Such long rectangular tables with recessed legs and upturned ends were generally placed in reception halls where important male visitors were received and family ceremonies took place. The prominent scholar Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645) in his influential Chang wu zhi [Treaties on superfluous things], refers to tables of this design, made from a single plank of wood as ‘natural tables’, and explains that their “length should not exceed eight feet, nor the thickness of the top five inches. The end flanges must not be too sharp, but smooth and rounded, which is the antique pattern” (Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things. Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, Honolulu, 2004, p. 42). Wen further notes on their correct display: “On the table beneath the painting one may place such things as fantastic rocks, seasonal flowers, or miniature tray-landscapes; but avoid garish objects such as red lacquerware” (Sarah Handler, Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture, Berkley, 2001, p. 228). Despite their considerable weight, these large tables were at times moved outdoors and used for examining antiques, writing calligraphy or paintings, as in the album leaf Examining Antiques by Zhang Hong (1577-after 1652), in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio, illustrated ibid., pl. 14.15. Altar tables of this type feature prominently on woodblock illustrated books and paintings testifying to their importance and popularity among affluent Ming dynasty households.
Known as qiaotouan among modern Beijing cabinet makers, tables of this type appear to have developed from altar tables, zu, used to hold meat offerings from as early as the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771-256 BC). Altar tables with upturned ends are depicted on archaic bronze yi vessels from this period, and a lacquered low table of this type was excavated from a tomb in Zhaoxiang, Hubei province, and illustrated in in Sarah Handler, ‘Side Tables. A Surface for Treasures and the Gods’, Chinese Furniture. Selected Articles from Orientations 1984-1999, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 200. By the Ming period, the upturned ends of these tables had acquired a dual function: they heightened the table’s presence and concealed the unattractive and dull end grains of the plank top. Such tables are depicted in contemporary paintings and woodblock illustrations, such as one in the Ming novel Jin ping mei [The plum in the golden vase, or the golden lotus] (fig. 1).
A slightly smaller table with lingzhi sprays on the spandrels and in the panels between the legs, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures in the Palace Museum. Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (I), Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 125; another with cloud-shaped spandrels, also in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is published in A Treasury of Ming & Qing Dynasty Palace Furniture, Beijing, 2007, vol. 1, pl. 310; a much smaller one was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 30th November 2011, lot 3077; and a slightly larger one, with spandrels carved as a zoomorphic mask, is illustrated in Sarah Handler, op.cit., pl. 13.
Huanghuali is amongst the most valued hardwood in China, appreciated for its vibrant colour, impressive grain pattern and light sweet fragrance. During the Ming and Qing dynasties it was used for making high-quality furniture and craftsmen took full advantage of its distinct qualities to create smooth and plain surfaces that retained much of the material’s natural beauty. The highest-quality huanghuali, also known by its Chinese botanical name Hainan jiangxiang huangtan, comes from Hainan and is known for its wide range of colouration from light yellow to purplish-red. By the Qing dynasty, huanghuali became especially treasured by the imperial court and was frequently used for the production of imperial furniture.
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