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Amber: Hey everybody! Welcome back to Amber and Victor’s Chinese Buffet.
Victor: 大家好 (dàjiā hǎo), 我是 (Wǒ shì) Victor.
Amber: I am Amber. Today we’ll of course talk more about Chinese culture. And today our segment is ‘Chewing the Fat’. Actually, this one came from our listeners. Sometimes, listeners submit questions and ask us things about China or things they have encountered in China. And today’s subject is about Chinese furniture. Someone wrote and asked, “Why is it that Chinese furniture is so hard, specifically the beds?”
Victor: As opposed to Western furniture that’s soft?
Amber: Soft and plush. Yeah. Well, I have to say that many in night as I lay down on bed in China with my hip digging into the hard bed, I did ask this question over myself. So, today we are going to answer that question on our ‘Chewing the Fat’ episode where we take something and delve into it for you and find out the real answer.
Victor: Okay.
Amber: So, let’s go back in time to really find the answer to this question.
Victor: Okay.
Amber: Originally… I mean, China has a very old history. So, I think being okay with really hard furniture might be rooted in the fact that originally Chinese furniture was straw mats on the floor. But then they started thinking…
Victor: They had to start somewhere, right?
Amber: Even the cavemen must have had that. Everyone eventually developed some cushions and things.
Victor: You know, talking about the straw mats, I think the people in the old times actually took it very seriously. There is a story called 割席分坐 (gē xí fēn zuò). It’s like a 成语 (chéngyǔ), it’s like a phrase.
Amber: An idiom.
Victor: Yeah. If you go to China, people will know what you’re talking about. The story goes like this – there were two young men who were best of friends and they were classmates studying and you know, worked together and all sorts of things. One of them started to veer away from the discipline of school and started to fancy luxurious lifestyle and started to get caught up in the money or fame game, if you will, in today’s terms.
Amber: He wasn’t content with the straw mat anymore?
Victor: Exactly.
Amber: He wanted like a chair?
Victor: He started to fancy other things. And then his friend eventually became so upset and so disappointed by his friend’s behavior that he cut the straw mat they were sitting on together to signify an end of their friendship. So, he was upholding the real powers.
Amber: So dramatic. And the other guy is like, “Finally I can take my straw mat and put it on this chair.”
Victor: Well, it just tells you that people actually took it very seriously. The mats, if I were sitting together with you on the mat, it means the friendship is continuing.
Amber: Wow. So much more than just the mat.
Victor: So much more than just the mat.
Amber: Well, it’s interesting because the mat was popular for quite a while. It wasn’t until around 200 CE that Buddhism brought the idea of sitting on a raised platform instead of just a mat. And the culture of Buddhism was that they adopted a platform and it would be an honor to seat for special guests, or dignitaries or officials. So, I guess at first, you know, people started to have chairs and other people wanted chairs and everyone had to keep up with the trends next door.
Victor: Yeah. Speaking of the straw mat, even today people still use it because in summer time, it makes things a lot cooler. So, if you go to Chinese markets, they’ll sell these pillow covers or bed covers made of straws.
Amber: Yeah. That’s true.
Victor: Yeah. It’s called 凉席 (liángxí). It’s like a cooling mat.
Amber: I did see those placed on chairs. You’re right.
Victor: Yeah. And they really do help because it’s not sticky and if you sweat or whatever, it definitely does not affect your body temperature. It actually cools it down a little bit.
Amber: It’s interesting to me about Chinese furniture because when you go visit some old temples or those parks and things and palaces in China, it seems to me like the furnitures hasn’t changed much as the one in my friend’s living room. Those wooden chairs, you know they have the sort of the rounded arms around their back and everything is positioned very balanced. Two chairs and a table in the middle.
Victor: It’s very important, the balance.
Amber: Everything is very hard and it feels very cool and sort of minimal.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Maybe minimalistic. Interestingly, I actually proofread a book a little while ago. That was a book about Chinese furniture.
Victor: Okay.
Amber: And just to quote from it because I think it gives an insight into the Chinese decorating mind.
Victor: Okay.
Amber: I thought it was very interesting. “The modern pure-white curtain sways with the breeze, next to the wall in palace-like red. The tableware is glinting on the ancient Eight-Immortal table. A chair of a different style sits with its peers calmly. An ancient door on the wall symbolizes sharing and communication so as to transcend time and find consensus among differences.”
Victor: Wow.
Amber: So, this is the thing. It might just look like a hard chair to you but it is so much more.
Victor: Yeah. It signifies a lot more.
Amber: It’s poetic almost.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: The arrangement of the furniture in the room and of course, this relates back to probably feng shui.
Victor: Yeah, definitely.
Amber: Which is a very complex philosophy of furniture arrangement decorating.
