Characteristic Culture&Art National Non-material Cultural Heritage Suzhou Attractions, Jiangsu Province

A Unique Opera – Kunqu Opera

Brief Introduce of Kunqu Opera

Kunqu Opera, which is also named Kunshan Vocal Cavity or Kun Opera, is believed to be the origin of all the other Chinese operas and it has also been considered to be a kind of art which appeals highbrows only. With a long history of over 600 years, Kunqu Opera originated in Qiandun Town, Kunshan County of Jiangsu Province at the end of the Yuan Dynasty(1271AD-1368AD), and it became quite popular in China in the Ming(1368AD-1644AD) and Qing(1644AD-1911AD) Dynasties. Kunqu Opera is actually a kind of very comprehensive art combining literature, history, music, dancing and esthetics.

In the year 2001, it was entitled the World No 1 Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage by the UNESCO. Nowadays there are in China six Kunqu Opera troupes and one Kunqu Research Institute, including the Sukun Opera Troupe of Jiangsu Province, the Jiangsu Provincial Kunqu Opera Troupe, the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe, the Zhejiang Provincial Kunqu Opera Troupe in Hangzhou City, the North China Kunqu Opera Troupe in the city of Beijing, and the Hunan Provincial Kunqu Opera in the city of Chenzhou, Hunan Province, which are all professional organizations of Kunqu Opera. And there is also the Yongjia Kunqu Opera Research Institute in Zhejiang Province.

The Chinese government has already held the China Kunqu Opera Festival for three times till now and there are also numerous non-governmental Kunqu Opera clubs all over China as well as in the whole world.

Recommended Kunqu Opera Museum

If you want to personally appreciate the unique glamour of Kunqu Opera, the Museum of Chinese Kunqu Opera should be your first choice. China Kunqu Opera Museum is located in the All-Jinhui Hall of Zhangjiaxiang, Pingjiang Road, Gucheng District, Suzhou City, Jiangsu Province. 

It was originally named Suzhou Opera Museum that was built in 1986 and it has been constructed in ancient Chinese architectural styles, creating an artistic ambience of Kunqu Opera. The main ornament plants in the museum are orchids, which could manifest the pureness, elegance and exquisiteness of the classic Kunqu Opera. After the hard work of the local people in the past fifty years, the Museum of Chinese Kunqu Opera nowadays has collected numerous precious manuscripts and scenarios as well as tens of thousands of pieces of antiques, materials, and historical records of Kunqu Opera. Inside the museum there are displays of the exquisite ancient opera stage from the Qing Dynasty, the exhibitions of the different types of roles, antiques , historical records, and introductions of famous Kunqu artists and their masterpieces. Nowadays the Audio-video Center of Kunqu Opera in the museum is being constructed and special performances of the opera could be watched almost in every week.  

The History of Kunqu Opera

It took quite a long period for the ancient people to absorb different vocal cavities and at last developed and improved the art of Kunqu Opera. As early as in the periods of the Song(960AD-1279AD) and Yuan(1279AD-1368AD) Dynasties, the Chinese operas had been divided into two groups, including the northern operas and the southern operas, the latter of which had quite different singing styles in different regions. At the end of the Yuan Dynasty, Gujian, who was believed to be one of the founding fathers of Kunqu Opera, worked together with other artists and sorted out and improved all the original different tunes and singing styles popular in Kunshan area before they at last developed the Kunshan Vocal Cavity, which was the early form of today’s Kunqu Opera.

Then during the reign of Emperor Jiajing in the Ming Dynasty(1368AD-1644AD), Weiliangfu, who was an outstanding opera artist, made some reformations and innovations to the rhythm and  singing styles of the original Kunshan Vocal Cavity , absorbed the excellent features of some of the other southern operas including the Haiyan Opera and Geyang Opera, and in the meanwhile fully developed the features of smoothness , beauty, and abundant imagination of the original Kunshan Vocal Cavity. In addition, the feature of precise structures as well as the singing styles of the northern operas were also absorbed, and some musical instruments such as flutes, Xiao, which is a kind of vertical bamboo flutes, Sheng, which is kind of reed pipe wind instrument, and Chinese lutes were played to accompany the performance, as a result, a brand new kind of opera—Kunqu Opera was formed, full of exquisiteness and grace and combining all the excellent features of both the northern and southern operas.

