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December 16, 2010

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Furniture fit for an emperor

CLASSICAL Chinese mahogany furniture from the Forbidden City has been exquisitely reproduced for sale for the first time. Master craftsmen use photographs, high technology and ancient woodworking skills. Wu Yilong, Meng Zhaoli and Zhao Wei report.

Not everyone can live like an emperor but high-end reproductions of imperial furniture from the Forbidden City, masterpieces in mahogany, are now available to middle-class buyers in China and abroad.

It's a form of calligraphy in wood and it's structurally authentic - not a single nail is used.

Domestic sales and exports are booming.

For the past three years, the Liantianhong Furniture Co in Xianyou County, coastal Fujian Province, has been meticulously crafting exquisite reproductions of Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) furniture. Works include all manner of cabinets, chests, tables, chairs, beds, screens and other items.

"I had a dream," said 43-year-old Li Jineng, president of the furniture company, "that one day I could recreate all the classic pieces of furniture in the Forbidden City and furnish Chinese middle-class homes with them."

Three years ago, the mechanical engineer who runs a successful string of gas stations, started doing just that, working in mahogany, one of the 30 hardwoods traditionally used in fine furniture, such as rosewood, sandalwood and ebony.

The company produces more than 1,000 distinct pieces of Chinese imperial furniture and has become one of the most prosperous makers of luxury mahogany furniture in China.

Li grew up in Xianyou, famous as a center of classical furniture making.

He was a mechanical engineering student and successful owner of a chain of gas stations. He wanted a new business, but knew little about mahogany and fine furniture.

"But I do know my hometown has a long history of woodcarving and classical furniture making," said Li. Around 1,000 years ago, many Xianyou craftsmen were recruited to make furniture for the imperial courts and royal families during the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), he said.

Xianyou's tradition of wood carving even survived the chaos of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) when carved beds and cabinets continued to be a must for weddings.

Nowadays, there are tens of thousands of woodcarving craftsmen in the county, which has a population of 1 million.

Li decided he wanted more than quick returns in another furniture business.

He turned his eyes to the furnishings of the Forbidden City, the cream of Ming and Qing dynasties furniture.

"Chinese classical furniture is another form of Chinese calligraphy," said Li, who thoroughly studied all kinds of mahogany furniture. "All of the art's highest values, such as dignity, harmony and elegance, are embodied in the Forbidden City furniture."

For more than two years, Li's design team, which now numbers more than 200, has been replicating masterpieces, using modern equipment and techniques.

"It's unprecedented," said Zhang Yaozhen, chief engineer of Liantianhong. "We had to start from scratch."

Without physical access to the originals, they managed to obtain various publications on Forbidden City furniture, some journals recently acquired from Taiwan.

"We base our research on pictures, working out exactly the original measurements and ratios through optical and mechanical calculations," Zhang said. He emphasized that the internal structure of all the furniture uses traditional workmanship, using perfectly fitted mortise and tenon - not a single nail.

Thus, various carvings, patterns and styles are collected, selected, scanned, drawn, digitized and turned into programs, which through computer-controlled lathes, can automatically and precisely produce the standard semi-finished products for craftsmen to further work on.

It is at this point that the skilled Liantianhong craftsmen, more than 3,000 in total, demonstrate their skill, adding details, injecting life to carved figures, flowers and birds, mountains and waters.

"In the past, craftsmen had to use cheap wood to make samples," Zhang said. "Fortunately, we can now skip this time-consuming process with the help of advanced technologies."

The company is also making the hard furniture more comfortable, Chinese-style cushions and upholstery - some reproducing paintings in the Forbidden City - are produced to softenseats and backs.

"More often than not, comfort was sacrificed for artistic considerations in Chinese classical furniture," said Zhang. "But with upholstery, we can make it more comfortable and fashionable."

Thus far, more than 700 million yuan (US$106 million) have been invested, and Liantianhong now reproduces around 70 percent of the furniture that has been documented in pictures.

Designers say the reproductions are "more than 98 percent" accurate in contour, shape and patterns.

Still, there's a long way to go. Some crafts in furniture making, such as jade-inlaying and gold painting, have not yet been utilized. Some skills have been lost.

"At first I thought reproduction would be no big deal, no more difficult than making aircraft," said engineer Li. "But I was wrong. In fact, it takes a lot of creativity to replicate masterpieces."

Liantianhong has been recruiting skilled craftsmen around China with high salaries, trying to preserve and develop traditional handicrafts such as lacquer painting and luodian, which uses mother-of-pearl.

"We'll try to preserve, improve and restore all handicrafts connected with Forbidden City furniture," said Li.

He noted that real mahogany secrets resin and naturally forms a mellow, shiny veneer over time, calling that "the true value of mahogany."

Painting mahogany is just like gilding the lily, he said.

The market has responded well.

"Though we require full payment three months in advance of delivery, orders keep pouring in from all over the country," said Bai Yun, manager of Liantianhong's planning department.

Business has been expanding quickly and Li expects turnover of more than 700 million yuan this year.

About 150 outlets have opened in 85 major cities in China and 150 more branches are expected to open next year.

More than 1,000 salespersons are employed and the outlets are run directly from Liantianhong's headquarters.

Xianyou occupies 70 percent of the Chinese market of high-end mahogany furniture, according to He Jinchi, honorary president of the Fujian Provincial Association of Classical Furniture.

Li now plans to open factories in Sichuan Province in the southwest and Hebei Province in the north.


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