Victor: Basically yeah. If you go visit some old-styled homes in China right now and their display probably resembles a certain style of placing the furniture. It almost has this sense of solemnness.
Amber: Yes, very.
Victor: But it’s not so heavy that you feel uncomfortable but it just makes you feel to stop for a second and really take it in.
Amber: It’s true. Another thing is I think it really suits hot weather. This kind of furniture that is made out of wood. There is no sticky cushions or leathered your leg get stuck on. So, the only thing I don’t understand is that in winter, you kind of want to be more cozy, right? And these hard wood chairs is kind of like… a lot of chairs are very cold. I remember one time I went to this hot pot party at a friend’s house and it was freezing. There was no heat and my bum was falling asleep. It was so hard and hot pot takes a long time. And we were basically all just huddled around the steam of the hot pot, trying to keep warm. You know, it’s interesting how I think the furniture reflects also the Chinese mentality word of 辛苦 (xīnkǔ).
Victor: Right.
Amber: The term 辛苦 (xīnkǔ) means to suffer or work hard but in a good way.
Victor: In a good way. To make you alert. I think that’s what is very important. Now I think about it. When I was in school in China, all the desks and chairs were made of wood and I think in a way, it kind of helps you to be alert.
Amber: Yeah.
Victor: So, you’re not so comfortable you want to fall asleep. It’s just enough that you have a place to sit, to lean on or whatever. But the rest of the work is on your own.
Amber: Yeah. And even the sofas that look like sofas, I guess you could call them a sofa, they’re long. Same shape as a sofa but they are wood and I was thinking, it’s probably good in a way as well because it doesn’t breed couch potatoes. You would never lay around…
Victor: Traditionally, yeah definitely.
Amber: …on that sofa for a long time. But a lot of people still has this same style of furniture. It’s very popular even today. Okay well, moving on to the beds now. The beds in China are very hard. Even the mattresses. Sometimes you even go to a place and there is no mattresses, like people just sleep on that wood frame. Maybe put a blanket on there.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: But even the mattresses… my mattress in Taiwan was basically made of wicker on the top. It was so hard.
Victor: Oh, okay.
Amber: It wasn’t even cushioned. Now, why is this, Victor?
Victor: I think some people believe that hard beds are really good for your health. And then the people in the West talk about the bed in the back. Sometimes, it hops a little bit to sleep in a harder bed.
Amber: Yeah. I have to say, when after I got used to the hard bed, when I’d come back home to visit and I’d stay at people’s house or my brother’s bed, I was like, I sat and I fell, I couldn’t sleep all night every time you turn it, it would move. I think the beds are too soft in the West now. I don’t think that’s good for you either but I wouldn’t mind a happy medium. Do you think, Victor, that this concept of a hard bed is rooted in the traditional Chinese bed which is the ‘kàng’?
Victor: Somewhat I’d think so, yeah. The kàng is something you usually see in the Chinese countryside. Instead of wood, it goes even further. At this time, it was built up with bricks.
Amber: They sleep on bricks.
Victor: Right. So, basically the Chinese set-up is or the farmhouses usually in the countryside is you go into somebody’s house and the door you immediately go into their kitchen. So, the kitchen on both sides have a stove. And then the stoves on both side is connected to bedrooms on both side of the walls on the other side. So, you kind of go in through the middle and the bedroom is on both sides of the house. So the stove, beyond being able to cook, also heats up the beds.
Amber: Yeah. There is a sort of a pipe an exhaust pipe that travels under the bed, the kàng.
Victor: Right. So, the kàng is actually just this whole brick structure that takes up half of the room. And then of course you’ll put bedding on top of it and all that kind of stuff.
Amber: Where it keeps the beds warm from the bottom.
Victor: Right. My grandmother lives in the countryside and I’ve stayed there many, many times. It feels pretty comfortable.
Amber: You slept on the kàng?
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: Well, you know what I’m thinking because most apartments in Shanghai that where I lived don’t have any central heating. And now I’m kind of thinking I wish I had a kàng because it would have been better than the alternative, which was freezing.
Victor: Yeah. And if you ever go to a countryside in China, the kàng is more than just a bed. It’s actually where people sit and eat to congregate. That’s like their living space in a way, beyond just sleeping.
Amber: Yeah. And I always thought it was something very ancient but in fact, it’s still widely used here. And actually, 85 percent of real homes in China still use the kàng system. In fact, they are also saying that it’s a very efficient way to heat homes and I read an article that said they’re kind of studying it because they don’t waste the heat and it’s not taking extra power and that sort of stuff.
Victor: Yeah. Very environmentally conscious.
Amber: Yeah. I guess because the bricks are the source of heat and radiates.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: Who knew? Don’t knock it, Victor. You’ve got the hard brick stone bed, whatever.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: But I thought that was bad enough. But then, I was doing some research and even worse, what about the porcelain pillow? Or wood? I mean, what could be the possible reason? They have sheep in China, right? Didn’t anyone think that they’d just put some padding in a piece of cloth and that would be a lot nicer?
