In the traditional Chinese domestic setting, the bed is among the most important pieces of furniture. Its large size meant that it would dominate the bedroom, and was probably the most expensive item to commission, due to the large amount of timber used. A canopy bed served multiple functions, offering not only a place to sleep at night but also to act as a center of activity during the day. Curtains were hung from the canopy frame, providing a private, intimate, and warm place to sleep. During the day, the curtains were drawn to the side, and the bed functioned as a couch; sometimes a side table was pulled up to the frame of the bed, or a kang table could be placed directly on the mat itself, offering a surface for tea or wine, small meals, or board games.
In contrast to the day-bed (ta) or couch-bed (luohanchuang), which were often found in men’s scholars studios or bedrooms, the canopy bed was generally associated with the female setting. The canopy bed would have been the most important part of a woman’s dowry when she wed, and in the cases of divorce, was one of the items of property she would have retained. The bed’s most important function in the female setting was for the conception of children, particularly sons. As such, the Lu Ban jing, the Ming-dynasty carpenter’s manual, cites the bed as the only piece of furniture which should be built according to astrological considerations, taking into account, for example, auspicious days of the year to ensure the conception of sons.
The form of the canopy bed subtly mirrors traditional Chinese architecture, and likely developed from the application of the same set of skills; many of the complex joins found in Chinese furniture are derived from architectural carpentry techniques. When viewed from the front, the basic form of the six-post canopy bed in particular emulates the appearance of a traditional three-bay building, with the posts standing in for columns and the latticework railings echoing openwork balustrades. The curtains, too, with the ability to easily transition between opened and closed, mimic the removable lattice window screens of a hall, which in summer could be removed to allow the breeze to carry through the room. As such, the bed was in essence a room within a room, allowing for privacy when needed and serving as a social hub during the day.
The platform bed as a form was well established as early as the late Eastern Zhou period (770-221 BC), as evidenced by the folding platform bed discovered in tomb no. 2 at the Chu-kingdom site of Baoshan in Hubei province, illustrated by N. Berliner in Beyond the Screen: Chinese Furniture of the 16th and 17th centuries, Boston, 1996, p. 43, fig. 9; in this early example, the openwork railings already resemble the balustrades of a hall. Free-standing canopy frames are known by at least the Western Han period (206 BC-AD 25), and it is only in the Ming dynasty that they become integrated into the frame of the bed itself.
The form of the present bed is very rare as only one other known example displays a four-flush-sided base section, that being the huanghuali alcove bed in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, illustrated by S. Handler in Ming Furniture in the Light of Chinese Architecture, Berkley, 2005, p. 69. There is also a miniature model of an alcove bed from the Ming-dynasty tomb of Pan Yunzheng that closely resembles the Nelson-Atkins example, although with a waisted frame, illustrated by S. Handler, ibid., p. 150, cat. no. 30a. Both examples notably have a similar wan motif in the lattice railings to that of the present bed, which reflects a desire for longevity.