(Source: Courtesy Sotheby's, 2009)
On Sotheby's Hong Kong Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Autumn Sale 2009 the highest selling price was tagged by an imperial throne. [Image 1] The final bidding price of the throne from Qianlong period soared to $11,068,193 in the room and broke the world auction record of Chinese furniture. (CNN, 2009) It was also a testament to the growing interest in Asian furniture and Asian inspired interiors.
This paper critically evaluated the aesthetic contribution of this throne and traced the influences and roots of the materials technology used in its design. It focused on the use of materials and explaining the special meanings of different patterns that were carved into the throne. Meanwhile, according to this Qing style throne, this paper generalized the differences furniture styles between Ming and Qing Dynasties. With regard to this piece of design work, critical thinking that reflects to the furniture design industry was interpreted in the end as well.
This imperial throne, which is called ‘Wave Yunlong', was elaborately carved using the superior selection of the rare rosewood named ‘Zitan'. It was the biggest Zitan throne in the auction market so far measuring about 140.50cm long (CNN, 2009).
Zitan [Image 2] is a member of rosewood family. It is precious wood and mainly grows in semitropical zone. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) Because of the hard characteristics and dense grain with delicate crab claw veins, it is the first choice when making top class furniture. It is majestic, elegant and ever-lasting that can be inherited from generations to generations. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) Over long period of use, oxidization, polishing and waxing would cause the wood shining and become red purple or black purple. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) Zitan is a kind of tropical plants that grows very slowly in Southeast Asia. This species is very scarce because a piece of Zitan wood only can be used after hundred years of growth. However, only the layers between skin and flesh can be used to make furniture. (Santos, R. P., Spironello, W. R., De Tarso Barbosa Sampaio. P, 2008) Therefore, there is a saying since ancient times that inch Zitan worth inch gold.
Zitan is a kind of extremely dense wood, so that it cannot stay afloat in water. It appears blackish-purple or blackish-red in color. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) Its color darkens over time giving the wood a distinctive deep coloring. Because of its natural beautiful coloring, Zitan is almost never painted, but polished or finished with clear lacquer. The texture of the wood grain is very fine making it suitable for intricate carving. (Soame, 1963)
With the uniqueness, rarity and natural prosperity-meaning purple color, Zitan became royal treasure in Ming and Qing Dynasties. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) Emperors during the two dynasties had spent lots of money, and employed the world's master craftsmen to create a variety of Zitan furniture and accessories. Therefore, the furniture made of Zitan became rarely precious.
Special meaning of each pattern
Throne was a symbol of imperial power. Throne was the exclusive chair for Buddha Statue at the very beginning. Later on it was evolved into emperor's chair, which courtiers could not have access to. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) This ‘Wave Yunlong' throne was elaborately carved using the superior precious Zitan, which contains five dragons, bats and auspicious clouds. Different patterns have special meanings.
Five dragons represent ‘five blessings' of old age, wealth, health, virtue and peaceful death. (Courtesy Sotheby's, 2009) Dragon, as a special kind of Chinese unique cultural cohesion and accumulation has been deep in the subconscious of each person. [Image 3]
Meanwhile, dragon in Chinese culture not only represents as power, dignity and a symbol of honor, but also, a sign of luck and success. The reason why dragon is seen as a symbol in this culture is associated with legends and myths. It is said that dragon can fly in the sky, dive into the sea chasing waves and have immense supernatural powers of summoning wind and rain. (Rawson, Jessica, 1984) However, most importantly it is due to the thousands years history of China. It tends to become the supreme ruler of the ‘exclusive' in slaves and feudal society, and a synonym for imperial power as well. (Rawson, Jessica, 1984) Therefore, any related to their daily life things that are dubbed ‘Dragon' in order to show their lofty privileges. (Rawson, Jessica, 1984) Furthermore, various parts of dragon have particular implications. For instance, protruding forehead represents intelligence and wisdom; antlers mean longevity; bull ears imply ranked ringleader; tiger eyes perform prestige; the claws is the performance of bravery etc. (Rawson, Jessica, 1984) Normally, the dragon appears in profile when carved on the surface of furniture. During the period of emperor of Qianglong, dragon showed the full face on the furniture, which gave dynamical prominence to its bravery and fierce.