After that, another famous artist Liangzhenyu from Kunshan city, made more research and improvements to the Kunqu Opera, based on the achievements already accomplished by Mr Weiliangfu. At the end of Emperor Longqing’s reign, Mr Liang compiled Huanshaji, whcih was the first Kunqu poetic drama in Chinese history and largely expanded the popularity of Kunqu Opera after its performance on the stage. Later, more and more scholars and artists began to write numerous dramas in the melodies of Kunqu Opera, as a result, more and more people began to learn the opera. At last, Kunqu Opera became one of the four most famous operas in the Ming Dynasty, and the other three included Yuyao Opera, Haiyan Opera and Geyang Opera.

At the end of Emperor Wanli’s reign(in the 1620s), as a result of the widespread performance, Kunqu Opera was spread to other places such as Beijing City and Hunan Province through the city of Yangzhou, and it quickly became the No 1 opera as well as the only one standard singing style for the performance of different poetic dramas in many areas of China. At that time there was a popular saying which went like this, ‘Kunqu Opera was always performed in whatever opera stages of whatever places in China’. At the end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, Kunqu Opera was spread to provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangdong, etc, and it became an opera enjoying national popularity.

The Development of Kunqu Opera

Originally, Kunqu Opera was performed in the Suzhou vocal cavity, however, after being spread to other places, it was combined with the different local dialects and folk music, and therefore there came the various groups of Kunqu Opera, which made the Kunqu family much more colorful and abundant, at last, Kunqu Opera became one of the most representative national operas of China. Kunqu Opera was developed to its golden age during the reign of Emperor Qianlong(1735AD-1796AD) of the Qing Dynasty. From then on, it continued to be the No 1 opera on the stages of China in the following six hundred years. Nowadays it has become one of the oldest operas with a splendid tradition and history both at home and abroad.

According to the research of scholars, the esthetics represented by Kunqu Opera outwardly belongs to the southern Chinese culture, especially the culture of the regions in the south of the Yangtze River, however, substantially speaking, the cultural identity of the opera does not belong a specific historical period or geographic area, it is actually a combination of esthetic pursuit and artistic creations of the Chinese scholars from various parts of the country. Just because it is the result of the Chinese scholars’ elegant taste and refined pleasure, it is quite powerful and could be spread widely in China , and moreover, during the spreading process, it has always by and large been maintaining the consistency of its inward and outward esthetics.   

As the traditional cultural art of the Chinese nation, Kunqu Opera is one of the oldest traditional Chinese operas and also an rare art treasure in the opera family. It has been called an orchid from the spring garden.  The operas that had the widest influence in China between the middle  age of the Ming Dynasty and the middle age of the Qing Dynasty were mostly developed on the basis of Kunqu Opera, which therefore nowadays has also been well known as the Father of Chinese Operas. Kunqu Opera has the most integral performing system in the history of Chinese operas , and with its colorful contents and abundant heritages as well as representing the fruit of highly developed Chinese national cultural art , the opera has played in Chinese history a very important role in the development of literature, operas, music, and dancing.  

Types of Roles in Kunqu Opera 

Sheng: Sheng refers to the young male character type in Kunqu Opera. It includes two basic types—Jinsheng and Guansheng. Jinsheng in Chinese means one who wears a turban, and usually young intellectuals or successful candidates at the imperial examinations in the provincial level in the Ming and Qing Dynasties wore turbans on their heads. For example, the character Liumenghai in opera ‘The Peony Pavilion’ is a Jinhsheng. Guansheng in Chinese actually means young government officials, and examples of Guanhsheng include Xujizu in opera Bailushan, and Tangminghuang in opera Changshengdian. Those actors who wear artificial whiskers in Kunqu Opera are called Big Guansheng.

Dan: Dan refers to the female characters in Kunqu Opera and it includes five different types such as Laodan, Zhengdan, Sidan, Wudan and Liudan. Laodan refers to the old female characters, such as Mrs Cui in opera Nanxixiang, Zhengdan refers to the middle-aged female characters who have had a lot of hard experiences and are quite strong-willed , such as Mrs Cui in opera Cankeshan, Sidan refers to the female characters who are good at marshal arts, and it is also called Murder Roles, such as Feizhene in opera Tieguantu. Wudan, which is also called Boudoir Roles, refers to young female beautiful characters who have got married and they are always the main female characters in love stories, such as Duliniang in the Peony Pavilion. Liudan always refers to young maids or servants of Wudan and they are most of the time also main characters in the opera, such as Hongniang in opera Nanxixiang.