Victor: That’s slightly beyond me. Now that you say it, I do remember seeing a porcelain pillow and things like that. But I had never, in my memory consciousness, remember anyone or seen any sort of pictures of people using it ever. But I do have seen those things.
Amber: I mean, I can see in the summer. Maybe it’s cooler if it’s porcelain but then, I don’t know. Again, it just seems to me that the Chinese people… no wonder they are so tough. Because they are able to suffer and I find that Westerners, we are total wimps when we were in China. Whining wimps. The Chinese really know how to suffer. Okay well, speaking of not giving up, the Chinese fortunately, in the furniture way, do not give up because things did evolve. I mean, yes, it’s true some things remained but now we know why because it was good for us. But, the Ming dynasty is a really famous period for Chinese furniture and in fact today, there is many Ming dynasty antique collectors, very popular furniture and very beautiful. The craftsmanship is incredible as well.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: Now, why did that furniture change at this time, Victor? Now what made the furniture so special for the Ming dynasty was that it was kind of a transitional time in Chinese history. Like during the beginning and the middle of the Ming dynasty, everything was very austere. That was the government’s edict. But the economy started to grow. As it does, thing come go up and go down and of course with that, people became more materialistic.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: And so, what made this furniture so special is that in order to create more beautiful furniture for people that were becoming more prosperous, they actually had scholars participate in the design and the development of the furniture. So, it kind of reminds of that passage I read at the beginning why furniture can be described in such a poetic manner is even they design the furniture in a very poetic manner. You could see from the craftsmanship. The Ming dynasty furniture has a really elegant style. There is certain characteristics too, like the joints they wouldn’t use any nails or screws to put together. They would use very special joints, different lattice work or fretwork, molding, graving, all these things.
Victor: Okay. They were the furniture revolutionaries.
Amber: Yes, that’s right. Some other elements that sort of developed as well as time went on was use of lacquer. We’ve seen that red or black coating that’s very glossy. Time went on and they also used gold. Things were gilded.
Victor: Yeah. You know, talking about materials, right now, I think traditionally also especially right now, red wood 红木 (hóng mù) is very, very good for furniture and it’s very expensive.
Amber: That’s right. And of course because the Chinese love red.
Victor: Yeah. I mean, it’s not like red red wood but you know, it’s like a slightly darker.
Amber: Anything to the greater red would be very popular I think.
Victor: Yeah. If you have 红木家具 (hóng mù jiājù) that goes up very high prices.
Amber: And now, Chinese furnitures evolved to the point of Ikea because all furnitures in Ikea is made from China.
Victor: Integrating with the rest of the world.
Amber: So yeah, it’s definitely evolved from the days of bamboo mats on the floor.
Victor: And in the West, people started following the principles of Feng Shui.
Amber: It’s true. Yeah. In fact in our office, we have a Feng Shui friend. She came in and told us that the Feng Shui in our office is terrible. That our backs are facing the door which meant someone is going to come in and stab our backs. So, we immediately rearranged the furniture of course.
Victor: That’s pretty serious. Yeah.
Amber: But yeah. A lot of people do notice that the Feng Shui really does change the way you feel in the room.
Victor: Right. Feng Shui literally means wind and water. And it basically just means how you arrange your furniture should be in sync with the flow of the natural rhythm of things.
Amber: Yeah.
Victor: And if you do it right, it’s supposed to bring you good luck. In a way, just between the right flow of things.
Amber: That’s right. So, there is a lots of books on that. If you want to rearrange your furniture, get the Chinese Harmony and Balance. But I’ll suggest using a soft sofa. It’s kind of like fusion.
Victor: You know, people say that you can go to the furniture master and study Feng Shui. Or, more simple way, just do whatever that makes you feel good. You had to have to kind of connect with whatever that’s appealing to you because if you feel happy about your home, chances are you like to be there more and be more productive and happier generally.
Amber: That’s right. Okay, that’s it for today’s Chinese Buffet. If anyone else has any more experiences with their hard furniture, injuries, hip injuries from sleeping on bed…
Victor: I don’t think so.
Amber: I had that! I had to go to acupuncture. My hip was really starting to hurt.
Victor: From the bed?
Amber: I think so.
Victor: Well, that’s too bad.
Amber: Or it might be the flight of stairs, I ran up for ten times a day to get to my apartment. But anyway, everyone can share their experiences as well and if you have any questions, we’ll be happy to answer them for you. Write us at thechinesebuffet@gmail.com and we will see you at the website ChineseClass101.com.
Victor: We will see you next time.
Amber: 再见 (zàijiàn).
Victor: 再见 (zàijiàn).