Are You Sitting Down for This? Seating Designs from Ancient China to China Today

Are You Sitting Down for This? Seating Designs from Ancient China to China Today

In 2020 to date, 30 percent of the furniture and furniture parts imported into the USA came from China. And that’s despite the recently imposed tariffs.

Today, China is one of the world’s largest chair producers. But how did household goods designed and made in China come to dominate the world’s furniture industry?

Classical Chinese furniture has evolved from the woven floor mats of ancient China to the wide variety of styles you see today. Read on to learn the history behind Chinese seating designs.

Early Chinese Seating Designs

Before around 900 AD, seating arrangements in China mimicked much of the rest of Asia. People preferred to sit on the ground on mat level furniture. It wasn’t until the Tang dynasty that taller chairs and stools began to emerge.

Mat Level Furniture

When eating, studying, or working, early Chinese people preferred to kneel or sit crossed legged on seating mats.

People placed their mats on the ground, no matter their social status. The wealthiest or most powerful people sat on elevated platforms, though they still sat on mat level furniture.

Early Chinese craftspeople made seating mats from straw, rattan, bamboo, and textiles. Sometimes people added an armrest. They paired the mats with short-legged dining tables, lap tables for writing, and low benches that held musical instruments.

It All Changed in the Tang Dynasty

For the wealthy elite of the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), what they sat on was changing. Inspired by the furniture used by Silk Road traders, they began to replace their seating mats with chairs and stools.

Archeologists have uncovered early versions of Tang-era yoke back chairs and corner-leg stools. Carpenters and craftspeople produced these types of chairs in various sizes. Highest-ranking officials owning the largest and most elaborate of them.

Camp Chairs and Buddhist India

The Tang dynasty, considered to be the Golden Age of Ancient China, was a hotbed of innovation for furniture design.

But it was Northern and Southern Song dynasty inventors that created most of the Chinese chair designs we recognize today. According to historical records, it was not until this period that the use of chairs became widespread amongst both the wealthy and the not so.

Scholars continue to debate the reason for this increased adoption of chairs.

Some researchers say the military campaigns of the Song dynasty led to the widespread use of Central Asian-style camp stools. Others argue that the furniture seen in Buddhist temples in India had an influence on Chinese chair design.

Sitting With Purpose in the Ming and Qing Dynasties

The uses of the chair and the meanings that different styles embodied proliferated in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912). Chair designs first developed in the Tang and Song dynasties became more refined.

Increasing Sophistication

The invention of mortise and tenon joints meant that Ming dynasty furniture was some of the world’s first flat-packed furniture. Families could dismantle and move chairs and other furniture from room to room or house to house.

People named new seating designs after their purpose, which in turn related to the civic or moral obligations of the owner. Ming dynasty furniture like Official’s Hat Chair or Grand Master’s Chair, for example.

Seats for Socializing

Chinese families use the front hall of a traditional Chinese home as a place to welcome guests. Because visitors would see the furniture in this room, people filled this room with their most expensive possessions. Chairs were most often made of red-brown mahogany – a pricey hardwood.

In ancient China, banquet seating arrangements followed a strict hierarchy. It didn’t matter if you were sitting on floor mats, woven stools, or ornate wooden chairs. Even today, diners consider the seat facing the entrance on a traditional Chinese round banquet table to be the seat of honor.

Chairs for Transport

Upper-class Chinese people popularized the sedan chair as a mode of transport in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Sedans of this period consisted of a covered carriage with padded seating inside.

Sedans were typically (though not always) made of bamboo and four to eight people carried a single sedan using horizontal poles. The most ornately colored sedans were reserved for transporting a bride on her wedding day. Women who wanted to take a trip outside would use a more simply decorated sedan.

Meditation Chairs

The traditional yoke back armchairs of this period feature an s-curved back that forces the user to sit up straight. Sometimes known as meditation chairs, these seats were often oversized. Someone sitting in a chair of this type could lift up their legs and sit cross-legged.

Trends in Contemporary Chinese Seating Designs

Designers in China today are being inspired by the craftsmanship of their forebears. But they’re not afraid to add a contemporary twist.

Homegrown technology brands like Xiaomi are teaming up with global furniture companies like IKEA. Together, they are creating ‘smart furniture’ embedded with IoT technology that helps Chinese people at home and in the office.

Chinese-owned online marketplaces like Alibaba are making locally designed chairs easy to buy across the globe. Consumers can buy everything from a sleek dining table chair to an ergonomically designed office chair cushion – all made in China.

Designers in the Chinese diaspora – places like Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia–are also taking inspiration from their shared heritage. The Plastic Classic LOOP stool by Taiwanese designer Pili Wu takes the rounded back and lacquer coating of a traditional Ming dynasty armchair and pairs it with the legs of the cheap plastic stools commonly used by Asian street food vendors.

When East Meets West in Chair Design

Today, Chinese seating designs have become so commonplace. They have even influenced some of the most famous Western chair designers.

Legendary Danish craftsman Hans J. Wegner designed The China Chair in 1944 for furniture brand Fritz Hansen. It’s the only solid wood chair in the company’s collection and it embodies the Western fascination with classical Chinese furniture.

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