Jing: Jing has always been nicknamed Colorful Face and it includes Damian and Baimian. The former has also been known as Big Colorful Faces, which mainly contain roles of loyal government officials, kings or emperors, and gods or deities, such as Emperor Zhaokuangyin in opera Fengyunhui. And the latter mostly refers to vicious and mean people, such as the treacherous government official Qinhui in opera Jingzhuiji.  

Mo: Mo refers to the middle-aged and old male characters who wear artificial whiskers. It includes three types,such as Laosheng, who are usually very good at marshal arts, Fumo and Laowai. The characters of Laosheng are usually young men who enjoy very high social status and who are mostly the main characters in the opera, examples include Suwu in opera Muyangji, and Linchong in opera Baojianji. Fumo usually refers to the minor roles, who are usually lower class servants, such as Licheng in opera Jingchaji. Laowai refers to old characters, who are mainly important officials of the imperial court, such as Wuyuan in opera Huanshaji.

Chou: Chou is also known as Small Colorful Face and it includes two types of roles, such as Xiaochou and Fuchou, who usually make some antics or speak some humorous words to make audiences laugh. The characters of Xiaochou are usually kind-hearted and humorous unimportant people, such as the role of Benwu in opera Niehaiji, and the characters of Fuchou are vicious and cunning people of high social status, such as Yanyuji in opera Ynazizhan.

There is actually another kind of roles of little importance in the opera and therefore they are not taken as the main type of characters in the opera. They are extras with no names or titles, such as carters, boatmen, umbrella men, unimportant minor officials, eunuches , maids in the imperial palace, and utility men.

Generally speaking, a traditional Kunqu Opera troupe only needs 18 actors and actresses in total. Only in a few very big opera troupes there are twenty seven performers. Normally a troupe that has ten performers that contain all the main types of characters could give performances and other characters in need could be replaced by those whose roles are the similar types. The ten performers mentioned above are also called ‘Ten Main Pillars’ of the troupe, and they are Jing, Guansheng, Jisheng, Laosheng, Mo, Zhengdan, Wudan, Liudan, Fu, and Chou, and the quality of the performance mainly depend on the acting of four roles, including Jing, Laosheng, Guansheng, and Zhengdan.  

Different types of the roles in Kunqu Opera have their own special performing movements, languages, skills and procedures, which play a very important part in portraying the personalities and mental states of the characters as well as dramatizing the plot and elevating the appeal of the opera. As a result, the intact and unique performing system of Kunqu Opera has been formed.   

Characteristic Culture&Art The Culture of China

Qipao – A Chinese formal-dress costume for Female

As one of the many different national and/or ethnic types of traditional Chinese female costumes, the Qipao – alternately known as the Cheongsam – originated as a traditional women’s formal-dress costume within the Manchu ethnic minority. During the early part of the 20th century, the Qipao was also adopted by women in the majority Han Chinese ethnic group, who made a number of alternations to the then-existing Qipao in what, in hindsight, can be said to represent the beginning of the sexual emancipation of the Chinese female, which emancipation would first be achieved with the emergence of the People’s Republic of China, when women gained equality.

The transformed Qipao, having thus become a pan-Chinese costume, was officially designated in 1929 as a Chinese national formal-dress costume for females by the government of the Republic of China (1912-1949), the successor government to the last Imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911) Dynasty.


After the founding of the Republic of China in 1912 and the spirit of freedom that this monumental event unleashed, Han Chinese women from the cities of Shanghai and Beijing began to make alternations to the Qipao, gradually transforming what was essentially a standard Manchu costume for females into a formal pan-Chinese costume which would thereafter serve as a symbol for a woman of learned background, irrespective of ethnic heritage. By the time it was approved as a Chinese national formal-dress costume for females in 1929, the Qipao had undergone a number of significant changes that elevated its status as a stylish, yet sedate costume for the Chinese female.

However, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the wearing of the Qipao in mainland China gradually fell into disuse – though it did not disappear entirely, and, in fact, away from the major cities the Qipao was worn frequently – since it was equated with the feudal, hierarchical society of old that, in the view of the government of the PRC, oppressed women. Later, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the wearing of the Qipao in mainland China all but disappeared, as it was considered an unacceptable bourgeois symbol.

