How the chair elevated Chinese society, literally and figuratively.
For centuries, Chinese chairs have fascinated designers and art collectors alike. The iconic horseshoe and yoke back designs have been replicated over and over.
A luxury once reserved for the emperor and his officials, a chair from China’s imperial period can fetch thousands of dollars at auction. The most expensive set went for $9.68 million at a Christie’s auction in New York in March 2015.
The set comprised four 17th-century armchairs from the collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, a prominent collector of Chinese furniture. The final sale price meant each chair averaged $2.5 million.
What makes these chairs so expensive? Besides adding an elegant touch to your living room, Chinese chairs tell a bigger story, about the history of China and the history of sitting down.
How chairs elevated Chinese society
Before the advent of chairs, most Chinese people sat and slept on the floor. Homes were built with an elevated platform called a kang 炕, which was heated by warm air circulating underneath during the winter. The kang is still a feature of homes in many rural parts of northern China.
At the start of the 2nd century, the Silk Road brought the folding stool from the Roman Empire. But the Chinese did not have word for “chair” yet, so traders called the foreign import a huchuang 胡床, literally “barbarian bed.”
Upright chairs with wooden frames began to appear in Chinese paintings around the 10th century. One scroll painting from the era, “The Night Revels of Han Xizai” by Gu Hongzhong, depicts musicians entertaining guests seated in chairs.
The most popular design at the time was the yoke-back chair. The crest rail—the carved top of the chair—was shaped like the hats worn by government officials during the Song Dynasty. The chair became a status symbol and represented the owner’s wishes of promotion within the court.
Another popular design was the horseshoe back, characterized by an ovular curvature in the crest rail.
Eventually, the proliferation of chairs shifted Chinese life. Ceilings became higher, women started wearing trousers, and waist-high dining tables began to appear.
“When we learn to sit above the floor, we know that our living habits would be elevated.”
“When we learn to sit above the floor, we know that our living habits would be elevated,” says Nico Ma, a junior specialist in the Chinese furniture department at Christie’s, “so that we would need tables, we would need cabinets, we would need everything else.”
By the 12th century, Chinese culture had moved from floor-level to chair-level. When Emperor Huizong, who reigned from 1100 to 1126, commissioned his official portrait, he sat on a yoke-back chair instead of a throne.
Why they’re so valuable
The most expensive Chinese chairs are made with a material called huanghuali 黄花梨, or Chinese rosewood,
“Huanghuali has very beautiful grain and a very characteristic, distinctive smell,” Ma says. “It takes more than 300 years to grow a plank that would be used for a table of only 20 to 30 centimeters.”
In the 1980s and ’90s, new research on Chinese furniture brought Western attention to the chairs. They soon became a collector’s item sold in auctions around the world.
“Currently, we have clients from all over the world,” Ma says. “But the focus of China’s furniture market would be Asian buyers.”