Three Friends Studio owner Margaret Chung shares with us a story about how chairs in Chinese culture are much more than just a sitting device.
My Grandma never walked. I do not mean she was lame. As long as I could remember, she was always sitting in her chair, a beautiful Victorian-period chair with expensive upholstery. When she had to go somewhere, she would travel by car or be carried by two strong coolies in a sedan chair.
During my childhood in Hong Kong, my inquisitive nature often steered me to eavesdrop on adults’ private conversations, especially Grandma’s. I am a member of a large family spanning several generations. In those days we lived in a very close-knit community where virtually no one could do anything without scrutiny. Most of the bits of conversations, now forgotten, were idle gossips that involved relatives in the latest drama, which among this large assembly of family members, was a natural occurrence then as it is now.
However, some poignant stories remain, especially those oblique remarks that I thought I understood but the meanings were beyond my youthful comprehension. These I have filed in the unused compartments of my brain, and there they stayed for decades, waiting for me to fully grasp the significance. How then, does this relate to interior design? If you have the time, you will grant me the indulgence of telling you a story.
A long time ago, Grandma, visited her favorite nephew and his bride living in “exile,” away from their Hong Kong family from which they were estranged. The young people found themselves in this predicament because they had married against his parents’ wishes and he and his bride were unable to live in his former lifestyle. Grandma was appalled that her nephew was living in such austere conditions and he could not even offer her a chair because all he had for seating were stools. If you read on, you will find out why.
In Chinese culture, where you sit signifies who you are. Emperors and Empresses sat on thrones and carried on palanquins. Abbots and high officials sat on armchairs with yoke backs and resting their feet on foot stools. Chairs were designed for ladies with low backs and folding chairs were reserved for special guests.
Folding chairs were very special chairs. In a wealthy home, the chair was reserved for an important visitor. Generals watched on-going battles sitting on their folding chairs. These folding chairs are embellished with good metalwork.
Chairs named “official chairs” were seats literally intended for officials only. Sumptuary Laws in China dictated that non-officials could not own such a chair—a law that might be difficult to carry out.
In reference to the story about Grandma and her innuendo about the stools, I have always taken it on face value until it dawned on me that Grandma’s comment about the absence of chairs in her nephew’s home carried a double meaning. In truth, was she commenting her nephew’s lost of face and social standing? Not owning chairs reduced one’s status to just higher than the working poor who found squatting a comfortable way of relaxation. On the other hand, was Grandma lamenting that she also lost face by sitting on a common stool? I will never know. This story has a good ending. The young couple raised a large family. Their sons inherited a huge fortune and now they are known for their philanthropy.
Discover more beautiful Chinese furnishings from Three Friends Studio.