Fortunately, with the advent of the reform period of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, and the opening up of China as a result of the visit to China by the U.S. president, President Richard Nixon, the Qipao made a gradual comeback, being re-considered, as it were, as one of the exceptional representatives of traditional Chinese formal-dress costumes.

On the Chinese island of Taiwan, on the other hand, the Qipao continued uninterruptedly to enjoy popularity as a traditional Chinese formal dress for women, and is still very popular throughout Taiwan, though today one sees Western-inspired female formal dress on Taiwan as often as one sees traditional Chinese models of formal dress, such as the Qipao.

In Hongkong, a girl’s school-uniform version of the Qipao that stems from the early 20th century transformation of the Qipao into a pan-Chinese dress costume for females continues in an unbroken chain to this day, i.e., ., it is a 100-year-old tradition that still thrives in Hongkong.

Moreover, the Qipao continued – and, indeed, continues – to thrive as a beautiful, traditional Chinese formal-dress costume for women among the Chinese diaspora the world over.


The Salient Features Of The Qipao

The elegant Qipao is characterized by a stand-up collar (this is a general feature of Chinese dress, i.e., it is a feature that often applies to both male and female dress), a tight waist design (as can be understood, not all women can fit into the Qipao!), and buttons made of silk or cloth. Additionally, the Qipao is slit on either side, exposing glimpses of the legs during movement.

Other features of the Qipao that are optional (do not apply to all Qipao styles) are that the dress either extends to just above the feet (the most traditional style) or to just below the knees, that it has long sleeves (the most traditional style) or short sleeves. These modern options, though they may not please traditionalists, have ensured that the Qipao remains popular.

The Development Of The Styles Of Qipao

As a result of over a thousand years of deeply-rooted cultural mores of Imperial era feudal China, a woman’s dress was not allowed to reveal her figure; all was straight, vertical lines that concealed the bosom, the waist and the hips. It was a strict taboo for a woman to wear any form of dress that even hinted at her actual shape. This began to change toward the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the post-Imperial period immediatly following, i.e.., the period of the Republic of China.

This change was gradually ushered in during a period of much social upheaval in China as a result of widespread contact with Western culture, to which China responded alternatingly with acceptance and rejection, in a ‘two steps forward and one step backward’ fashion. At the beginning of the 20th century in China, lined, short gowns with loose, broad sleeves – over which a long, sleeveless waistcoat (think of a vest) was worn – were quite popular among Chinese women.

It was at this time that the Chinese female began to alter her clothing in subtle ways that suggested the beauty of her curvature. Using the traditional Qipao, certain alternations were made to the sleeves, the collar and the borders, with adornments added at the same time. These small stylistic changes added up, over the space of 10-15 years, to rather complex changes to the original Qipao, subtly suggesting the female form underneath, yet somehow this classic Chinese dress, with its Manchu ethnic origins, managed to retain an air of austerity about it – especially its broad shoulders, its upright collar and its vertical lines in general – which formal features no doubt helped it to gain official recognition by the government of the Republic of China in 1929.

Characteristic Culture&Art

Ancient Chinese Furniture

Chinese Imperial Era Furniture


Depending on its function, an Imperial era piece of Chinese furniture typically belonged to one of three different categories: bedroom furniture, study room (library) furniture, and hall furniture, where a hall itself might belong one of a number of categories such as a state (official government) hall, a temple hall, a garden hall and a residence hall, the latter of which was further subdivided into a royal residence hall and a residence hall for a high-ranking government official, an artist, or a wealthy businessman. The ancient Chinese term for a hall, covering all of the above applications, was “ting”.

In the following, a short description of specifically Imperial era Chinese hall furniture will be presented, followed by a presentation of the general features that characterize first Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty furniture, then Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty furniture – both viewed from a general style & materials perspective, i.e., irrespective of the bedroom-study-hall distinctions outlined above.


In time, the hall became more widespread, such that even lesser government officials and general members of the literati as well as sucessful artists had large enough residences to justify the inclusion of a hall. The Chinese name to describe this type of hall was usually “tang”, or chamber. However, both the “ting” (hall) and the “tang” (chamber) served as the room in which to receive guests, and was used almost exclusively for this purpose, much in the same way that a “living room” (American) or a “drawing room” (British) is used to receive guests; on almost all other occasions, the family would dine in the kitchen.

