About woods

Most hardwood trees grow in hot climates, especially in tropical areas.  Much of the hardwood found in Chinese furniture, then, was not native to China but was introduced to the country through trade.  It is not only the beauty of the wood that gives Chinese furniture its value, however.  It is treasured for the meticulous craftsmanship, joinery and design that went into the pieces, as well as its cultural significance.   In contrast, for example, new and old furniture pieces found in Vietnam and made of the world’s most valuable wood, Zitan, can be purchased relatively inexpensive and are not widely sought by collectors because the construction and craftsmanship are fairly poor.  Certain antique Zitan pieces from China, on the other hand, are so valuable as to be found nearly exclusively in museum collections.

Pinyin

English

Characteristics

Bai mu

Cypress

A finished Bai wood surface smooth and silky; the wood is extremely dense, smooth and without obvious grain.  This blonde wood is found in both Northern and Southern Chinese furniture, but the Bai mu furniture from the north is the more highly prized.  This luxurious wood, which is much denser and harder than the American cypress, can be found in pieces dating from the Ming Dynasty.

He tao mu (hardwood)

Walnut

Considered a rare and excellent quality wood by furniture dealers and collectors in China, He tao mu is a dense wood with a more delicate and beautiful grain than Yu wood.  Usually found in Northern Chinese furniture, Ming and Ching furniture made with this food can sometimes still be found today.

Hua li mu (hardwood)

Rosewood

This relatively inexpensive rosewood has a lovely light yellow hue as opposed to most dark, heavy rosewoods.  Amateurs often confuse it for Huang hua li wood.

Huang hua li (hardwood)

Yellow Rose Wood

Huang hua li is a totally different species of wood from what is normally called rosewood, which is a general term and comprises over sixty varieties around the world.  ‘Huang’ means yellow, and furniture made of this unique wood is sought after by collectors and museums, especially that from the Ming Dynasty.

Hong mu (hardwood)

Mahogany

This wood is also considered to be a type of rosewood and is probably the heaviest and densest of the rosewoods.  Often used in Ching Dynasty furniture, it is the most popular wood furniture sought by the coastal Chinese collectors, including Taiwanese, Cantonese and Shanghainese aficionados.

Ji chi mu (hardwood)

Phoenix Tail or Chicken Wing Wood

This is an expensive wood, named for its feather-like grain which recalls not only the tight pattern found in plumes but the iridescent play of light and shadows similar to that seen on some chicken or pheasant feathers.   Often used for Ching Palace furniture, there are also a few existing examples of Ming Dynasty furniture made with Ji chi mu. Old furniture made with this highly prized wood ranks with furniture made with Zitan or Huang hua li.

Ju mu

Southern Chinese Elm

With a grain that is even tighter and more refined than that of a Northern Elm (Yu mu), the Southern Chinese Elm is probably the most praised and most useful Chinese soft wood for Ming furniture.

Nanyu mu

Southern Elm

Northern Chinese woodworkers and furniture dealers use this term to differentiate this wood from that of the elm grown in the north.

Shan mu

China Fir

This wood is commonly used for many provincial Southern China furniture items including stools, cabinets and buckets.

Song mu

Pine

This wood is often used for less expensive furniture pieces, like kitchen cabinets with Hong chu (lattice design), in Southern China.

Tie lu mu

Iron Wood

Similar in colour and grain to Ji chi mu, but not as dense and heavy, this wood has been dubbed the ‘poor man’s Ji chi mu’.   But when furniture pieces from the Ming Dynasty are found which are made from this wood, they are in fact very costly.

Xiang mu or Gao li mu (hardwood)

Oak

This wood is not native to China but came from along the Northern border, which is why this wood is called Gao li, which means ‘ancient Korea’.  Some Mongolian style folding chairs were made of this wood.

You mu

Teak

Teak wood is extremely prized, especially in warm countries, for its incredible durability.  Beams of teak wood that are hundreds of years old have been found in good shape in India and in Burma, and teak beams have stood the test of time in palaces and temples from more than a thousand years.  Under cover, this wood is practically indestructible.  Termites eat the sapwood, but rarely touch the heartwood, although it is not completely resistant to marine borers.  Teak has excellent dimensional stability and is strong, of medium weight and of average hardness.  Besides being used for fine furniture and decorative items, teak is used for shipbuilding, door and window frames, wharves, bridges, cooling-tower louvres, flooring, panelling, railway cars and Venetian blinds.

Ying mu

Burl wood

Burl wood is not a specific type of wood, but a certain cut, near the root or at the root section of a certain variety of trees.  Since it is only a small section of a few types of trees, it is scare and costly, and has been since ancient times in China.  Some types are more expensive than others, but all types of Ying mu are highly treasured by Chinese wood workers.  Because of its limited availability and high cost, it is often used only for small surface areas of furniture made of other types of hardwood.

Yu mu

Northern Chinese Elm Wood

Yu mu is a large tree with an elaborate and obvious grain, and the wood is commonly used for Northern Chinese furniture.  Furniture made of this wood is very popular outside of China because of its solid wood construction and beautiful grain.

Zao mu

American Oak

This wood is not very commonly found in old furniture surviving today, with the exception of a certain kind of Southern stool with bamboo slats that was made from Zao mu.  Although rare, there are also examples of Ming Dynasty furniture made of this wood.

Zhang mu

Camphor Wood

Valued by the Chinese because of its density, its grain and and its ability to repel bugs (similar to cedar in this respect), Zhang mu is used in both Northern and Southern Chinese furniture.

Zitan

Red-Purple Sandal Wood

This is the most expensive wood in the world, and the only wood that does not float in water.  Zitan wood is so dense that it sinks.  The wood is written about in ancient China as being worth as much as gold.  It is the most prized and valuable wood used in Ming and Ching Dynasty furniture, although very few Zitan wood pieces exist from the Ming Dynasty, except in museum collections.

Liu mu

Willow

to be defined.


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