Generally there are six primary recognized schools of Chinese furniture development:
From these six main styles, Suzhou, Guangdong and Beijing styles are considered the three main pillars. Shanxi, Ningbo and Shanghai are thus considered as secondary styles. And remember – its important to note that a “style” does not always necessarily correspond to a dating, particularly in the case of older styles which may have been continued to be produced in later periods.
Lets talk about the first of these: Suzhou Style Furniture.
Suzhou Style furniture is what most people today think of when we refer to Ming Style furniture. This is why it is often said that Ming Style furniture was born in Suzhou.
Sū shì jiājù
In Chinese, we call this “苏式” style furniture. Note that the first character 苏式 is the same character as 苏州 Suzhou – in other words denoting “su style” 苏.
Particularly popular was lighter colored woods, such as Huanghuali (黄花梨), Rosewood/Huali (花梨木), Iron Wood (铁力木) as well as Zitan (紫檀). To a lesser degree (and in later years), darker woods like Mahogany/hóngmù (红木) were used. Other hardwoods such as Ebony (乌木) Chicken Wing Wood (鸡翅木), Mulberry (柞榛木) and Burl Wood (瘿木) were used at times.
More “common” woods such as Beech/Southern Elm (榉木) and Nanmu (楠木) were worked with as well, however these common woods were not used for “court furniture.”
During the Ming Dynasty, furniture produced in Jiangsu Province, primarily in Suzhou, Yangzhou and Songjiang area (including Wuxi, Changshu, Nantong, Hangzhou & Nanjing, IE areas around the Taihu lake *) were sent up north via the Grand Canal to Tongxian (通县/ 通州) outside Beijing where it would be sent onward, either as tribute to the imperial court or dignitaries, and/or purchased by wealthy merchants.
Pieces were costly, due to both the expensive materials used and extremely high transport costs. According to records from that period, a pair of Huanghuali (黄花梨) tapered cabinets, could cost as much as a small courtyard home. Despite this fact, “Suzhou Style” became popular regardless and gained a reputation for quality, sophistication and beauty and stocks of the favored light colored Huanghuali (黄花梨) were still plentiful enough at the time to support the market.
* Also referred to as the “Jiangnan” (江南) region.
With an emphasis on clean lines, proportions and balanced simplicity, pieces were light and airy. Carvings and inlays were limited to small areas so as not to be excessive. The beauty of the woods was often highlighted rather than covered. Because of the high cost of the materials used, careful planning went into each piece in order to eliminate any waste. In contrast with craftsmen from the north and south, cuts were always made halfway through material, so as not to ever expose the joints. In keeping with this mentality, smaller items were produced as well, for example small boxes, chopsticks, brush pots etc again, so that no material would be wasted. Suzhou style continued into the middle of the Qing dynasty before gradually being replaced with more “ornate” designs.
** Images from here
Next up: Part 2: Cantonese (Guangdong) style.