Of course, there was a world of difference between the “living room”/ “drawing room” of an artist or a government official, even a high-ranking government official, and the “living room”/ “drawing room” of an emperor, though the difference was more one of degree than of kind, i.e., the same furniture pieces – one is truly tempted to say “set pieces” in this instance – based on function, were seen in the hall of both the emperor and his subjects, albeit, the set pieces of the emperor naturally outshone the set pieces of his subjects by a large margin (it would probably have been dangerous for a subject’s health were the reverse ever to have been rumored to apply!).

Just as with the “living room” and “drawing room” of America and Britain, respectively (and a similar reception room is common to every European country), the hall, or chamber, of Imperial era China was the room in the house with the most exquisite – and most expensive – furniture. Since the garden was central to the residence of a royal Chinese personage or to a distinguished member of Chinese society, the residence hall was constructed so as to present a view on, and an entrance way to, the garden.

Generally speaking, what one today would call the interior design of an Imperial era Chinese hall followed certain laid-down principles. In the center stood 4 tea tables, each with a set of 2 chairs (8 chairs in all), the walls, on two sides, featured specially carved wainscoting, while the walls on the other two sides were plain, though on each was hung a decorative panel.

In addition, ranged alongside the walls in a certain specific order were serving tables, clothes racks, folding screens (i.e., room dividers) and traditional Chinese-style beds, known as arhat beds. Most hall furniture of Imperial era China was made of mahogany, though Chinese pear wood and its later substitutes, red sandalwood (zitan) – a form of rosewood – and blackwood (hongmu – sometimes referred to as wu mu), were used to some extent. Chinese red sandalwood, initially in abundance, eventually became a very rare wood by the middle of the Qing Dynasty, therefore Ming or Qing Dynasty furniture made of these two wood types fetch a very high price at international auctions.

References to Ming Dynasty furniture and other furnishings such as vases – invariably signifying things of rare beauty that carry an extremely high price tag – were common in early British and American cinema, and they occasionally occur still, at least on television, such as in the 1986-94 British TV series, Lovejoy, about a somewhat unscrupulous but lovable art dealer who was not only good at producing counterfeit art items himself, but was unparalleled at distinguishing between the genuine and the counterfeit work of others.

To give an idea of the extent to which Imperial era Chinese hall furniture from the Ming and Qing Dynasties is valued today, the following examples:

In Hongkong, a Ming Dynasty mahogany folding screen (folding screens are highly prized, exquisitely crafted, and – where made of mahogany – fetch the highest prices) was in the recent past auctioned off at the price of 1.2 million Hongkong dollars ($155,000 USD, circa), while another mahogany folding screen from the Ming Dynasty period – auctioned off outside China at about the same time – fetched a whopping price of slightly over 2 million Chinese Yuan ($290,000 USD, circa).

More recently, in the city of Shanghai, an auction house sold a group of Imperial era Chinese hall furniture pieces for 300,000 Chinese Yuan, or about $45,000 USD, a near-complete set of Qing Dynasty hall furniture consisting of the standard 4 tea tables and 8 chairs, plus a single armchair.

The Defining Features of Ming and Qing Dynasty Furniture

Ming Dynasty Furniture

Ming Dynasty furniture is usually simple, if somewhat rustic, in design, projecting an image of sturdiness combined with simple elegance, while the furniture of the Qing Dynasty period is more complex and more varied in design, with intricate and luxurious embellishments, projecting an image of delicacy combined with sophistication.

The Ming Dynasty is considered, in hindsight, the golden era in the development of ancient Chinese furniture. This is partly due to the abundance, as yet, of the hard woods used to make furniture during the period, hard woods such as Chinese pear wood (the pear tree, genus Pyrus, which has been cultivated in China since the Western Zhou (BCE 1027-771) Dynasty, originated in China in the foothills of the Tianshan Mountains of Central Asia, from whence it spread north, south and westward, and today grows on every continent) and its later substitute, sandalwood; the increasing demand for furniture had, toward the end of the Ming Dynasty, seriously depleted the stocks of the Chinese pear tree, which was of course also prized for its fruit.

