17th/ 18th century, Northern Elm (Yumu), thick red lacquer, fabric underlay, gilded Buddhist auspicious symbols, original brass lock-plate; Shanxi province.
This cabinet is designed in the “four-sides-square” style, a common form of construction from the Shanxi province, an area known to source fine furniture in China. The front consists of a pair of flushed panel doors fitted with hidden pivot hinges, a broad panel below, and a narrow recessed apron with simple apron-heads. The lock-plate and pulls are original. The interior is fitted with a shelf with two compact red lacquered and gilded drawers. The bottom half of the interior compartment has a “hidden space” behind the bottom front panel, secured by a removable shelf.
The entire surface of this cabinet is covered with the T-fret or key-fret design, sometimes interpreted as the Swastika design, which is a very revered old Buddhist symbol known in ancient China as the footprint of Buddha, here signifying unlimited richness. Floating on this motif are numerous gilt medallions adorned with traditional auspicious motifs. Represented are the flowers of the Four Seasons: the peony (spring), the lotus (summer), the chrysanthemum (autumn), and the pine (winter). These floral motifs sometimes combined to form in China what are known as The Three Friends: Pine (strength), Bamboo (uprightness, integrity, and faithfulness), and Plum Blossom (strength in adversity because it comes into blossom while snow is still on the ground); the Four Nobles: bamboo for faithfulness, plum blossom for strength, chrysanthemum for generosity, and orchid for modesty and hidden beauty. Also represented in the medallions are the phoenix (prosperity, charity, and beauty), the crane (longevity), the butterfly (longevity and happiness), a few of the Attributes of a Scholar (brush holder, vases, and incense burners), as well as some landscape scenes. Together, these motifs and symbols proclaim “riches and honor till eternity” to the recipients. All along the border of the cabinet are small paintings of butterflies and scrolling flowers, with the medicinal herb artemisia or yarrow, imposed on some of these flowers, meaning blissfulness.
This cabinet is finished with a fabric underlay on the red front and black frame-members before thick coats of lacquer was applied. This kind of application is labor-intensive and costly. It was applied to many Ming furniture in the Northern Shanxi region and continued well into the mid Qing period. With age, the thick lacquer layer tends to crack, revealing the linen undercoating, as can be seen on this cabinet. It is best not to attempt to fix the cracks, especally on red-lacquered wood as it is very difficult, if not impossible, to recreate the red color, which is from a natural pigment of cinnabar or vermilion. If the restorer is not familiar with Chinese lacquer and the new application is not right, resulting in a “finish” look, the integrity of the antique would be jeopardized and the piece devalued. The patina it shows can be achieved only through years of use and natural aging. The richness this red-lacquered cabinet exudes proclaims it a piece made for a family of status. In general, lacquered furniture, especially red-lacquered ones, were traditionally more highly regarded in China than hardwood pieces, and more favored by the elite class because red color has the connotation of richness and happiness. This gilded decorative style might be the forerunner of highly-priced chinoiserie decorative furniture that was the rave of Europe in the 18th century and still is today. This piece was acquired in China in the late 1900s when China opened to the West. It is in very good condition.