We have been unable to discover when the Chinese first began to use State or domestic furniture. Whether, like the ancient Assyrians and Egyptians, there was an early civilization which included the arts of joining, carving, and upholstering, we do not know; most probably there was; and from the plaster casts which one sees in our Indian Museum, of the ornamental stone gateways of Sanchi Tope, Bhopal in Central India, it would appear that in the early part of our Christian era, the carvings in wood of their neighbours and co-religionists, the Hindoos, represented figures of men and animals in the woodwork of sacred buildings or palaces; and the marvellous dexterity in manipulating wood, ivory and stone which we recognize in the Chinese of to-day, is inherited from their ancestors.
Sir William Chambers travelled in China in the early part of the last century. It was he who introduced “the Chinese style” into furniture and decoration, which was adopted by Chippendale and other makers, as will be noticed in the chapter dealing with that period of English furniture. He gives us the following description of the furniture he found in “The Flowery Land.”
“The moveables of the saloon consist of chairs, stools, and tables; made sometimes of rosewood, ebony, or lacquered work, and sometimes of bamboo only, which is cheap, and, nevertheless, very neat. When the moveables are of wood, the seats of the stools are often of marble or porcelain, which, though hard to sit on, are far from unpleasant in a climate where the summer heats are so excessive. In the corners of the rooms are stands four or live feet high, on which they set plates of citrons, and other fragrant fruits, or branches of coral in vases of porcelain, and glass globes containing goldfish, together with a certain weed somewhat resembling fennel; on such tables as are intended for ornament only they also place little landscapes, composed of rocks, shrubs, and a kind of lily that grows among pebbles covered with water. Sometimes also, they have artificial landscapes made of ivory, crystal, amber, pearls, and various stones. I have seen some of these that cost over 300 guineas, but they are at best mere baubles, and miserable imitations of nature. Besides these landscapes they adorn their tables with several vases of porcelain, and little vases of copper, which are held in great esteem. These are generally of simple and pleasing forms. The Chinese say they were made two thousand years ago, by some of their celebrated artists, and such as are real antiques (for there are many counterfeits) they buy at an extravagant price, giving sometimes no less than L300 sterling for one of them.