But the later recognition of the Ming Dynasty as the golden era of Chinese furniture was also partly due to two other features of the furniture of this period, namely, the development, on the one hand, of mortise and tenon joinery (think of the way that two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fit together) – which required no nails, screws or other metal joining devices – and, on the other hand, the dovetailing of design to the intended practical use of the article of furniture in question; in other words, Ming Dynasty period furniture was not fancifully designed for the sake of design itself, meaning that design was not divorced from function. In this same spirit, Ming Dynasty period furniture was neither lacquered, delicately designed, nor embellished with ornate carvings, but was deliberately designed to be simple and sedate, where the natural color and grain of the wood was allowed to speak for itself, as it were. Typical articles of furniture made of Chinese pear wood were large-surface items such as tables, chairs and commodes.

With the depletion of the stocks of pear wood, Chinese furniture craftsmen turned inceasing toward sandalwood and blackwood, as indicated. Unfortunately, the largest sandalwood trees were no more than 25 cm (9.84 in) in diameter, therefore the furniture items made of sandalwood tended to be smaller. The decline of pear wood in the production of furniture continued into the Qing Dynasty, with a gradual shift toward the aforementioned alternative hardwoods. In the meantime, the quality of sandalwood varied both with the variety (there were a dozen or so of these, with red sandalwood being the best) and with the individual specimen, the latter of which also applied to pear wood. This put the ingeniuity of the Chinese furniture craftsman to the test, but he responded creatively to the challenge, reserving the best quality wood – appearance-wise – for the most visible surfaces, while making use of lesser-attractive pieces of wood for the rest.

The main difference between Ming and Qing Dynasty period sandalwood furniture continued to be along the style lines set forth above, where Ming Dynasty furniture was more simple and functional in design, while Qing Dynasty furniture tended toward more elaborate design – perhaps sometimes, design for design’s sake – and ornate embellishments. The most exquisitely crafted – and most expensive – red sandalwood furniture made in China is the so-called Jinxing sandalwood furniture.

Qing Dynasty Furniture

Any analysis of the features that characterize the art of furniture making during the Qing Dynasty would be remisss if it did not view the artistic trends of the Qing Dynasty period in light of what had occurred in this sphere during the previous dynasty, the Ming Dynasty.

For example, in spite of the Qing Dynasty’s problems with foreign governments in general – and with foreign trade within regions of China in particular (it was during the Qing Dynasty period that the humiliating trade and territorial concessions were forced upon China in connection with what China termed the “Unequal Treaties”) – the Western influence on the Chinese furniture artisan that had begun during the Ming Dynasty only increased during the Qing Dynasty.

There were of course other trends and realities that influenced the art of Chinese furniture making during the Qing Dynasty that were wholly divorced from “precedence”, such as the fact that Qing Dynasty rulers were of Manchu/ Jürchen ethnic origin, whereas Ming Dynasty rulers were of Han Chinese origin, and such as the fact that many of the most prized wood types that had made Ming Dynasty furniture famous the world over were either depleted or near depletion by the middle of the Qing Dynasty, meaning that they were in severe decline from the outset of the Qing Dynasty, and this of course had a profound influence on furniture making in China.

The most over-arching features that define Qing Dynasty furniture are outlined below.


We can be certain that Chinese furniture craftsmen continued to perfect their skills, irrespective of the ruling dynasty, sometimes introducing innovative styles, some of which, during the Qing Dynasty especially, were quite bizarre, such as a bed that attempted to pass for a complete boudoir, as it included clothes racks, hat racks, bottle racks, lamp stands – even a spittoon – and other “accoutrements” whose original purpose cannot be divined today, all of which extra features could be adjusted for height, swung in or out, etc. (this bed puts to shame the modern American reclining chair, with its swing trays for holding glasses, cups, a TV dinner, etc.).

A couple of other Qing Dynasty Chinese furniture oddities, credited to the Chinese author, Li Yu (1610-80), was a “warming chair”, i.e., a chair with a tray under the seat in which hot embers could be placed, and a “cooling bed”, i.e., a bed with a water-tight device under the thin mattress into which cool water could be poured, ensuring a cool, restful sleep even on the hottest summer night.

Another tendency that influenced the art of furniture making during the Qing Dynasty was the fact that the middle class was growing in size, with an ever-greater distribution of wealth, and this not only increased the demand for furniture, but created a demand for new furniture types hitherto unseen, and more embellished furniture, as the bourgeois class began to assert itself. There are many furniture items from this period whose purpose, or function, remains a mystery today, though that doesn’t detract from their value, as antique furniture is of course not purchased for its utilitarian value.


