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The evolution of the chair

The evolution of Chinese furniture is centred around a significant social change; a move from traditions of living at the mat level to an adoption and adaptation of the chair. The Chinese were the only east Asian society to fully live at the chair level until modern times. Such a move has widespread ramifications. For example, people who live at the mat level typically seek to keep the floor smooth and clean and don't usually wear footwear inside. Having chairs and tables means that a wider range of floor surfaces can be used and wearing shoes inside is far more common.

Early furniture

The earliest record of furniture dates to the Zhou dynasty (770B.C. - 221B.C.). Inscribed bronzes from the period detail pieces that were used for religious purposes such as altar tables and incense stands. At that time people lived at what is called the mat level of living, any personal furniture would have been low in keeping with the lifestyle. For example, instead of chairs people sat on mats and leaned against arm rests, storage was in the form of boxes and small chests. Some people had low beds

The evolution from the mat to the chair took place over a period of 800-900 years after the first known record of seating was introduced to the country. This transition can be traced as two different types of seats with more or less parallel developments. These were the folding chair and the frame chair.

Folding Chair

folding chairIn about 168A.D. the emperor Ling Di was noted for his liking of, among other things, the hu chuang or "barbarian bed". This was not a bed but a large folding stool. The word "chuang" means bed and was used because the Chinese had no other term to describe the piece.

"Hu" means foreign and tells us that the stool was of foreign origin. In all likelihood the folding stool originated from Greece or Rome where such furniture had been in existence for at least 3000 years and entered China through one of the trade routes.

A feature of this piece is that it was large enough to sit on cross-legged, a posture adopted directly from sitting on mats.

Records suggest that the folding stool was primarily used outside. For example one reference talks about it being used as a campaign seat for the general to watch a battle unfold while another has it being used by a gentleman travelling in the countryside. Over the centuries the stool gradually gained acceptance moving from being a portable seat in the country and the garden to finally being found indoors.

The evolution from a stool to a chair with a back and then armrests appears not to have occurred until the 10th or 11th century. The early types of back were detachable and added to the seat. It is worth noting that original character for chair, "Yi", meant it was something to lean against. Having a back allowed the sitter to lean and rest comfortably, perhaps suggesting that leaning was more important than just sitting.


Frame chair

folding chair2Evidence supporting the introduction and evolution of the frame chair is less clear than the folding chair. A key question is whether the chair evolved from the stool or whether the chair came from outside China and was adopted.

Low stools were known from very early times but it is not known if they were used as a seat or as a step on to a structure called a kang. The kang is a hollow platform that is large enough for several people to sleep on and is heated from underneath either by direct fuel or by running a flue from a nearby stove. It is a common structure in the home in northern China where the winters are bitterly cold.

 


stool evolutionStools and chairs were known to have been used in other countries long before they arrived in China. For example, 2nd century BC stone carvings show they were used in India. While there is no written evidence it is quite possible that merchants and monks travelling the trade routes might have brought examples in to China.

Another possibility is that chairs may have come in with the introduction of Buddhism in about the 3rd century AD. Some wall paintings from the period do show a person seated, however, it was almost certainly reserved for the elite.

 

Paintings from the Tang dynasty (618AD - 906AD) provide evidence of experimentation with different seating styles. The habit of sitting with legs hanging down used to be considered inappropriate but was gradually accepted by society throughout this period. By the 10th century sitting on chairs was fairly common at least among the wealthy.

chair tangBy the early 12th century the custom of sitting on chairs, stools or benches was the accepted norm across all levels of society.

There are probably two main reasons why the Chinese adopted the chair. Firstly the seat was a status symbol, in the early periods being used by the elite. It would have been aspirational for other classes to follow this lifestyle. The Song dynasty (960AD - 1279AD) was a period of stability and prosperity resulting in more people becoming wealthy and being able to afford furniture. The other reason is that people probably found being able to sit and relax in chairs more comfortable than the more upright posture required of sitting on a mat.