When you sit on a comfortable chair today of any of various designs, or lie down on a modern bed, does it ever occur to you that the ancient people used to sit and sleep on the floor?
As early as pre-historic times, the ancient people in China had already created the first piece of furniture for people to sit on the floor - sitting mats. Various prototypes of wooden furniture were designed around the sitting mat, such as short-legged wooden desks for the lap, chopping boards with legs, and short tables. These were the prototypes of the collection of furniture from ancient China that were characteristically low in height.
During the Period of the Warring States, the floor bed, the ancestor of all Chinese beds, was designed. This design of these floor beds led to all types of different designs of floor beds in the subsequent dynasties.
During the Qin and the Han dynasties, a complete collection of furniture for people to sit and sleep on the floor was designed. The furniture design in these periods is representative of Chinese furniture with a low height.
The Wei, the Jin and the North and South dynasties marked the most critical transition of furniture development in Chinese history. Design during this period was influenced by that of the East and West Han dynasties, and, in turn, had a tremendous impact on designs of the subsequent Sui and Tang dynasties. At that time, northern and western minorities introduced tall furniture, like the Hu bed, a tall bed used by the Chinese nomads. After some adaptations, tall furniture, such as round and square stools, started to prevail over floor furniture. At the same time, beds and couches were gradually built taller and taller, to the point where one could sit on the edge of them with one’s feet dangling in the air. But, in general, furniture with a low height still dominated the Chinese furniture market.
The Sui and the Tang dynasties were the transitional period in which the ancient Chinese people’s living style changed from sitting on the floor to sitting on high chairs. Typical tall furniture, such as long-legged chairs, stools and tables, appeared in the furniture market and became popular with the upper classes. During this period of time both short and tall furniture were in fashion in Chinese society.
By the Song dynasty, long-legged beds, tables, towel racks, chairs and stools had become trendy among the peasants, too, thus concluding the custom of sitting on the floor for several thousands years. It was also during the Song dynasty that the development of Chinese furniture reached its peak. The accomplishments in furniture development then built a solid foundation for further progress in the Ming and the Qing dynasties.
The evolution of furniture in ancient China reveals that the transformation of ancient people’s living style from sitting on the floor to sitting on high chairs occurred only after the Song dynasty. This means the custom of sitting on high chairs has a brief history of one thousand years in Chinese culture. One might wonder why it hadn’t occurred to the ancient Chinese people before that sitting on a taller chair might be more comfortable? It doesn’t make much sense especially if you’ve read about the incredible technological developments and inventions in ancient China recorded in Meng Xi Bi Tan by Shen Kuo of the Song dynasty. Can it be true that only after the appearance of Hu Chuang that the ancient Chinese people realised they could sit on stools?
The truth is that when the legendary ruler, Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor), sought the Tao [The Way of nature and the universe] from Guang Chengzi, a Taoist cultivator, Chinese culture became a culture of cultivation. At that time, all scholars were required to sit cross-legged and regulate their breathing and Qi [In Chinese culture "Qi" is believed to be "vital energy" before picking up their brush pen to write. Men of all walks of life valued a peaceful mind and regulated breathing before they conducted any activity. In fact, the whole of society was an environment for cultivation. When we trace the history of Chinese cultivation, it’s not difficult to find that the rise and fall of the Tao School is negatively correlated with the height of stools. It was when the Hu bed was introduced to China in the Wei and Jin dynasties that such cultivation-undermining practises as blending Confucianism and filial obedience into Taoism began in China. From then on, cultivators started to depart from the secular world and entered the secluded mountains to cultivate. When chairs and stools dominated the Chinese furniture market in the Song dynasty, people in the secular world no longer understood or accepted true cultivators. Everyday people began to blend Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism together as one school of philosophy. Later in the Song dynasty, a school of learning devoted to the study of the classics with a rational approach undermined Confucianism, and replaced the Chinese people’s leading ideology. All schools of cultivation among everyday people became extinct.
The transition from sitting on the floor to sitting on a chair may appear to be a sign of progress in human civilisation. Who would have known that it was actually a landmark of man’s deviation from the righteous path towards the degeneration of thinking and morality.
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