Generally there are six primary recognized schools of Chinese furniture development:
Lets talk about the third of these: Beijing (Peking) Style Furniture.
Beijing style furniture was essentially a blending of Suzhou Style and Cantonese Style, yet uses less materials than the heavier Cantonese Style but still tended to be larger and encompassing more decorative elements like carvings than Suzhou Style. In addition, from a decorative and stylistic point of view, Beijing style furniture drew inspiration from Shang dynasty bronzes and Han dynasty stoneworks, incorporating these elements into furniture, thus creating a unique style.
Beijing (Peking) Furniture
jīng shì jiājù
Huanghuali (黄花梨) and Iron Wood (铁力木) were used particularly during Kangxi and earlier periods. Towards Yongzhengand Qianlong, as the supply of Huanghuali (黄花梨) began to be depleted, the darker colors of Zitan (紫檀) became more favored. Towards the mid to late period of the Qing dynasty (Jiaqing +), as the stocks of Zitan (紫檀) began to dry up, Mahogany/Hóngmù (红木), Hóng suān zhī (红酸枝) and other hardwoods (硬木) were used more frequently.
Other “lesser” woods such as old Elm (老榆木) and Camphor (樟木) were used as well by the common man, but again, not for “court furniture.”
As a capital city with a long history spanning multiple dynasties, a huge amount of wealth was concentrated in Beijing, and the demand for hardwood furniture outpaced the supply from the Jiangnan and Guangdong regions. Since both regions were far from Beijing, and in order to satisfy the production needs of the forbidden city, skilled craftsmen from the south were recruited to work in workshops closer to home in Jizhou (冀州), an area which covered parts of Hebei, Henan, and Shandong Provinces. Extremely ornate and financed by the palace, pieces were mainly high end and luxurious with inlaid gold, silver, jade, ivory, enamel and other precious materials. This emphasis on “bling” diluted the practicality and times pieces became almost purely decorative.
Furniture made in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) falls into two categories, either that created during the period or based on the previous Ming dynasty. Qing-style furniture began to take shape during the reign of Emperor Kangxi, and demonstrated its highest achievements during the era of Emperor Qianlong (1736-95). Its special style related to the prosperity of the Kangxi-Qianlong periods and the successful integration of the minority Manchurian rulers and the majority Han people. Qing dynasty workmanship is also reflected in the intricate design of furniture and other smaller items.
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Earlier styles were more restrained and elegant (closer to Suzhou Style) whereas later styles were more excessive and over the the top (closer to Cantonese Style). Carpenters preferred to select woods with deep color and rich texture, with no mixing and matching of different woods in the same piece and in order to maintain a consistent color, grain and appearance, when possible carpenters would often work from a single piece of wood.
A good portion of what we consider to be “Qing Style” is essentially Beijing style furniture.
Eventually, via the many dignitaries and court officials in Beijing, these styles would gradually flow out into the realm of more common folk, via Hebei craftsmen who make copies of court styles often using Mahogany/hóngmù (红木). These pieces would be considered the later period. Unlike the skilled craftsmen creating high end works of art for the palace, these local craftsmen produced this furniture as a means to an end, and often corners were cut and lesser, cheaper materials were used. Other times, in order to show off their superb skills, greater interpretation of designs was applied resulting in somewhat more “creative pieces.”
Note that Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei style (冀作) furniture, all belong to the same general genre and scope but not in the strictest sense.
Previous: Part 2: Cantonese (Guangdong) style.