is it Qing? Ming? or modern take-offs?

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Registered: 09-05-2003
is it Qing? Ming? or modern take-offs?
Tue, 03-20-2007 - 11:30pm

This is a collection of articles near and dear to *my* heart since we acquired a lot of Quing furniture while in Beijing (and two Ming chairs)... Just a note: these days, one cannot export from China anything older than about 175 years (Qing only). We got our Ming chairs out simply because they were heavily restored...

Tips Of Identification For Ming & Qing Antique Furniture

Furniture of a classical Chinese style, whether a genuine antique or a reproduction, can give great pleasure to its owner, reflecting worldly tastes and reminding of world travels. However, with so many reproductions on the market, it's difficult to tell the real from the reproduced, and hence easy to get swindled. Therefore, here are a few things you can do to make sure you're getting the real McCoy, if that's what you're after.

The golden age of Chinese furniture production is usually defined as the years between 1550 and 1750, a time of great prosperity, and during the transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasties, a time of political upheaval and turmoil. That transition between the dynasties fostered creativity and innovation in design in all the decorative arts. Furniture made during this period reflects this transition; many examples are based on much earlier forms, and others are entirely new.

So how do you know whether a piece is authentic and fairly priced? The value of a piece of antique furniture depends on five factors: its age, materials, overall condition, craftsmanship and rarity. An understanding of these factors will therefore help you to make informed judgements.

* Age
* Material
* Overall condition
* Craftsmanship
* Rarity


All other things being equal, the older the piece, the more valuable it's likely to be. It could have particular historical value, it could be very rare or in exceptionally good condition, or it could have a wonderful patina.

And how do you determine the age of a lacquer piece? You need to consider three factors: the style, the workmanship, and the level of oxidation of the wood and lacquer.

- Style
This is not necessarily the best indication, since the style of an old piece can be copied by later craftsmen. However, to a certain degree, it can give you some useful clues about the authenticity and value of a piece.

In classical Chinese furniture, there are two basic forms: pieces without an inset panel between the top and the apron (known as the 'waistless' form), and pieces with an inset panel (known as the 'waisted' form). Waistless furniture is very ancient and already existed in the Shang dynasty (16th - 11th century BC) and the Zhou dynasty (11th century - 221 BC). Waisted furniture appeared much later.

In many Ming dynasty paintings, we can see that the interiors were quite simple and the furnishings rather sparse. It was not until the Qing dynasty that rooms became increasingly crowded and the furniture more elaborate.

Ming designs (1368 - 1644) are relatively uncomplicated, with the basic outline of the form usually consisting of straight lines and simple curves. Common features include horse-hoof feet, giant arm braces, ice-plate edges, protruding arms etc. Qing designs (1644 - 1911) are usually more complex, with numerous small elements and elaborately carved decoration.

Not surprisingly, some furniture combined features from both periods, and plain and decorated furniture co-existed, satisfying the demands of a markedly diverse audience.

- Workmanship
Not surprisingly, craftsmen in different periods used different kinds of techniques, which tended to change every 40 to 50 years.

- Oxidization of the wood and lacquer
When buying wooden furniture, collectors need to consider the extent of wear and tear on an item (though a piece that was known to have been used by a famous or powerful person can be valuable even if it is not in immaculate condition).

As for lacquer finishes, they can be considered a common denominator in traditional Chinese furniture. Throughout China, most furniture was finished with lacquer coatings to provide durable, sealed surfaces as well as decorative effects - a technique practised since ancient times. In fact, lacquer is one the best indicators of the age of a piece, since lacquer ages and oxidizes at predictable, measurable rates.

Lacquering processes varied from period to period. In the Song and Ming periods, for instance, lacquer was generally applied over a fabric underlay (daqi), which was soaked in a mixture of thickened lacquer and pasted onto the surface of the wood. Sometimes the entire surface was covered with fabric; sometimes small strips were pasted over the joints only.

The base-coat was generally composed of raw lacquer mixed with a binder powder made of horn, bone, shell, stone, brick, pottery or charcoal. This thickened filler coat had high adhesive properties as well as stability and hardness. However, this labour-intensive technique eventually fell out of fashion, and in the Ming and Qing periods customers preferred pieces with only a thin layer of lacquer and no fabric underlays.