Due the homophonic between ‘bat' and ‘blessing' in Chinese pronunciation, bats are usually interpreted as blessing, fortune and longevity. (Chinese pattern, 1999) [Image 5] Five bats imply the ‘the five blessing', which are longevity, wealth, health, virtue and peaceful death. (Jones, Owen., 1981) Only ‘the five blessing' together can constitute a happy long life, they cannot be separated. In addition, virtue is the most important one among five blessings. Chinese people believe that the best blessing is that the one who has a natural benevolent, tolerant and peaceful virtue. (Chinese pattern, 1999) Because virtue is the fundamental of a blessing and a blessing is the result or performance of virtue. Only virtue can cultivate other four blessing to make it continuous to grow. Later on, with the development of culture, as a result of taboo, ‘the five blessings' were changed into longevity, wealth, health, well-being and have many children. (Chinese pattern, 1999)
Auspicious cloud [Image 6] appears like glossy ganoderma, which imply longevity in Chinese culture. (Jones, Owen., 1981) Meanwhile, auspicious clouds are on behalf of a good omen, indicating good wishes for the future.
The throne adopts the high relief decoration technology. [Image 7] Relief is a convex-concave undulating sculpture which is carved out of a plane image. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) It is a form of artistic expression cross between carvings and paintings. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) There are two types of relief according to different extent compression of space, which are high relief and low relief. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) The ‘Wave Yunlong' throne adopted the high relief technology. Due to a higher, thicker and lesser extent compression, the spatial structure and shape characteristics of high relief are much closer to sculpture. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) High relief often uses fluctuations in three dimensional spaces so that to format a concentrated sense of spatial depth and a strong visual impact, which have access to a special performance with power and charm. As a result of using high relief technology, the dragons, bats and auspicious clouds appear vividly on the throne.
Compare with the furniture in Ming Dynasty
The throne was constructed on the basis of a back and two wings, which are detachable and slotted into the base of the seat and each other. (Soame, 1963) [Image 8] The back and arms are in bold openwork of key pattern filled in with auspicious clouds, and are arranged so that they slope slightly inward. (Soame,1963)
This throne can be the representative of the furniture in Qing Dynasty. However, Qing Dynasty furniture was normally related to those in Ming Dynasty. The history of the Ming Dynasty was the golden age of Chinese furniture. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) The style, decoration, crafts, materials, etc. of furniture during this period had reached a perfect position with elegant and simple characteristics. Qing-style furniture were designed cleverly, decorated elegantly and changed variously. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) It was precisely in Qianlong period established the Qing style furniture, which imply the excellent materials and the fine crafts.
Decorative veins as an important component of the furniture of Ming and Qing Dynasties, reflected the style of the era. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) Furniture in Ming Dynasty was simple and elegant, solemn and quiet, which decoration was succinct and natural. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) [Image 9] This is the main charming feature of Ming's furniture. There were also exquisitely carved furniture of the Ming Dynasty, but compared with the over-elaborating decoration on Qing's furniture, the decoration style of Ming's furniture and that of Qing's have their own different features. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) Ming's furniture has simple lines, although decorative veins are interspersed, but play the function of the crucial touch; furniture of the Qing Dynasty is exquisite and dense, and its veins are pursued sedulously. The furniture is more ornamental. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) Veins of furniture in Qing Dynasty, generally speaking, achieved great success in the early stage to the middle period, especially the furniture within the reign of three emperors named Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) Some of the ornamental veins had realistic style, but also possess much romantic charm. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) After Qianlong period, the furniture gradually formed new style, pursuing luxury and magnificence. Decoration area increased greatly, and was often combine with mosaic technology. (Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics, 2005) In order to pursuit of wealth and luxurious decoration effect, furniture in Qing Dynasty make full use of a variety of decorative materials and crafts, which can be described as a collection of decoration techniques. However, some Qing style furniture, carving too heavy and excesses, has become a major drawback.
A few points of critical thinking that reflect to the furniture design industry would be interpreted, according to the aesthetic contribution of this ‘Wave Yunlong' throne tracing the influences and roots of the materials technology that used in design.
