Remarkably little systematic study has been made of Chinese furniture. Its origins remain comparatively obscure, its workshops mostly unrecorded, its designers unknown; consequently, its dating is extremely difficult. Most of the forms of Chinese furniture, such as the low table and the covered bed, are found in the oldest Chinese paintings in existence; the designs have been remarkably conservative throughout the ages.
Chinese furniture can be divided into two main types: lacquered wood pieces either inlaid with mother-of-pearl or elaborately carved, and plain hardwood pieces.
Of the first, almost nothing is known, and dating of pieces is possible only from the designs of decorative motifs, such as dragons and peonies, and from their background motifs. The most important historically in this class are black lacquer pieces inlaid with mother-of-pearl that have been preserved in the imperial repository (Shōsō-in) in Japan from the 8th century. Of the red lacquers, such as seats and tables, the earliest pieces date from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644); their workmanship is characterized by softer contours and freer, more spirited designs than the later pieces of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12). These lacquered objects influenced European cabinetmakers.
Plain hardwood furniture is frequently encountered. Its deserved popularity both in China and the West has been won by its classic simplicity, reserved ornament, and lack of pretense. In these products of the finest workmanship, purity of line, plastic strength, and a flawless polish produce a harmonious, solid effect.
A Chinese house requires less furniture than a Western house. Correspondingly, the types of furniture are fewer, being limited mainly to wardrobes, chests, tables both high and low of all types and shapes (altar and couch tables, for example), stools, beds (sometimes testered with curtains), screens and stools for use by the bed, and chairs.
Although the fundamentals of Chinese joinery must have been formed a millennium before the modern era, the great development in Chinese furniture took place with the introduction of Buddhism from India during the first centuries CE. Before that time the Chinese had sat cross-legged or knelt on the floor or on stools. Buddhism introduced a more formal kind of sitting on stiff, higher chairs with back rests and with or without side arms. The chests and armoires are superb examples of careful joinery and often have finely worked metal mounts that greatly enhance the beauty of their solid design.
A number of hardwoods were used for the plain furniture: purple sandalwood (the most distinguished); rosewood of many varieties, mostly imported from Indochina and called “old,” “new,” and “yellow”; redwood; burl (especially for inlay); and so-called chicken-wing wood. Rosewood in its many varieties is perhaps the most frequently encountered and the most popular for its seeming translucence and satin, soft finish. It is above all the faultless workmanship, so typically Chinese, and the fine polish of Chinese furniture that attracts the Westerner. It was the Chinese respect for the spirit of wood and their command of line, curve, and cubic proportions that became the ideal of the 18th-century Western cabinetmaker.