The finely crackled surfaces and mellow tones of lacquer finishes have been a study of connoisseurship for centuries.

- Examine the Unfinished Areas:
Most Chinese wood furniture is coated with a finish. However, there are usually unfinished areas, such as drawer insides and furniture undersides. Examine these areas. As wood oxidizes when exposed to air, these unfinished areas should be darker in color than the finished areas. The darker the unfinished wood (relative to the finished wood), the older the piece is.

If you find a piece where the unfinished areas are even lighter in color than the finished areas, it should be a red flag that the piece is new. The wood has only recently been exposed to air, and the finished areas are darker only because they have absorbed some of the finish.

- Check Condition of Nicks:
Most wood furniture will have a few nicks from being moved and used. Remember: Old furniture should have old nicks. On truly old furniture, you should be able to find a few old nicks that after years of oxidation and friction look dark and smooth.


Timber and lacquer are the most widely used materials in furniture, with the lacquering technique or process having a significant affect on the value of a piece. Other materials used are stone, marble, shell, coral, pearl, ivory, bone, gold leaf or various metals. Again, all other things being equal, the harder the timber, the higher the value of the furniture (for instance, huanghuali is regarded as the hardest and most expensive timber, while pine is the softest and least expensive).

Timber can be classified into six categories. In descending order of hardness (and value), they are:

1. huanghuali (yellow rosewood), zitan (sandalwood), jichimu (Chicken Wing wood)

2. hong-mu (blackwood), tielimu (ironwood), jarjingmu, wu-mu (ebony), ying-mu (burl), hua-mu (gingko)

3. ju-mu (southern elm wood), hetaomu (walnut wood), huang-yang mu (box wood), lung-yan mu (tiger-skin wood), zuo-mu (Oak)

4. nan-mu, kundianmu, shizimu (persimmon)

5. yu-mu (elm), zhang-mu (camphor), hualimu (rosewood), huai-mu (Locust), tao-mu (peach), li-mu (Pear)

6. pai-mu, song-mu (pine), shang-mu (cedat), qiu-mu (Catalpa), duan-mu (poplar), Bai-yang mu (paulownia), wu-tong (Kiri)


The better the original condition of the piece, the higher its value will be. If a piece of furniture is missing some parts, so that a lot of replacement work is needed, the relative value is lower. If restoration is carried out only on the joints, the aprons and near the bottom of the piece, it is generally accepted as being intact. It is desirable if the fittings (in most cases, the brassware) are original. Patina is valued since this can indicate how good the condition of a piece is, and sometimes its age.


Craftsmanship is an important factor in determining the value of a piece of furniture. Sometimes, when the craftsmanship is superb, a piece made out of elm wood can be more valuable and collectable than a piece made out of hong-mu (blackwood), all other things being equal.

The level of craftsmanship is assessed by looking at the proportion of the details, the accuracy of the joints, and the piece's fluidity, complexity (or simplicity) and dynamism.

A very complicated design may point to a genuine antique, as reproduction factories usually do not invest the time and effort into creating complicated pieces. And as with unintentional nicks, any carved work should be smooth from years of use.

A "flex" slot at each joint may also point to a genuine antique. The more painstakingly built furniture of the past often has these slots to allow for the expansion and contraction of the wood.

Any traces of glue will be a red flag that a piece is a reproduction. Antique Chinese furniture won't use glue in the construction. Check for any traces, especially at the joints.


This is actually a supply-and-demand issue - if a certain style is not easily available in the market then pieces in that style are considered collectable, and their value in the market goes up.

For example, when the trend in the market is for classical Ming-style furniture but not very many pieces are available, then the price and value of pieces will increase. Similarly, pieces with special features or unusual functions tend to be more valuable. For instance, hunting chairs, which were rare in the old days, could easily be ruined simply due to the conditions in which they were used, so not many of them have survived. They are therefore considered highly collectable, and their value has increased over time.


What should You look for when shopping for Chinese antiques?

A lot of people are taken by the way an antique cabinet looks. They like the appearance and often fail to inspect the piece carefully. It's important to inspect a piece. Open up the doors and drawers and look for wear and signs that the piece has been refinished or repaired.

Look for the wear that would normally be associated with years of use. One of the important things to know about Chinese antique furniture is that the Chinese do not view them as collectible antique furniture. They view them as old furniture and they're delighted whenever an American comes to China to buy that old furniture from them. They don't keep the pieces in nice condition.

