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One important reason why Ming Dynasty and early Qing antique furniture is of such high quality is that it was fashioned from hard, dense woods of good color and beautiful grain. Here we discussed a few main furniture woods: huanghuali, zitan, jichi, ju, tieli.
During Ming and early Qing dynasties, most of the best antique furniture was made from huanghuali wood. The term Huanghuali is not found in early texts, only huali was mentioned. Later the prefix Huang was affixed to huali to distinguish it from the socalled xinhuali (new huali), the wood that became popular and which is still used in large quantities for making furniture today.
Huali is found in Guangdong and southern lands such as Hainan Island. It is purplish red and has a fragrance very much resembling that of truth-bringing incense. Huali with a devil’s-face grain is very valuable, while that with a coarse grain and light color is inferior. Huanghuali was given the scientific name Dalbergia hainanensis (Hainantan, or huali wood from Hainan Island) as recently as in 1956. In 1980, this name was changed to Dalbergia odorifera (jiangxiang huangtan) because the reason that this kind of Dalbergia is the only one yet known in China in which the colors of the pith and the outer wood are quite distinct. The unevenly colored pith is dark red, even purplish, and often has a black grain, and the outer wood is a grayish-yellow or light yellow. This variation of color is evident on some furniture made from huanghuali wood.
Many ancient books mentioned about zitan wood. In these books, zitan wood is said to come from various places that are mostly in Indochina, as well as from the Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Guangdong and Guangxi.
Zitan wood belongs to the Pterocarpus genus, which itself is a member of the Leguminosae family. Within this genus there are about fifteen species, most of which grow in the tropics. Zitan wood used in cabinetmaking is rarely found in large pieces and is in fact much closer to rosewood (Pterocarpus indicus). From very ancient times, the Chinese have considered zitan the most precious wood therefore fewer antique furniture pieces were made from it than other woods including huanghuali. Zitan wood is the hardest and heaviest of all hardwoods. Most examples are purplish-black, but some pieces are as black as lacquer, so that the grain is virtually invisible.
Jichi wood is also known as chicken-wing wood or qizimu. There are two kinds of jichi wood, an old one and a new one. New jichi wood is coarse and purplish-black in color, some of the grain lines being purple, other black. The grain is not very clear, and because it is rigid, straight and coarse, the wood has a tendency to split. Old jichi wood is denser and of a purplish-brown color. The grain, especially in straight cuts, forms very good patterns suggesting the feathers near the neck and wings of a bird. After the middle of Qing dynasty few pieces were made from old jichi wood while the new jichi wood is still being used today.
Jichi is one of the genera of wood belonging to the Ormosia family. There are over forty species under the genus, over twenty of which are found in China. The seeds of the jichi tree are called red beans or love beans, and can be made into jewellery. Thus the wood is also called love wood.
Ju wood antique furniture can be found in towns and villages all over China. Ju wood is known in north China as southern elm. It is harder than most woods although it is not exactly a hardwood. It plays an important role in Ming and early Qing antique furniture. Some pieces were made identical to huanghuali wood pieces in form, style and craftsmanship. It is evident therefore that cabinetmakers and true connoisseurs of Chinese antique furniture greatly valued them, believing that their aesthetic and historical merits should not be downgraded simply because they were made from somewhat inferior wood.
The scientific name of the ju genus is Zelkova. The species found in Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces is a large-leaf elm. Its wood is hard and dense, with a beautiful color and grain suggesting mountains piled upon mountains, called pagoda pattern by Suzhou cabinetmakers.
Tieli is the largest of all hardwood trees and the timber is the least expensive. In the tropics, tieli is used for beams, pillars and screens. In areas such as Guangdong, many very large pieces of furniture are made from it. It is frequently used for the backs of furniture, shelves, and interiors of drawers. The grain of tieli wood is similar to that of jichi wood, only coarser, and furniture merchants would sometimes pass off tieli pieces as being made of jichi wood.
The scientific name for tieli wood is Mesua ferrea. It is a large evergreen with a straight trunk that can be more than 100 feet high, with a diameter of 10 feet. It originally came from the East Indies. The wood is very hard and durable with a dark red center and a fine, beautiful grain.