Chinese Hardwood Furniture
of the Ming and Early Qing Dynasties


When most people think of Chinese furniture, they are thinking of the ornate style and pieces of the late Qing dynasty. However, over the centuries, the Chinese have explored all sort of styles, including the wonderfully austere and elegant hardwood pieces of the late Ming dynasty, now prized around the world for their beauty and timelessness.

Often completely unornamented (although the complete range of decorative degree does exist), they obtain their stunning effect principally through their perfection of line, and their magnificent hardwood material (left on view through a clear finish, not covered in lacquer as with so much Chinese furniture, then and especially later).

Influence on Western Furniture

Chinese furniture has periodically influenced Western furniture. The most significant instance was in the mid-twentieth century, when a few copies of Gustav Ecke's ground-breaking study of this furniture, Chinese Domestic Furniture (Henri Vetch, Peking, 1944; often reprinted) circulated in Scandanavia, and reportedly had a significant impact on the look of post-war Scandanavian funiture.


In addition, their joinery represents the most elaborate development of the miter, mortise and tenon ever developed anywhere. They hold pieces together without the use of any glue, enabling the pieces to be disassembled at will, important in a setting where the owners (mostly mandarins) needed to relocate on a regular basis, and where most transport was via animal.

Although simple in the extreme on the surface (one explicit goal of Chinese joinery), inside these joints are extremely complex. A classic example is the mitred triple-tenon three-way corner joint, shown in a hidden-line drawing here. The two horizontal members are held together in two axes by a mortise and tenon joint between them; they are further immobilised along the third axis, and locked in two axes to the upright, by a pair of mortise and tenon joints, one between each horizontal member and the upright. All this is hidden by a pair of mitred panels, leaving only three diagonal lines to show on the surface where the three members join. (In this example, all three tenons are blind; in some cases one of the upright tenons, and the horizontal tenon, are through tenons, to aid in disassembly.)

A Few Selected Pieces

Here are a few select pieces from the (unfortunately) now-dissolved collection of the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, in its day probably the finest collection of Ming hardwood pieces ever assembled.



Other Pieces

Chinese Hardwood Names

This table gives the Western name for various Chinese hardwoods, when one exists; and a translation of the Chinese name (indicated by "'s), when one does not. (Bear in mind that Chinese names for wood are more based on the appearance of the wood than the kind of tree which produced it; thus a single species may produce different kinds of wood, and a single kind of wood may come from more than one species.)
	huang-hua-li	= "yellow flowering pear wood"
	zitan		= purple rosewood
	hung-mu		= rosewood
	nan-mu		= cedar
	wu-mu		= ebony
	ji-chi-mu	= "chicken-wing wood"

Additional Information

A larger image of the mitred triple-tenon three-way corner joint is available here.

More information on the joints used in this furniture may be found in: