Rattan Of The Native

rattanThis week I’ve finally got round to visiting Geffrye Museum, a terrific little gem in the heart of Hoxton. Amongst many interesting household objects through the ages, I saw a few artefacts that were significant to Dongxi (eastern western) cultural exchanges. One I particularly liked is the walnut chair with cane seat and back. These were made in London during the 17th century and towards the end of the century had become the main type of seating in dining rooms and parlours, representing a cultural shift towards more stylish living.  And guess where they got the cane materials from?

Yes, cane or rattan was imported from Asia. Back in the Han Dynasty (3rd century BC to 3rd century AD), before the invention of chairs, the Chinese were accustomed to sitting on the floor with 席 (“Xi”) or mats. The 簟 (“dian”) are mats used by the elite and made of either bamboo or rattan. Since then rattan furniture has flourished in China, not only chairs but beds, tables, suitcases and screens, even tea utensils have been crafted out of this material that is economic, sturdy for what it is, flexible for shaping and light to carry. Many places in China produce and use different types of rattan, especially the southern regions such as Fujian, Zhenjiang and Hainan. Yunnan’s “teng chong” variety has been exported to other south-east Asian countries as well as Europe.

One of my childhood memories of Guangzhou is of scorching summers, lazy movements of calamus fans as people languished in rattan armchairs under the shade of street-side arcades.  Rattan furniture provides a unique kind of eastern elegance that brings one closer to a lower temperature, as well as to nature!

First Published Dec 2012 on Xanga

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