially if they are still found as an original set. Usually the general proportions will give some clue as to the the type of cabinet it was placed upon, as can be seen in the image below.


This one looks northern in style and my guess would be Hebei or maybe Shandong region (or even a bit further south). Again, the images are not so clear but this piece does not look that old to me.The hardware is new. There is minimal signs of repair and little wear and tear. The doors in particular look as if they are made from new wood. I would put it at around 80 years old maximum. Its a very provincial softwood piece and its value is more aesthetic rather then monetary. The images are too dark and grainy to see clearly but I am guessing the character on the bottom is probably “Shou”  which essentially is longevity.  Its used a lot on these type of pieces. See here for more information.


chinese antique two door book cabinet from Gansu

painted furniture antique book cabinet from shanxi

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2 Comment

  1. Justin says:

    Is it just me or are antique pieces from the north less ornate than their counter-parts in the south?

  2. No, you are correct. There are of course exceptions but I tend to agree things from the south tend to be more carved, more ornate and generally more “over the top.”

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