Collecting guide: 10 things to know about classical Chinese furniture

Expert advice on everything from the most sought-after woods to the importance of climate control — illustrated with standout works from our sales

chinese furniture bed

An impressive and rare huanghuali 'Fu Lu Shou' six-post canopy bed, 17th-18th century. 86¼ in (219 cm) high, 81½ in (207 cm) wide, 48¾ in (123.8 cm) deep. Estimate: $350,000–550,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

The graceful forms and elegant silhouettes of classical Chinese furniture are loved by new and seasoned collectors alike. These sophisticated pieces elevate any interior space, and are a guaranteed conversation starter.

What is classical Chinese furniture?

Classical Chinese furniture refers to a wide variety of pieces made during the Ming and Qing dynasties, from the late 14th to the early 20th century. These forms include tables, cabinets, chairs, stools, beds, and smaller objects such as brush pots, cosmetic boxes and mirror stands — all furnishings found in a domestic space.

A large and magnificent imperial carved zitan mirror stand, Qianlong period (1736-1795). 36¼ in (92.1 cm) high, 32½ in (82.6 cm) wide, 19¼ in (48.9 cm) deep. Estimate: $80,000–120,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

How is classical Chinese furniture made?

Chinese furniture is made without any glue or nails. Carved pieces of wood are held together by complex mortice and tenon joinery. This sophisticated joining system creates seamless transitions between horizontal planes and vertical supports. Supports for arms smoothly continue through the seat frame to become the legs of a chair, and delicate overlapping joints form the gracefully arched crest rails of horseshoe-back armchairs.

Understanding how these joints hold a piece together will add to your overall appreciation of Chinese furniture. With great technical skill, master carpenters and cabinetmakers designed furniture with striking silhouettes and refined lines. The marriage of engineering and aesthetics created an artform still admired in the present day.

What types of wood are used in Chinese furniture?

Chinese furniture is made from a variety of woods, including tropical hardwoods, bamboo, and also decorated lacquer examples. 

Richly textured surfaces were often incorporated into furniture to provide a decorative element. Cabinet doors or table tops are the perfect canvas to showcase dynamic swirling grain or textured burl patterns. 

Of the various woods used in Chinese furniture, the most desired hardwoods are huanghuali and zitan.

A huanghuali trestle-leg table, 18th century. 37⅞ in (96.2 cm) high, 60¾ in (154.3 cm) wide, 14⅝ in (37.1 cm) deep. Estimate: $80,000–120,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

Huanghuali, known by its scientific name as Dalbergia odorifera, is a Chinese rosewood. Huanghuali is valued for its rich amber tones and abstract figural patterns, including the famed darker cluster markings known as ‘ghost faces’. It is a very durable material, impermeable to water and insects. The strength of the wood made this the ideal material to withstand the physical demands of the tenon-mortice construction of Chinese furniture.

Zitan belongs to the genus Pterocarpus and is a purplish-black, fine-grained hardwood. The density of the wood makes it especially suitable for fine and intricate carving. Combined with its jade-like, lustrous surface, this made it the preferred material for Imperial Qing Dynasty furniture, which favoured elaborately carved and highly ornamented works. 

Jichimu, literally translated as ‘chicken-wing wood,’ has a distinct grain that resembles bird feathers. Another admired wood is tieliimu, which is related to jichimu, and has a shorter, less dramatic feathered grain.

Why is Chinese furniture so valuable?

The market for Chinese furniture is material driven. It is a market that balances quantity and quality of material with beauty, rarity, and form. The more robust the members, and the larger the piece, or more material used, the more desirable the example and thus the higher price realized.

The prices of two similar-looking pieces from the same time period can differ by hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the material used.

A very rare green marble-inset huanghuali wine table, 17th century. 30⅞ in (78.4 cm) high, 28 in (71.1 cm) wide, 16⅛ in (41.0 cm) deep. Estimate: $150,000–250,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

The prices of two similar-looking pieces from the same time period can differ by hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the material used. 

In this material driven market, examples in huanghuali and zitan are the most sought after and yield the most exceptional prices. 

Learning how to properly identify the materials used in Chinese furniture takes time and patience. Examine as many pieces as possible – test their weight, look closely at colour and grain patterns.

What are the most popular chairs within Chinese furniture?

‘Official’s hat’ armchair 

The ‘official’s hat’ armchair is among the most powerful and monumental forms of classical Chinese furniture. The chair’s name references the curved crestrail, which resembles the winged official’s hat worn during the Ming period. The tall and supportive curved splat and elongated S-shaped arms encourage the sitter to sit in an upright regal posture, and the protruding crestrail with rounded ends behind the sitter’s head adds an imposing effect. 

A rare huanghuali 'Official's Hat' armchair, 17th-18th century. 40⅞ in (104.1 cm) high, 22½ in (57.2 cm) wide, 23¼ in (59.1 cm) deep. Estimate: $80,000–120,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

‘Southern official’s hat’ armchair 

The ‘southern official’s hat’ armchair differs from the ‘official’s hat’ armchair in that its crestrails continue into the rear uprights as opposed to extending beyond them. The continuous line of the crestrail joining the rear upright posts is achieved with a rounded, right-angle joint called a ‘pipe-joint,’ which is again used to join the curved arms to the front upright posts.

