What you see: A very rare Huanghuali six-poster canopy bed, dating from the 17th to the 18th century. Christie’s estimates it at $1 million to $1.5 million.
What is Huanghuali? “It’s one of the most desirable hardwoods for Chinese furniture, and one of the most luxurious of all woods,” says Christie’s specialist Michelle Cheng. “It’s very durable, impermeable to insects. It’s extremely hard wood. You’ve got to have extremely sharp tools [to carve it]. It naturally has a beautiful luster. It’s very attractive in terms of grain and presentation.”
How do we know this is a bed? “Because of the form. Chinese furniture comes in specific forms and does not deviate from them,” she says. “We know this is a bed because of its size, the canopy, the railings, and the platform.”
Did the Chinese use beds with posts in the same way as Europeans did–using curtains to turn them into small rooms? “Beds were part of a lady’s dowry. When she married, it was brought to her home as part of her domestic space. It was draped with fabric for privacy,” she says. “The lady would entertain female friends in her private chamber, sitting on the bed. She would sleep alone, unless she was visited by her husband, drawing the curtains to create a private space for herself.”
Why does the bed have six posts rather than four? “It’s related to architecture,” she says. “You have a ‘doorway’ with six posts.”
I realize we can’t go back in time to watch the bed being built, but can you give me a notion of how much work would have gone into the creation of this bed? “It’s a lot of work to make one of these beds,” she says. “Everything comes apart. There are over 24 pieces in the bed, and at least 15 in the canopy. That’s a significant number of pieces to have to carve and to visualize, engineering-wise, how to fit together. The pieces lock in place using a mortise and tenon technology. They have to be pretty exact or the canopy can’t hold itself up.”
The word “Jiazichuang” appears in the headline of the Christie’s lot description. What does Jiazichuang mean? And how can we tell that the bed dates to some time between the 17th and 18th centuries? “Jiazichuang is a Chinese word for canopy bed,” she says. “The bed dates to the Ming Dynasty, and we can tell from the quality of the carving to the quality of the wood that was used. As Huanghuali dwindled, the quality of the wood became not-as-great. Its impressive size and proportions make for an impressive bed. The carvers were able to waste a lot of wood–they would have carved a lot of material way to create the openwork.”
Do the carved decorations on the bed–the chilong medallions, ruyi struts, and the lingzhi scrolls–have any particular meanings? “They have a lot to do with fertility, longevity, and good luck,” she says. “Chilong, or baby dragons, are interpreted as a wish for sons. The lingzhi and ruyi are symbols of longevity for yourself, your family, and your children. Ruyi, in itself, means ‘as you wish.’ The Chinese would present a ruyi scepter to someone They all tie into this desire for procreation.”
Who was this bed for? “The woman who owned the bed was from a prosperous family,” she says. “They were important in the community and had wealth and power. It’s a very large bed in terms of its width and height.”
How large? Is it possible to compare it to a modern bed? “It’s probably like a king size bed, but it’s hard to draw a straight line. This is one of the larger pieces we’ve had,” she says. “There are people who own and sleep on beds like these. It’s something you can do. It’s just a matter of finding the correct size mattress.”
This bed is described as being “very rare.” What makes it so rare? “Its impressive size, and the elaborateness of the carving on its rails,” she says. “This bed, in itself, is quite impressive for its use of materials and for the decorations you see. It’s showing off different techniques as well.”
Why will this bed stick in your memory? “Everything is well put-together and thought out,” she says. “I love the bottom rail of the canopy, with the interlocking medals. None of the medals are fudged to make them fit the proportions. The quality of the craftsmanship is at the highest level.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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