Generally there are six primary recognized schools of Chinese furniture development:
Lets talk about the fifth of these: Shanghai Style Furniture
Often referred to as Old Shanghai furniture, this style covers the period of 1843 to 1949 (roughly 100 years). It encompasses 3 main flavors: European style (欧式海派家具), Japanese style (东洋装 / 日式海派家具) and Qing-Shanghai style (清式海派). Shanghai style furniture is the product born from the blending of Chinese and Western elements. Some designs are heavily influenced by Baroque and Rococo Styles, while others are pure imitations of typical western styles. Some are pure east-west hybrids.
Shanghai Style Furniture/
Old Shanghai Furniture
海派家具 hǎipài jiājù
老上海 lǎo shànghǎi
Earlier years used imported Thai and Indian Teakwood (柚木) and Oak (橡木) for “European style pieces.” Later years used Rosewood/Huali (花梨木), Mahogany/hóngmù (红木), , Cypress/Cedar (白木), Nanmu (楠木), Zitan (紫檀), Zhazhen/Mulberry (扎针木), cǎo huālí (草花梨木), and Eucalyptus (鉚桉木).
Before the 1840’ies, western style furniture was typically only seen in Beijing. However, after the treaty of Nanjing came into effect in 1843, large numbers of foreigners began to flood into the city. Western style buildings began to spring up and some western style furniture was also shipped into China from overseas. Because shipping was slow and costly, some western residents simply commissioned local craftsmen to make pieces based on their “western” design specifications. Naturally, local craftsmen gradually began to build up a core understanding of the stylistic and practical elements of “western furniture.”
Towards the late 1800’ies, affluent and middle class Chinese via gradually increasing exposure to western cultural influences, slowly began to adopt and integrate elements of this world into their own lives, ranging from clothing to home to lifestyle. And because actual western style furniture was still in short supply, in order to meet demand, further copies were made commonly using teak imported from Thailand and India (or at times using local Nanmu (楠木)).
Shanghai at the turn of the twentieth century was the place to be. Opium was all the rage, parties were wild, and decadence was a way of life. Journalist Stella Dong looks back on a city that in its heyday was a thrilling combination of Las Vegas, the Wild West, Paris in the ’20s, and Chicago during Prohibition. She captures the excitement of its most notorious years — the decades before Mao’s revolution — when the city was populated with bankers, gangsters, revolutionaries, drug traffickers, gamblers, world royalty, industrial magnates, celebrities, and heiresses.
Post 1895, brought about the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki (which ended the first Sino-Japanese war) and thus Japanese began to settle in the Hongkou District. As a result Japanese influenced furniture began to appear as well.
In addition, at the end of the 19th century/early 20th century, Shanghai began to produce western style furniture for export using Nanmu and other woods. These factories where either set up by foreign investors in Shanghai or by Chinese who were already specializing in the production of Western-style furnishings. Often the pieces produced in these workshops were more faithful reproductions of western designs, and pieces were produced working directly from drawings brought from abroad or under the direct supervision of foreign designers.
The early 1900ies was a period of great change for China which saw the beginnings of the republican era, a national revolution and The New Culture Movement. Against this backdrop of extraordinary upheaval, dynamism and the discarding of old ideas, around 1920 or so ordinary Chinese began to adopt the idea of western style furniture. A proper home was seen as not complete without the pursuit of a small car outside and western furniture inside. To meet this growing need, carpenters created pieces loosely based on western styles using Mahogany/hóngmù (红木) which was richly carved with flower and fruit patterns and meant to convey a certain level of status.
From 1930 onward, gradually the style further matured to include elements of both east and west (For example using a a Chinese foot on the body of a western dresser). From this period, the true essence of a new “Shanghai style” furniture was born. Production techniques and joinery become more western as well employing more modern hardware and veneering. Designs became more refined. This period is seen as the pinnacle of Shanghai-style Chinese furniture development. Designs from this era are sometimes referred to as 民國家具 or Republican style furniture. Art Deco style flourished during this period as well.
The shanghai furniture industry boomed up until 1939 when the Second Sino-Japanese War began. During that period, in order to survive, furniture makers restored old pieces, or repurposed old hongmu pieces as raw material slicing them into veneer material to overlaid on new pieces made from cypress (白木)
Previous: Part 4: Shanxi (Jin) Style.
Next: Part 6: Ningbo style.