A pair of huanghuali 'Southern Official's Hat' armchairs, 17th-18th century. 44¼ in (112.4 cm) high, 24¼ in (61.6 cm) wide, 20¼ in (51.4 cm) deep. Estimate: $120,000–180,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

Horseshoe-back armchair 

The horseshoe-back armchair is one of the most iconic forms of Chinese furniture. The graceful curve of the crestrail and the gradual downward slope of the arms give the horseshoe-back armchair its refined appearance. The seamless curve is achieved by a sophisticated joint called the ‘overlapping pressure pin scarf joint’. Its rounded arms gently cradle a sitter, while also providing support for the elbows and arms.

A pair of huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, 17th-18th century. Each 40½ in (102.9 cm) high, 25¼ in (64.1 cm) wide, 21 in (53.3 cm) deep. Estimate: $100,000-150,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

What about classical Chinese tables?

Recessed-leg table 

The recessed-leg table is amongst the most well-known and immediately recognisable forms found in classical Chinese furniture. Tables of this elegant and restrained form, with the graceful splay of the legs, trace their origins to furniture design of the Song dynasty. The basic proportions were adapted to make large painting tables, smaller tables, benches and stools. The form is also referred to in the Classic of Lu Ban as a ‘character one’ table due to its similarity in profile to the single horizontal stroke of the Chinese character for ‘one’.

A rare marble-inset huanghuali rectangular corner-leg table, 17th century. 32¼ in (81.9 cm) high, 25⅜ in (64.5 cm) wide, 19¾ in (50.2 cm) deep. Estimate: $70,000–90,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

Painting table 

A painting table must have a broad enough surface to accommodate a large painting and accoutrements such as ink, ink stones, brushes and washers. Wang Shixiang, the distinguished scholar of Chinese furniture, defines a painting table as any table measuring 76 centimetres or 30 inches or more in depth. 

Kang table 

Kang tables were typically used atop a platform, a couch-bed or daybed. The kang table was used to hold tea, food or objects to be used while the sitter rested on the bed.

A 'Shagreen'-inset huanghuali corner-leg table, 17th century. 34½ in (87.6 cm) high, 43½ in (110.5 cm) wide, 20¼ in (51.4 cm) deep. Estimate: $15,000–20,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

What other forms should I look out for?

Sloping-stile cabinet 

The sloping-stile, tapered cabinet is among the most beautiful and elegant Chinese furniture designs. The very subtle splay of the legs lends a sense of stability and balance to the form while retaining a graceful and pleasing profile. The form was widely used in cabinetmaking throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties.

A huanghuali display cabinet, Late Qing Dynasty. 59¾ in (151.7 cm) high, 28⅞ in (73.5 cm) wide, 15¾ in (40 cm) deep. Estimate: $35,000–45,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

Compound cabinet and hatchest 

Compound cabinets and hatchests combine a large square-corner cabinet with a small upper cabinet and were often made in pairs. Garments and large items would have been stored in the lower cabinets, while smaller items would have been kept in the top chests, often requiring the use of a ladder due to their massive size.

A huanghuali display cabinet, 18th-19th century. 61¾ in (156.8 cm) high; 38¾ in (98.4 cm), 19⅜ in (49.2 cm) deep. Sold for $327,600 in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 22 September 2023 at Christie’s New York

What are the qualities new collectors should look for when purchasing Chinese furniture?

When approaching a piece of Chinese furniture, step back and take in the whole object. How does it interact with the space around it? Look at the silhouette and profile, the splay of the legs, the movement of the arms, the textured planes of the cabinet doors. Consistency of form is the first indicator of quality and condition.

A very rare pair of Dali marble-inset huanghuali 'Southern Official's Hat' armchairs, 17th-18th century. 36 in ( 91.4 cm) high, 21½ in ( 54.6 cm) wide, 16½ in ( 41.9 cm) deep. Estimate: $120,000–180,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

Condition is an important determining factor when it comes to value and also aesthetics. Given that Chinese furniture was used in daily life, it’s likely that even the most exceptional pieces have been restored, often in the form of patches to the wood, repairs to legs or arms, or reinforced joints. 

Don’t be afraid to look underneath a piece of furniture. To preserve the look of a piece, restoration is often concealed on its underside. The best way to understand what has been done is to turn it over.

How should classical Chinese furniture be cared for?

Chinese furniture is made from organic materials that react to their environment. In humid weather, wood expands, and in cold weather, it shrinks. Subjecting wood to unstable environmental conditions can lead to cracking panels and movement in the joints, among other problems.

Serious collectors install humidifiers and other forms of climate control in their homes. Maintaining the ideal humidity and temperature for the furniture will prevent damage and ensure that you will enjoy the pieces for years to come. 

Regular polishing by a trusted furniture restorer will help furnishings look their very best. Waxing the furniture not only gives the works their famed lustre; it also prevents the wood from becoming dry and brittle.

How do I fit classical Chinese furniture into my lifestyle?

Classical Chinese furniture can rhyme with almost any interior design or style. Its minimalist lines and architectural forms can be the striking counterpoint to a modern painting or contemporary room. Place a bold piece of sculpture on an incense stand. Position a daybed as a bench at the end of your bed. Center a kang table in front of a sofa.

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