Tables of this long rectangular form, called tiaozhuo, were made with the four legs crafted at the corners or set in. Tiaozhuo were used in a number of ways, however, they were most common in bedrooms placed next to the large canopied bed providing a platform to lean on or as writing and painting surfaces in studios. They were also placed in private chambers to be used for casual meals when no guests were present.
Although many tiaozhuo feature stone insets on the top as they were easier to clean, it is extremely unusual to find table tops made of pieces of wood skilfully fitted together to form an attractive wan design. This attractive decorative device can also be seen on a zitan stool, with additional jade inlay around the sides, from the Qing court collection and still in Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasty (II), Hong Kong, 2002, no. 72. The jade insets of this stool suggests that such ornate surface tops were reserved only for the finest and most important imperial furniture.
The carved scrolls and phoenix are design elements taken directly from early jades and bronzes. It is notable that the phoenix resemble elaborate Rococo C-scrolls when viewed from afar, and it is only upon closer inspection that their actual form is deciphered. Jonathon Hay in Sensuous Surfaces, The Decorative Object in Early Modern China, Honolulu, 2010, discusses the 18th century taste for archaism and notes that zitan wood provided an ideal surface for the bold geometric lines of Chinese antique vernacular, describing it as a 'distinctly new form' (p. 161). It seems then, that this table embodies features of both East and West harmoniously merged in a distinctive style that speaks to the expansive, multi-cultural imperial taste, simultaneously referencing the past, while pushing into the future with innovative design.
The present table is also significant for its material, zitan wood, which is one of the most expensive and highly esteemed timber available to the master craftsmen working in the Muzuo (Wood Workshop) belonging to the Zaobanchu (Imperial Palace Workshop). With its jade-like silky texture, extremely fine and dense grain, subtle and deep lustre, zitan was the favoured timber of the Ming and Qing courts. Its long growth period combined with its limited availability, growing mainly in the southern regions, such as Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, made it especially valuable. By the Qing dynasty, excessive felling of zitan led to the exhaustion of its supply in China and large quantities had to be imported from islands in the South Pacific. During Kangxi's reign demand for zitan was so great that even young trees were cut, resulting in the complete extinction of the species. By Qianlong's reign, special measures were taken by the Court to protect any existing stores of zitan which were kept in the warehouses of the Imperial Workshop. The Archives of the Imperial Workshop at Yangxin Hall (Yangxin dian zaoban chu ge zuocheng huoji qing dang) confirm that the use of zitan was scrupulously monitored and restricted to the Palace Workshops.
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