This pair of cabinets, with their massive size, use of expensive and rare material, and auspicious iconography, would have created a lavish and rich interior space meant to project the wealth, power, and status of the family who owned them.
Constructed from the precious hardwood, zitan, the present pair of cabinets represents an extremely luxurious use of a rare wood that was highly valued during the Qing dynasty. The density of the wood makes this material especially suitable for fine and intricate carving and when combined with its jade-like, lustrous surface made this the preferred material for Imperial Qing-dynasty furniture, which favored elaborately carved and highly-ornamented furnishings. Access to this valuable material was strictly regulated by the Imperial workshops, and only the most important personages were granted permission to commission large-scale furniture in zitan. So prized and scarce was this material, that irresponsible usage or wastage of precious zitan could lead to severe punishment or fines.
Massive in scale and richly carved with auspicious animals, such as dragons, phoenixes and deer, the present pair of cabinets would have created an imposing and majestic interior space. Cabinets of this type were intended to serve as a central focal point of a room, and were commonly constructed in pairs and could be placed on opposing walls, flush with each other, or separated by a smaller piece of furniture. The present pair of cabinets is related to a pair of zitan compound cabinets and hat chests, richly carved with dragons in flight amidst clouds, located in the bedroom behind the Yang Xin Dian (The Hall of Mental Cultivation), and shown in situ in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum – 54 – Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Hong Kong, 2002, p. 296, pl. 249. This impressive display exhibits the sumptuous effect of an interior space furnished with highly ornate zitan furniture. A related pair of zitan compound cabinets and hat chests of almost identical proportions, also carved with dragons and bats, dated to the 19th century, was sold at Christie’s New York, 14-15 September 2017, lot 962.
The dragons, phoenixes, qilin, and deer carved on the paneled doors convey imperial power and auspiciousness. The qilin is an auspicious symbol of longevity, fertility and a wise administration, as it only appears during the reign of a benevolent ruler. It is also associated with the Confucian virtue of ren, as it is benevolent to all living creatures. Deer are associated with Shoulao, the Star God of Longevity, who is usually depicted accompanied by a spotted deer, crane, peach and pine tree. Deer are known to live for a long time and are believed to be the only animals that can find the fungus of immortality, and thus have become associated with long life.