Ask the dealer if the piece has its original lacquer and the original hardware and if any parts have been replaced or repaired. An antique is defined as a piece that's 100 years or older. Chinese antiques are often much older than 100 years.

A lot of Chinese antiques won't have the original lacquer because they're so old. We're talking about furniture with a history of more than 1,000 years. Because there were different techniques for lacquering furniture over the years, the type of finish can sometimes help you determine the age of a piece. An expert can look at a table with a very thick, heavily crackled lacquer and tell in five minutes that the piece is over 300 years old. That's something that can't be faked.

How can You be sure I'm getting an authentic antique?

Ask the dealer a lot of questions, such as the source of their antiques.

That's one of the first things that informed buyers ask. Ask the dealer if they actually go to China and see the piece before it's been cleaned up. That's something very few dealers do. Do they buy their pieces from wholesalers who import mass quantities or do they buy their pieces over the Internet?

Basically the only way you're going to know if something is a real antique or if it's a fake is if the dealer tells you it is and you trust the dealer. There's no way the average person is going to know if a piece is a fake or not. It's hard sometimes for dealers to tell. You have to be an expert to know if it's an Asian antique. It's a matter of knowing the dealer and knowing you can trust the dealer's word on a piece.

What else do you need to know before you go shopping?

There's classical Chinese antique furniture and there's Chinese country furniture. Classical Chinese furniture is more refined. It's made of better quality woods and has better craftsmanship.

The Chinese country furniture is more regionalized. The different regions have their own styles and the furniture is more crudely made than the classical furniture. And there's a lot more of the country pieces. You're not going to find too many one-of-a-kind country pieces.

For me, the look of the true Chinese antique is the look of the classical antique. True classical Chinese antiques and the style of those pieces were born in the Ming dynasty. The style has very clean lines and blends in well with modern Western decor.

It goes well with English and French antiques and with Western style in general.

If you want to get better informed before you go shopping, there are books about Chinese antiques you can read. They've been fairly well established in the major metropolitan areas.

What characteristics make these pieces distinctive?

The techniques the Chinese developed for the joinery of the furniture have lasted almost 1,000 years.

They were developed during the Ming dynasty, the golden age of China. It's a time when art flourished in China.

That the furniture has lasted this long, that's a great testament to how it was made, especially considering that people didn't really take care of it. Many of the older pieces have lived through revolutions and occupations by foreign countries.

The joinery is different from that used in European and American antiques and from any other techniques involved in furniture making. It's a very elaborate and complex joinery system. You have to see it to get a sense of it.

It's important to know that there's a difference between domestic Chinese classical furniture and chinoiserie, exports made for the European market during the 19th century. The look is very different. The chinoiserie has a lot of painting of Chinese scenery and gilding.

The pieces were styled to resemble European furniture because they were made for Europeans.

Chinese Antique Furniture Collecting Guides

"It has a gentle inner strength that seems to contemplate itself with deep contentment," observed 20th-century designer T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings (1905-76) in describing Chinese hardwood furniture. In fact, most Westerners were astonished when pieces like this Ming dynasty (1368-1644) "horseshoeback" chair came to light in the early 1930s. The restrained elegance and economy of the chair's form seemed to be both extraordinarily modern and to transcend the limits of time. The collector Frederic Mueller (1935-89) commented on the intrinsic "spiritual quality" of the piece: "It is what you can find in a Cy Twombly painting as well as in a Ming chair — something to take you out of yourself."

What was it that caught the eye of these men, and continues to fascinate people today? The sense of harmonious proportion achieved through the simple, pleasing lines of the design? Perhaps the way the rich color and grain of the wood are left to speak for themselves? Or the craftsmanship of the joinery, with elements of its structure visible on the apron and legs?

Maybe it's a combination of all these things, of elegance and simplicity, harmony and utility. But the piece still holds secrets: We don't know who made it, who owned it, or where it was used. This tantalizing mix of mystery and fact brings such a piece to life, and along with its beauty and utility, makes it eminently popular in today's art market.

In building a collection of Asian furniture, it is worth supplementing your instinctive attraction to a piece with knowledge of its craftmanship and history. A number of points to consider are the piece's condition, the materials used in its construction, the quality of its workmanship, and types of decoration and motifs.

