Ca 1870; valuable pear wood, beautiful carved metalwork with significant motifs; Cheon Chu City, Cheon Ra Buk Do Province. 34″ L, 12.75″ D, 40″ H.
Cheon Chu City is known in Korea for having high quality antique furniture as it was where scholars congregated to prepare to take an open Imperial Examination, the passing of which guaranteed upward mobility. This elite class of people could afford to furnish their estates with quality furniture while waiting to take the exam.
This quality chest is unique in style and valuable for the wood used and thick metalwork with significant Neo-Confucian motifs. Pear wood is a hardwood similar to Nanmu, a wood mentioned as material ‘par excellence’ by Ming literati and valued in China for its fine grain, hardness, sturdiness and relatively crack resistant. This wood, with its grain figure not clearly defined but shows an interesting burl-like pattern, is often used to decorate cabinet doors. It is used here on the front panels, giving the chest an arresting polished look. The thick ironwork carved into unique Neo-Confucian motifs decorates the chest beautifully but not overwhelming it, which is what a conservative Confucius era scholar wanted.
The upper part of the chest is for storing books and the lower part for clothing. It has two outside drawers made at the bottom for storing personal items such as documents, writing papers, and private letters. A combination of book chest and clothing chest is apt for a scholar away from home waiting for government appointments but is considered somewhat unusual to have the drawers at the bottom of the chest instead of the top. The lock-plate on the book-storing part is round and that on the clothing part is rectangular with a plain top part coming out of the bottom frame of the book part and catches on two loops on the plate on thee clothing part. The plate on the clothing part is elaborately carved with auspicious symbols of the “baguo” trigrams of Yi Jing (I Ching) and swastika (“wan” meaning eternal) on either side of the locking mechanism and the “fuk” (god fortune) motif at the center of the bottom. The drop-leaf door has a small round hinge in the middle and two swallow-shape hinges on either side. Below the round hinge is metalwork design of the Taoist “t’aeguk” symbol, derived from the Chinese yin-yang, with Taoist concept of eternal motion, that ‘change’ itself is unchangeable. This is a chest certified as authentic at The Arts of Pacific Asia Show in San Francisco in 2004. It is important for a piece of Korean antique furniture to be certified as so many antiques were lost or destroyed during the Japanese Occupation and Korean War. Today, so many reproductions appear in the market place, well-made in many instances but not rare and not valuable.