Exceptional Pair of Ming Yoke-back Armchairs

16th/17th Century

It is extremely hard today to find a pair of antique Chinese armchairs, made of walnut, that is so refined and demonstrate such beautiful workmanship. It is noted in a publication on “… Traditional Chinese Furniture From The Greater Shanxi Region”, with foreword by Curtis Evart, expert on Chinese antique furniture, and preface by the guru of Chinese antique furniture Wang Shixiang , that early walnut furniture from the Shanxi region “…generally demonstrate refined workmanship” and “…early pieces are extremely rare”. This pair, made of solid walnut, exhibiting such superior workmanship, showing such fluid lines with dignity, balance, and grace that it could have only been made for a person of status and power. Today, this pair is very valuable.

Each chair is beautifully deep-carved with symbols of Buddhism and what is known as Attributes of a Scholar. The crest-rail and armrests are shaped with a sinuous curve. The tripartite back-splat has relief carving of a pair of archaic dragons that also evokes the image of the Chinese character “Fu” (good fortune and happiness) on the top panel. The middle panel shows relief carving of a pair of antiquity vases on a bi-level stand, bearing cherry and iris flowering branches. The bottom panel is made up of a finely-shaped false-apron with carving of a lotus flower with scrolling leaves. The back-splat has short spandrels of angular “running dragons” scrolling design.

The carved armrest side-posts on these chairs are very unique. On most armchairs of the period, the posts are usually simply curved or notched, but the present ones are constructed with beautiful open-work, high-relief, deep-carved antiquity vases bearing lotus flowers and leaves, resting on a stand with elegant cabriole legs with a “ruyi” symbol on the apron. Furthermore, the vases themselves have relief carvings of some old brocade design on the main body, and lancet-shaped leaves towards the bottom, much like designs on archaic bronzes.

The chair has a narrow waist below the seat. The waist in front has low relief carving of a flower design in the middle, with scrolling cherry branches on each side and an endless knot at each end. The side waists each has low relief carving of ribbons, symbol representing the accomplishments of the scholar.

The apron in front and sides have outstanding deep open-work carvings. The front one shows a Taotie mask in the middle, with high-relief running dragons among beaded angular and rounded scrolls, accompanied by the ruyi and bat motifs. The side aprons have high-relief openwork and beaded deep carving of a ribbon, with archaic cloud-scroll. All the symbols on the aprons are hopes of having a long life, happiness, and good fortune granted by Buddha. Another feature on the chair that is quite rare is to have a copper plate with cut-out carvings of the swastika and ruyi, Buddhist symbols of harmony and good will, lining the footrest. Copper was an expensive element at the time, so besides hoping for good fortunes, the owner of these chairs probably wanted to “show-off” his wealth. The delicate proportion of the chairs indicates they were made for placement in a grand reception hall where they are more for looks and status than for common use. This would explain why the pair survived in such excellent condition.

The provenance of this pair is in its having only been in China, hidden somewhere in Shanxi and not emerge until after the Chinese Cultural Revolution when China opened to the outside world. We are the first in the West to collect it.