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Don't Knock Wood

The Beauty is in the Wood
China <br>Cosmetic Case and Mirror Stand, early 17th century</br> Huang-hua-li hardwood</br> Minneapolis Institute of Arts</br> Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton
Cosmetic Case and Mirror Stand, early 17th century
Huang-hua-li hardwood
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton


Where do the women and girls in your family store their makeup? Do they use a special drawer in the bathroom, a dressing table in the bedroom, or possibly a small bag in their purse?

A woman living in China during the Ming dynasty (late 16th-early 17th century) stored her cosmetics in this decorative wooden cabinet. She used the drawers to hold lip balms, powders, combs, and the many hairpins needed to hold her elaborate hairdo in place. Imagine her slowly lowering the S-shaped easel in the cabinet's front in order to use the mirror it held. The large size, elaborate decoration featuring royal symbols like the dragon and lotus flower, and throne-like shape all suggest the owner of this cabinet was part of the Emperor's household.

Look carefully at the construction of the cabinet and its decoration. The cabinet is made of a rare and very hard wood found in China called huang-hua-li, which means yellow flowering pear wood. Only highly skilled craftsmen were allowed to make furniture from this wood for the imperial family. The wood's beautiful warm color and grain remind the viewer of the tree trunks from which it was made. Huang-hua-li was also a good choice for the cabinetmaker; it provided a sturdy material for the construction of drawers and the carving of elaborate decoration that would last over time.

The carvings create many textures; the cabinet would have been a joy to touch. Imagine tracing the flower designs with your fingers or wrapping your hand around the dragon's head. The textures invite us to look closely at the designs, such as the mythical phoenix on the drawers, which symbolizes the woman's important role as the mother of heirs to the throne. The dragon symbolizes the vigor and power of the emperor.

This cabinet remains an impressive example of how wood served both a useful and decorative purpose in creating a storage place for the beauty needs of an important Chinese woman.

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1. This chair is another example of decorative furniture made of huang-hua-li wood during the Ming dynasty. Notice that the lotus flowers—symbols of purity—on the chair's footrest are the same flower used on the cosmetic cabinet's railing posts. China, Folding Round Back Chair, late 16th century, huang-hua-li hardwood with iron hardware, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton
2. The back of this throne for the emperor resembles the back of the cosmetic cabinet. Although this throne was made at a later date during the Ch'ien Lung dynasty, it also demonstrates the cabinetmaker's skill in carving an open-work back. China, Imperial Throne, Ch'ien-lung period (1736-95), polychrome lacquer over a softwood frame, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton
3. Red lacquer, a wood product made from the sap of a Chinese variety of the sumac tree, was used to give this small chest its red color. The doors open to expose six drawers for storing cosmetics. China, Cosmetic Cabinet, mid-16th century, carved red lacquer on a softwood frame, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton


March 2012