Aesthetic Appeal

One of the greatest pleasures of collecting is purchasing an item you have fallen in love with. This kind of response may be immediate and instinctive or may be informed by an appreciation of the artisan's aesthetic. In China, for example, the value and quality of a piece often lay in its achievement of harmonious proportions. Chinese craftsmen made chairs, tables and cabinets in pairs, and they were then placed against a room's walls in a symmetrical, formal arrangement; much thought was given, as well, to the relationship between an enclosed space and the furniture within it.


Missing veneers and inlays, chips, cracks and dents in the wood, and heat and water damage will all detract from furniture's worth and may require extensive and costly restoration. However, a certain amount of wear and tear is to be expected; a dip in the front stretcher of a chair, bench or table, for example, simply shows that the piece has been used by its previous owners to rest their feet. It is advisable to ascertain the cost of any restoration prior to making a purchase.

Lacquer & Other Finishes

Lacquering techniques have a long history throughout Asia but reached their greatest expression in the hands of Japanese craftsmen. Artisans laboriously applied numerous applications of urushi—the sap of the lacquer plant—to a base material, such as wood. They then dried the lacquer by heating, making it impervious to water, insects, acids and alcohol.

Plain lacquering of items in black or red was most common in China, though these pieces are now rare; Ming connoisseurs especially appreciated pieces that featured duanwen, the crackling that appears on old lacquer. By applying layer upon layer of lacquer and then carving into the surface, artists created exquisitely detailed designs. Also, they often decorated the lacquer surfaces with gilt or polychrome, and embellished them with mother-of-pearl and ivory inlay.

Korean artisans often colored wooden chests by rubbing them with a mixture of seed oil, water and Chinese inks-or red and yellow earth. They then treated the wood with natural oils to produce a subtle sheen. Although these furniture makers also had a keen appreciation of the fresh quality of unfinished wood, few examples have survived centuries of use.

The Joiner's Craft

Asia has a long and proud woodworking tradition. From a very early date, craftsmen used techniques almost as advanced as those of today. The curve of a Chinese horseshoeback chair, for example, is achieved by using up to five different pieces of wood, secured by means of precision joinery. The range of joints used in Asian furniture includes the mortise-and-tenon, mitre, dovetail, and tongue-and-groove. In China, the mortise-and-tenon joint was most prevalent, and on early pieces, it was made deliberately visible to the eye.

Decoration & Motifs

Asian furniture decorators often found inspiration for their motifs and patterns in much older crafts, such as ceramics, textiles or jade carving. Some designs are abstract geometric patterns, while others represent animals, figures and plants symbolizing concepts such as good luck or prosperity. The phoenix, the Chinese lion and dragon are a few of the mythical creatures prominently featured in furniture decoration, and the presence of a five-clawed dragon probably indicates an object's connection to the Imperial household.

Decoration can also provide clues to the identity of a piece's owner. For example, a clothing chest decorated with the Chinese characters for fertility belonged, in all likelihood, to a woman of childbearing age.

Designs can help to date furniture, and so can the ways in which the decoration is handled. For example, a Chinese piece featuring complex carving with repeated patterns generally dates from the 18th century or later.


The materials used in a piece of Asian furniture often help collectors and scholars to determine its origin, approximate age, and value. Most pieces are made primarily of wood, whether it forms the carcass on which lacquer is applied or is the focal point of a piece. Chinese furniture makers generally used softwoods for the carcasses of lacquered pieces, causing them to be particularly susceptible to damage and therefore relatively rare in today's market. Similar reasons explain the scarcity of bamboo furniture. Other Chinese pieces were made of hardwoods, such as huanghuali and zitan, which are both rich in color and density of grain. Because zitan was in great demand and short supply, its use was restricted to the Imperial household in the 18th century. Older pieces were disassembled for reuse, making pre-18th-century zitan furniture rare and valuable. Chinese seat furniture with its original upholstery is also extremely rare. Usually the original woven seats have been replaced with wood panels or hard cane seats, but this does not greatly affect value.Japanese and Korean furniture makers used light-colored woods such as paulownia and cryptomeria, and also favored the richly-grained zelkova and walnut.


