Huanghuali yoke-back armchairs of this type are of striking modernity in the simplicity and balance of their lines. They are called guanmao yi or ‘official hat-shaped chairs’, the name derived from its resemblance to the winged hat that was part of the formal attire of the Ming officials. They were regarded as high chairs and retained a connotation of status and authority associated with the elite gentry in Chinese society. The classical text Lu Ban jing (Manuscript of Lu Ban), a 15th century carpenter’s manual, gives specifications for these chairs and describes the joinery as the embodiment and fine example of Chinese furniture. They are special because only four pieces of wood are used for the four verticals of the front legs and front arm-posts, the back legs and back posts, with each vertical passing through the frame of the seat. They also reflect the trend in Chinese furniture manufacture, from the fifteenth century to the 19th century, when the technical expedients in holding a piece together became less evident.
Craig Clunas in Chinese Furniture, London, 1988, p. 20, describes armchairs of this type being made in pairs, suggesting a symmetry that was aimed for in the Chinese room arrangements. Ming and Qing period literature illustrations characteristically show them used at dinner tables, in reception halls for guests and at the writing table in the scholar’s studio. For example, see a woodblock print to the 1616 edition of The Golden Lotus (Jin Ping Mei) included ibid., p. 22, fig. 8, showing the main male character and his principal wife seated on a guanmao yi while dining with his secondary wives and concubines seated on stools. For a general discussion on the basic model and decorative vocabulary of these armchairs see Curtis Evarts, ‘From Ornate to Unadorned’, Journal of the Chinese Classical Furniture Society, Spring, 1993, pp. 24-33.
Closely related huanghuali armchairs can be found in a number of museums and private collections; for example see a pair given to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, by Sir John Addis, illustrated ibid., p. 18, pl. 3; one in the Kunstindustrimuseet, Copenhagen, published in Michel Beurdeley, Chinese Furniture, Tokyo, 1979, pl. 52, together with another similar armchair from the collection of Robert H. Ellsworth, pl. 51; and an armchair in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in The Palace Museum Collection. A Treasury of Ming and Qing Dynasty Palace Furniture, Vol. 1, Beijing, 2007, p. 30, fig. 13, where it is mentioned that the style of this yoke-back armchair was especially popular in Northern China. Two further examples of varying details, in the Palace Museum, are illustrated ibid., figs. 78-79, attributed to the Ming dynasty; and a pair, formerly in the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, was sold at Christie’s New York, 19th September 1996, lot 85.
Compare also an armchair in the Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu, published in Stephen L. Little and James Jensen, ‘Chinese Furniture in the Honolulu Academy of Arts. The Frederic Mueller Bequest’, Chinese Furniture. Selected Articles from Orientations 1984-1999, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 59, fig. 5; one attributed to the 17th century, in the Institute of Chicago and a gift of the American Friends of China, included in Lark E. Mason Jr., ‘Examples of Ming Furniture in American Collections Formed Prior to 1980’, ibid., p. 134, fig. 7 (one of a pair); and another closely related armchair from the collection of Wang Shixiang, Beijing, published in Tian Jiaqing, ‘Appraisal of Ming Furniture’, ibid., p. 138, fig. 1. See also a pair, from the St. Matthias Church of the Diocese of British Columbia, The Anglican Church of Canada, sold in our New York rooms, 11/12th September 2012, lot 218