Interview with Robert Jacobsen
Curator of Asian Art
1. When was this room originally built and what was it used for?
We're standing in the early 17th century reception hall. It was built about that time by the Wu Family in Jiangsu Province, in central China. This was used, as were most reception halls in these large estates, by both genders of the family. It was a common room where important events such as birthdays, anniversaries, and banquets would take place. This was where you would host invited guests coming to visit you in the home, but especially important family events where the whole clan would gather together.
It was, therefore, a room not so much for living in, as for holding these quite often, solemn, serious family-oriented ceremonies and other receptions with invited guests—both family and people from outside the family.
2. By mentioning both genders you imply other parts of the house were segregated.
In fact, the classic Chinese home, or aristocratic home, anyway, was divided into a men's quarters and a women's quarters. The reception hall itself, which was a free-standing structure, was linked up to the other parts of the home, but it was on its own—typically, in the middle of the courtyard compound itself—virtually always facing south, which was an auspicious direction. And it was here that both genders would come together on those formal—or less formal—occasions. But we don't want to see it as a room that was being lived in so much as one that was really reserved for these important family events.
3. So here we would find the most formal furniture?The nature of these rooms is that they would hold the grandest pieces of furniture. And quite often, they were the most highly decorated rooms of the house as well. Because they were the more public spaces that we would associate with a large, walled-in home, the furniture tended to be showy. It has the most formal of the chairs, sometimes the largest of the tables.
In our instance here, we have this grand, magnificent folding screen that was really used as a kind of a backdrop to the large couch that we see placed in front of it.(1) We've set this room up, at this time, for a reception, so that the furniture that has been brought in would be the tall armchairs, which were reserved for the most important members of Chinese society. The elders of the family, typically, were given the tall-backed chairs.(2) The most important members—the oldest matriarch and patriarch of the family—would have occupied the seat of most importance, and that would have been the couch. On either side, chairs have been arranged in a symmetrical way.
4. Did these rooms typically feature intricate woodcarving?
This one is rather ornately decorated in the ceiling areas. Many of the beams and the tympanums, at either end, have been carved with a very delicate kind of lacery—showing cranes and phoenixes in clouds.(3) And also the beams themselves have been cut with rather delicate moldings. As we look about the window grills as well as the ventilation grills, there are also minutely carved, perforated panels of wood. All interlocked together with this mortise-and-tendon joinery—the system that most classical architecture is built upon.
5. Could you describe the joinery in more detail?
The wooden frame itself is not glued or nailed together, so much as carved on its end-grain, so that the parts—the timbers themselves—will slip and slide together, and fit rather securely, and stay secure together for several centuries.
That's the same system used for the furniture. Most of this furniture is constructed originally without the use of glue or nails—again using this rather intricate system that the Chinese had evolved over several hundred years of uniting pieces through mortise-and-tendon joins.
So the furniture pieces, like the room itself, are of a system that allows them to expand and contract with changes in humidity—which, of course, is very important with expensive hardwood furniture, in that it avoids splitting or cracking. And even the softer wood used here in the traditional framing system can expand and contract with changes in humidity. So, it's a system of wood joinery that has served both architecture and the finer craft of furniture making. It has served the Chinese very, very well for over 3,000 years.
6. The museum has occasionally reconfigured the arrangement in this room. Why is that?
The reception hall, in classical Chinese architecture, typically served two important purposes. One would have been for the reception—and we've set this room up for a reception where the family or invited guests would gather together on rather formal occasions. The second purpose—and one that perhaps is used more often than is the reception setting—would be that which somehow pays homage to the gods or the ancestors—primarily the ancestors.
The reception hall is really a family room, in the broadest or biggest sense. It's here that the important members of ancestry are honored. We say "worshiped" in the West, but it was a way of honoring one's parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Now, in that kind of a room arrangement, we would not have this large standing folding screen or the couch being front and foremost in the central hall. They would be removed, and a very long altar table would be placed in the middle bay against the back wall.(5) Above it would typically be hung paintings of those ancestors that you are honoring, with calligraphy scrolls on either side. Also wooden calligraphy panels were often suspended under the major transverse beams that define the very center of the room.
7. What kind of shape was the room in when the museum acquired it?
In the 1950s and '60s, large homes like this were really deteriorating, unfortunately, because they were being used quite often as farm buildings, which is nearly the case with this. This house was in what has become a rural area. And many of the other houses that I visited—looking for a home or a structure that would be appropriate to the Museum—in fact were being used as large barns. Farm animals were coming in and out. A lot of storage of agricultural equipment was taking place in the larger of these ceremonial halls.
The south walls were usually taken out. The doors and windows were removed, so you could just walk in and out. They were sort of open-air pavilions, many of them, and of course, dramatically run down because of it.
8. This room came to the Institute in 1998. How did the museum come to acquire it?
Under Mao Zedong in the 1960s and '70s, words like "profit" were bad words. You didn't want to use them. You didn't want to be associated in any way with the old aristocracy, or old traditional Chinese thinking, in fact. More recently, what happened under Deng Xiao Ping, simply put, is that there was a reversion back to private ownership. Families that had been dispossessed of some of their homesteads and other materials under Mao were basically given them back. But by now, you see, we've got absentee landlordism firmly in place. The owners of this place were living in Shanghai—not in this house. They were several hours removed—renting it out to local farmers for whatever purposes they had.
The owners themselves were pleased to have someone come in, buy it, take it apart and leave with it. Because, of course, they want to put up modern structures or some sort of building that—if they are just in the business of renting space—will bring in more income. So, China's rapid change here in the last 15 years or so—as their economy has really changed social outlook so dramatically for them—I think, is the real reason that's behind a room like this being sold—for that matter, sold to a foreign entity. When private ownership came back in, they began making economic decisions rather than ideological ones.