As indicated in the above, the supply of mahogany ran out during the middle of the Qing Dynasty, but it had been in serious decline ever since the end of the previous dynasty. The main Qing Dynasty subsitute for precious mahogany was red sandalwood, which, though slightly less hard than mahogany, was considered by most to be even more beautiful, due to its bright red hue and its distinctive grain patterns in the form of stripes. Red sandalwood was a rare wood, however, so its price guaranteed that it was used only for the most exclusive types of furniture destined for sale to the most exclusive customers. Pear wood was also on the decline, leaving the various other sandalwoods and blackwood as the remaining hardwoods.

These realities influenced the type of furniture that could be made, since many of the trees were small in diameter. Yet, where large specimens were available, Qing Dynasty furniture artisans would go to extremes, sometimes “sculpting” an article of furniture from a single block of wood. Other examples of exorbitance in the art of furniture making during the Qing Dynasty period included fussiness regarding the choice of the individual piece of wood – if it had the slightest blemish, it was rejected. There was also an unwritten taboo against mixing wood types – a given furniture item was made solely of a single type of wood.

This naturally created a great deal of waste of perfectly good furniture-making raw materials, and at a time when the stocks of good furniture-making raw materials were rapidly being depleted, which only drove prices higher, but there was no lack of clientele willing to buy the most exquisite furniture produced by Qing Dynasty furniture artisans (in hindsight, this ‘only the best is good enough’ fussiness regarding raw materials is one of the chief factors that made Qing Dynasty furniture such a lasting, prized work of art the world over, to this very day).


The Qing Dynasty furniture artisan turned his imagination loose, where both delicate design (Ming Dynasty design was simple and stout by comparison) and the use of color, inlays and engravings were given free rein. Decoration, which had been looked down upon during the Ming Dynasty, was deliberately pursued during the Qing Dynasty. In general – in almost every category from design to embellishment – Qing Dynasty furniture eventually went in bold new directions. Since much of the wood available at this time was of slight diameter, Qing Dynasty articles of furniture tended to be smaller, while the range for what constituted furniture seemed limitless, with some articles bordering on what one today might deprecatingly refer to as bric-à-brac.


As indicated above, even though the Qing Dynasty eventually placed a ban on the export of Chinese-made furniture, the Chinese furniture artisan continued to allow himself to be influenced by Western traditions, for once the artistic genie is out of the bottle, as it were, it resists being re-bottled. Western-made articles of furniture had made their appearance in China with the arrival of foreign diplomats and foreign merchants, and well-to-do Chinese merchants as well as high-ranking Chinese government officials and members of China’s literati developed a taste for Chinese-made furniture that incorporated elements of both Chinese and Western furniture art.

In a sense, this new, Western current in the the art of Chinese furniture making was part and parcel of the furniture artisan’s unending quest for renewal, and as such was qualitatively no different than the challenges that the transition from Ming to Qing Dynasty styles had presented, which transition was decidedly not abrupt, but gradual, and where much of the Ming style was preserved in early Qing Dynasty furniture. Once begun, however, this Western influence was also encouraged by the Chinese consumer of the era, who considered furniture with a Western influence “in”.

Yet, as regards the incorporation of Western furniture-making techniques and features into Qing Dynasty Chinese furniture making, the Chinese furniture of the Qing Dynasty period remained solidly within the realm of Chinese aesthetics, even though it increasingly incorporated certain Western elements, especially as regards adornment.

Imperial era Chinese furniture made of red sandalwood fetches a staggering price today. As an example of the high price that Qing Dynasty period red sandalwood furniture commands today, an 18th century red sandalwood Chinese table was auctioned off in 1994 by Sotheby’s for the princely sum of $35 million USD, or 239 million Chinese Yuan.

Characteristic Culture&Art Xishuangbanna Prefecture, Yunnan Province

The Water-Sprinkling Festival Of The Dai Ethnic Minority

Time & Place

Time: Annually, from April 13-15

Place: The city of Jinghong, Xishuangbanna Prefecture, southwestern Yunnan Province

Featured: Splashing, spraying and dousing each other with water

The annual Water Splashing Festival of the Dai ethnic minority falls during the New Year celebrations of the Dai Calendar. It is the most important festival observed by the Dai ethnic people of Xishuangbanna Prefecture, and, similar to neighboring Thailand’s Songkran Festival, it involves three days of celebrations that include sincere, yet light-hearted religious rituals that invariably end in merrymaking, where everyone ends up getting splashed, sprayed or doused with water.

