The rare and prized zitan wood was available only to the master craftsmen employed by the Woodworks (Muzuo) in the Palace Workshop. Historically, zitan was primarily grown in southern India and Southeast Asia, with a very small quantity known from the southern provinces of present-day Guangxi, Guangdong and Jiangxi in China. Appreciated for its jade-like silky texture, fine and dense grain, and deep lustre, it was the favoured timber of both the Ming and Qing courts. Zitan became the Qianlong Emperor’s most favoured wood type and he spared no expense in acquiring it. The wood’s long growth period, limited availability and high demand primarily from the imperial court, led to its excessive felling and eventual disappearance in China by the early 18th century. At court, zitan was predominantly used for the decoration and furnishing of the many halls and palaces of the Forbidden City. Its use was scrupulously monitored and the emperor gave special instructions to ensure the most economical and responsible use of the palace’s zitan supply to avoid any waste.
Compare a similarly carved, but much smaller, set of doors to a tall cabinet, from the Qing court collection and still in Beijing, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 231. Designs with dragons among clouds are known in a denser and more elaborately carved style; a large pair of panels was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 27th September 1989, lot 1577; a pair of cabinets illustrated in situ in the Yangxin Hall of the Forbidden City, published in Qingdai gongting shenghuo [Life in the Palace during the Qing dynasty], Hong Kong, 1985, pl. 133; and the top panel of a chest, attributed to the Qianlong period, illustrated in C.Y. Tsai, Zitan. The Most Noble Hardwood, My Humble House, Taipei, 1996, pp. 218-219.
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