Firstly, the quality of raw materials is to ensure the premise of product quality, especial for the solid wood. Solid wood with a beautiful texture have the characteristics which can adjust according to different humidity and temperature, with a strong weight ratio and easy to processing, etc. However, timber has inherent negative characteristics that it is a kind of suction-temperature material with shrinkage. (Santos, R. P., Spironello, W. R., De Tarso Barbosa Sampaio. P, 2008) Therefore, a prerequisite for a perfect product is to make a reasonable choice according to the characteristics and properties of materials. Take the ‘Wave Yunlong' throne for example, the throne is used by emperor ‘Qianlong' who lived in Beijing, the climate of which is arid. It is an objective condition that the throne can keep a high quality in a long time usage. By contrary, if used in a humid climate, it is difficult to say whether it can be kept so good. Therefore, when design solid wood furniture, the characteristics should be carefully considered.
Secondly, the throne is a craftsmanship, whether it can be mass produced is an important issue that should be taken into consideration. Although with the development of technology, mechanization is used in many industries step by step, craftsmanship still cannot be substituted. However, it takes a long time to do the work by hand. For so large a piece of design work, it may take workers years to carve. From the economy perspective nowadays, it is not an intelligent idea. Definitely, it worth a lot when finished, however, it cannot be mass produced in a short time.
‘Wave Yunlong' throne, as a symbol of imperial power, has so far attracted a high degree of attention of experienced collectors around the world. It is described as the most superior of imperial furniture, which deserved to break the world auction record in Chinese furniture, no matter from the materials and the decoration technology it adopts or the culture value it has. Typically reflects the Ming and Qing furniture, Chinese furniture has the most exquisite craft value, high value of art appreciation, rich historical and cultural value and collection value. The value of antique furniture is not only at the value of serve, but also agglutination with the formation of various periods of different artistic styles. Meanwhile, it is an integrated reflecting of production development and living customs, ideas, consciousness, aesthetic taste, as well as science and technology of different historical stages.
Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics. (2005) Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties 1. 1st ed. Beijing: Beijing art and photography publishing house.
Appreciating Beijing Cultural Relics. (2005) Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties 2. 1st ed. Beijing: Beijing art and photography publishing house.
Chavannes, Edouard. (1973) The Five happinesses: symbolism in Chinese popular art. New York: Weatherhill.
Chinese pattern. (1999) Chinese pattern. [S.L.]: Pepin van roojen.
Clunas, Craig. (1988) Chinese furniture. London: Bamboo Publishing Ltd.
Elvin, Mark. (1973) The pattern of the Chinese past. London: Eyre Methuen.
Hou, Ming. (2003) Jia ju juan. Beijing: Beijing Publishing House.
Han X., Wen Y., Kant S. (2009) The global competitiveness of the Chinese wooden Furniture industry. Textiles, vol. 11(8), pp.561-569.
Jenyns, R. Soame. (1963) Chinese art: the minor arts: gold, silver, bronze, cloisonne, Catonese enamel, lacquer, furniture, wood. London: Oldbourne Press.
Jones, Owen. (1981) Chinese design & pattern in full color. New York: Dover Publications.
Liu, Xie. (1959) The literary mind and the carving of dragons: a study of thought and pattern in Chinese literature. New York: Columbia University Press.
Murck, Christian F. (1976) Artists and traditions: uses of the past in Chinese culture. Princeton: The Art Museum, Princeton University.
Rawson, Jessica. (1984) Chinese ornament: the lotus and the dragon. London: British Museums Publications.
Santos, R. P., Spironello, W. R., De Tarso Barbosa Sampaio. P. (2008) Genetic diversity in Rosewood saplings (Aniba rosaeodora ducke, Lauraceae): an ecological approach. Textiles, vol. 38(4), pp.707-714.
Santos, R. P ., Da Silva Angelo, P. C ., De Tarso Barbosa Sampaio, P ., Quisen, R. C ., Leite, A. M. C ., De Oliveira, C. L . (2008) Geographic pattern of genetic diversity in natural populations of Rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora), in the Central Amazonia. Textiles, vol. 38(3), pp.459-466.
Sutherland, Giles. (1993) Explorations in wood: the furniture and sculpture of Tim Stead. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Courtesy Sotheby's (2009) [online image]. Available from <http://www.sothebys.com/> [Accessed 8 October 2009]
CNN.com/Asia. (2009) Chinese imperial throne breaks record [Internet]. Available from <http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/10/08/china.auction/index.html#cnnSTCText> [Accessed 8 October 2009]