Metalwork on Asian furniture includes handles, lockplates, hinges and decorative hardware. Some Japanese and Korean chests are almost entirely covered with such fittings in iron, copper, or brass alloys. Many mounts are plain, while others have patterns incised, pricked or hammered on their surface; some are even lacquered in red or black. It is not unusual for old pieces to have relatively new fittings, which should not affect a piece's value if the fittings have been chosen with care.

Provenance & Maker

While the value of artworks is often affected by the identity of a piece's maker or owner, this is relatively unimportant in collecting Asian furniture. Very few, if any, signed examples are known, nor are we even aware of the names of furniture makers, apart from a handful identified by chance in Imperial household

Huanghuli Antique Furniture

Background of Huanghuli wood, please cilck here to view details.

The most qualified huanghuli furniture was made during Mid Ming dynasty and late Qianlong Emperor of Qing dynasty. Since mid Qing dynast, the materials of huanghuali became less and less to almost dispear. So the furniture made of huanghuali was not produced any more. Till now few huanghuali furniture left. It's the most precious and expensive member of furniture family at present.


Wood For Ming & Qing Antique Furniture

Red sandalwood:
It is treated the most valuable wood, and its texture is the finest of all and the heaviest in weight (35kg per cubic meter), Purple black in color mostly, the grain does not manifest.

Yellow rose wood:
Colors range from light yellow to dark red, the texture is hard with beautiful grains that are arranged in inverted V shapes. When sawn, it sends out fragrance, another type is known as old rose wood with stagnant grains, it does not have pleasant fragrance.

Chicken wing wood:
There are two kinds, new and old. The old one features tight and dark purple brown color interwoven in between; the new one is tough in texture, with alternative purple and black colors and blurred grains.

Mesua ferrea:
It is also known as native olive, the wood is similar to chicken wing wood in color and grain. The texture is rough, with variant grains and marked brown eyes, but hard and lasting. The core part is dark red in color, with fine grains.

Red wood:
It is also called “Zi Yu” or “Suan Zhi” in Guangdong. Red wood is also divided into new and old. Old red wood is similar to red sandalwood, but looks darker in color hues. Its texture is not very tight, but it has fragrance. New red wood features reddish yellow with similar motifs to yellow rose wood sometimes.

It is valuable furniture wood produced in India, Thailand, Guangdong and Hainan tropical area of China, its texture is hard and fine with deep black like lacquer in color; There are two kinds: one sinks in the water, the other doesn't sink in the water. It is a fine hard wood.

It is also called “Zi Nan”, a kind of evergreen arbor produced in the western and southern area of Changjiang River with gray bark and vertical crack. It is tight in structure with beautiful grain, fragrant smell and purple color. No crack when dry, little retroactivity, but the wood is little soft, used for mosaic and joint material very often.

Camphor wood:
It is also called “Xiang Mu” produced in the south area of the Changjiang river, the texture is hard with beautiful grain .The core part is red brown or light yellow in color with camphor's smell. It can be made for chest, cabinet, especially good for painting box, because it is not only against worm-eaten, but also water-tolerant material.

The wood is hard, with good colors and large grain arranged like mountain peaks rising one above the other. Suzhou carpenters call them "pagoda motifs".

It means all kinds of wood with whirlpool grains, not special wood type; twisted roots, gnarled branches and abnormal trunk form it. Watched from side, it looks like grapes or whirlpools in the big river: interesting, vivid and beautiful, it is fine in texture and hard in weight.

It is also called “Bai Yu” produced in China flatlands, with straight lines and rough structure.

Chinese Catalpa:
It is a little light in weight with soft and rough in the texture, the grain is clear, making it dry is difficult, but not easy to be out of shape when damp. Big shrinkage and corrosion resistant.

Walnut wood:
It is white with brown tone, the parts colors range from light white to brown red, the texture is rough with straight line.

China fir:
It is white or light yellow in color, with plain and straight lines. It is fine in texture, corrosion resistant and easy to process.

It is hard in texture and heavy in weight with clear and beautiful grain, and produced in the southwestern Asia area. It is not easy to be out of shape, and it has little shrinkage when dry, mostly used in technical decoration, carving parts.

It is also called “Bauhaus”, soft and fine in texture and beautiful in grain but fragile, yellowish white in color; Clear annual growth rings, big strength, good elasticity and hygroscopic. It is easy to be cracked and warped if careless in the process of making dry.

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