During the first two days of the festival, a dragon boat race is held to ring out the old year (the first day of the festival) and to ring in the new (the second day of the festival). The third day, the climax of the festival, is reserved for water splashing. On that day, the Dai people put on their newest and best clothes, then assemble at the local Buddhist temple, where the monks chant Buddhist sciptures. Afterward, a symbolic water splashing ritual is enacted whereby a Buddhist statue, with pomp and ceremony, is first coaxed out of the temple to the courtyard, then is splashed with water. This important ritual is called ‘Bathing the Buddha’.

The completion of the ‘Bathing the Buddha’ ritual serves as the signal that encourages ordinary mortals to themselves engage in mutual water splashing. Accordingly, people flock to the streets with pots, pans, bottles, or whatever, where they uninhibitedly splash, spray and douse each other with water, with the same gusto with which Westerners engage in a good snowball free-for-all.

The Water Splashing ceremony, however, is more than just good-natured fun; it also contains a religious element: water is regarded by the Dai as a symbol, firstly, of religious purity, but also of goodwill among people. Therefore, splashing a fellow human being with water during the Water Splashing Festival, whether a close neighbor or a fellow villager – or even a stranger – is an expression of the desire for good luck and prosperity to that person.

For the tourist interested in interacting directly with the Dai ethnic minority of Xishangbanna Prefecture in an informal and fun-filled manner, the annual Water Splashing Festival that takes place in the month of April is the perfect occasion. China Highlights offers a special tour to the city of Jinghong each year to coincide with the Dai ethinic minority’s annual Water Splashing Festival.

Characteristic Culture&Art Pingyao Attractions, Shanxi Province

Pingyao International Photography Festival


Time: September every year

Place: Pingyao Ancient Town, Shanxi Province

Featured: Thousands of select exhibits by Chinese and international photographers


The Pingyao International Photography Festival, held in the ancient section of the city of Pingyao in Shanxi Province, is not only an event for photographers of all skill levels, from the neophyte to the seasoned photographer, it is also a rare event for those simply interested in photography, including both curiosity-driven local residents and tourists from far and wide, both within and without China.

During the festival, Pingyao’s old town, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site since 1997, becomes one large, indoor and open-air photo gallery, with photo exhibits from professional and amateur photographers from every continent, representing upwards of fifty countries on average, and including the works of many renowned Chinese and international photographers.

The festival is organized around a chosen central theme each year. Under the umbrella, as it were, of the chosen overarching theme, the exhibition is divided into a number of sub-themes, usually 4-5 such sub-themes. To facilitate these subdivisions, the exhibits – some of which may be large montages – are situated in each its physical area, though in some cases (if the subdivision is very large), a single subdivision may be divided into two or more physical areas, so as to create more space for the large crowds that attend this popular annual festival, which is China’s preeminent photography exhibition. Within each subdivision, there are further subdivisions for works from China, works from Europe, North America, etc.

In addition, a number of academic activities – from forums to conferences to training courses to special workshops – are staged in conjunction with the festival. A special feature of Pingyao International Photography Festival, for photographers, is that the arrangers of the festival maintain a staff of twenty some professional photographers to greet newcomers and show them around. Not surprisingly, the festival is a place of great buzz and excitement for the photographer especially.

Pingyao International Photography Festival has been running for less than ten years and just seems to get bigger and better for each year, attracting the works of increasing numbers of serious photographers from around the world, as well as from renowned and lesser renowned photographers from the four corners of China itself.

Another curious thing about the Pingyao International Photography Festival is that it is ‘art observing art’ in the sense that the photographers who attend it are as busy clicking away during the festival as on any professional assignment – indeed, some of the montages have concerned aspects of previous festivals. As indicated, the festival gets larger each year. For example, the number of photos on exhibit during the recently completed (2009) festival was of such a magnitude that it would have taken at least three days to even have had a brief glimpse of each of them, much less study them in detail.

For those interested in this unique annual photo festival, UME Travel has put together a special a festival tour package that will appeal to the photographer and the photo aficionado alike. If you are interested, just contact me.