Take a seat: a history of the chair

(written by one of the students in HST137, Spring 2023)

[Introduction] In the present day western world, children learn to sit “criss-cross-apple-sauce” as early as kindergarten. Something that present-day kindergarteners had in common with emperors of the Han Dynasty was that they sat on the floor to do everything. The art of sitting and the different furniture created over time to sit in Ancient China is more complex than one may think; starting with ancient sitting mats during the Han Dynasty and eventually evolving into the present day chair that is still around today. This part of history is one that is explored, but through this final paper and project, more details will be divulged regarding the evolution of “sitting furniture” from the Han Dynasty to the present day, the social constructs and rituals, as well as the materials used to create these pieces of furniture. 

[Mats & Mat Weights] During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.) and leading into the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the primary piece of furniture used for sitting in ancient China were mats, or cushions, usually made of bamboo. Both daily-life experiences such as meal times and formal events such as weddings or funerals took place on the floor with the use of mats. Every household – including the emperor’s – used mats, and the rest of the furniture in the household was floor-level as well to promote easy use and fluidity. There was significance in the way a person also sat on the ground, specifically kneeling on the mats, and how that translated to respect and behavior for their peers.1 Kieschnick also writes how in more casual situations, such as meal time, it was socially acceptable to sit cross-legged and that act would still show respect to their company. In more formal events, the mat was still used for seating, but the social connotations of the mat changed. In ancient times during governmental meetings, social status in society determined if one would be able to sit on their own mat, or if they would have to share. The officials with the more important positions would have their own mats, while the officials with lower ranks would have to share mats – showing that the mats still followed the social hierarchy and was a way to designate rank and power.2 A complementary item that was found alongside the mat was the mat weight. These were small sculptures, usually made of materials such as gilt bronze or pure bronze, that would hold the mats in place around the room. There were various designs – usually animals – such as bears, tigers, does, and felines. However, these weights were mostly excavated from only wealthier, aristocratic tombs, which helps to provide context that these weights were expensive and were not widely available and affordable. These mat weights were a daily object in the lives of the wealthy people, which was one of the possible reasons why they were used to “represent the continuity between the living world and the afterlife.”3 It is interesting to note that while historically in ancient China, artisans were not completely respected for their work, they still catered to the wealthy and people were willing to purchase from them without giving the respect that they deserved for their work and their contributions to society.4

[Transition Between Han Dynasty and Tang Dynasty & Introduction of Chairs] As time progresses, Ancient China transitions from the Han Dynasty into the Tang Dynasty. During this time, floor cushions started to be replaced with chairs that were above floor-level. Specifically, these chairs were usually made of rosewood, named for its scent and characteristically dark finish.5 and were also sealed with ancient lacquer for protection.6 There are various theories on the transition to recurrent lifted furniture pieces and the overall change to furniture design, one of which being the influence of Buddhism and the two types of chairs used: shengchuang or “corded meditation chair” and muchuang or “wooden chair” and another theory was the foreign influence and the huchuang, or “foreign stool.”7 Buddhism was looked to as a possible influence on chair level, as monks used shengchuang for meditation to avoid distraction and insects and muchuang for daily life, and the huchuang was also a theory due to the fact that it was the first piece of furniture that shifted posture from kneeling into having one’s legs dangling.8 

Shengchuang – corded meditation chairMuchuang – wooden chairHuchuang – foreign stool

The shift between the kneeling furniture and the chair was also represented in art as well; artwork depicts Emperor Taizong (599-649) kneeling on a raised platform, and a century later, artwork depicts Emperor Xuanzong (685-762) sitting on a chair.

[Ming Dynasty] Pieces of furniture from the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) are the ones with the most familiarity in the modern world – whether it be furniture found in museums or furniture used at your local hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The Ming Dynasty had various types of chairs, such as Fu Shou Yi, armchairs with yoke-backs, or Quanyi, chairs with rounded or horseshoe-backs reserved for honored guests.9 It was stated that during the 15th century and 16th century, the designs on the furniture were ornate and intricate, following three main motifs; “flowers and foliage, figural scenes, and dragons or phoenixes,” while also having various symbols of longevity and happiness carved into the lacquer.10 These designs, while frequently carved into the lacquer, could instead be made by inlaying designs using materials such as mother-of-pearl, which gives a different look.11 It is interesting to note that all of these chairs did not use nails or hardware; their joints were developed to interlock.12 Chairs from the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) are visually similar to those of the Ming Dynasty – they had the same structure and elegant style with a lacquer finish.

Ming Dynasty Chairs

Side-by-Side Comparison of Ming and Qing Dynasty Chairs 

[Present Day Influence and Appreciation] The effects and designs from the Chinese chair are still lasting in present-day society. It is important to learn about material culture, not just because of the knowledge that could be gained about a specific object, but because of its specific place in history and how that could shape the future in a myriad of ways. For instance, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the lasting effects of the Chinese chair designs come alive in Shao Fan’s 2000 modern take of a Ming Dynasty chair. This piece of furniture combines the signature aspects of an ancient chair, such as the shape of the armrests, with modern day materials, such as stainless steel. 

Modern Ming Dynasty Round-Backed Armchair, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Knowledge on the history and evolution of the chair over the dynasties might seem insignificant alone, but when placed in a timeline where the effects of these designs have shaped the modern style of rooms and other pieces, such as the height increase, and have been recreated in modern art, it is interesting to see the background and insight that it provides. 


  1. John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture Kieschnick, John, vol. 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.2752/174322006778053780
  2. Albert E. Dien, Six Dynasties Civilization (Yale University Press, 2007), 301, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vm2b9.13
  3.  “Mat Weights: Bears | Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.” Accessed April 18, 2023. https://www.gardnermuseum.org/experience/collection/15370.
  4. Anthony J. Barbieri-Low, Artisans in Early Imperial China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), 285, 288-289.
  5. Edward H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics (San Francisco, United States: Hauraki Publishing, 2014), http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/muhlenberg/detail.action?docID=4809481.
  6. Fritz Low-Beer, “Chinese Lacquer Wares,” East and West 5, no. 4 (1955): 285, 288-289.
  7. John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, vol. 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 223-231, 234, 235, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.2752/174322006778053780.
  8. John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, 223-231, 234, 235.
  9. “Round-Back Armchair (Quanyi),” Philadelphia Museum of Art, accessed April 19, 2023, https://philamuseum.org/collection/object/264466.
  10.  Fritz Low-Beer, “Chinese Lacquer Wares,” 285, 288-289.
  11. Jean Gordon Lee, “Chinese Furniture Collection,” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 58, no. 276 (1963): 53, https://doi.org/10.2307/3795082.
  12. Jean Lee, “Chinese Furniture Collection,” 44.

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