Miniature furniture and figurines in a Ming tomb

Miniature furniture and figurines from the Tomb of Pan Yongcheng, 16th–17th centuries (Ming dynasty), local beech wood and metal, excavated in Shanghai in 1960 (Shanghai Museum)

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Dr. Beth Harris: [0:00] We’re in the Shanghai Museum, looking at miniature furniture found in a Ming tomb.

Dr. Kristen Brennan: [0:12] This was the tomb of an official during the Ming Dynasty, and has wooden figurines and also furniture from the late 16th and early 17th century.

Dr. Harris: [0:21] When we go back in Chinese history [we] see how emperors and elites were buried with objects that related to their everyday life when they were alive with the idea of continuing that life after their death.

Dr. Brennan: [0:36] You would wish for that same sort of social status in your life. You would expect that, and you’d bring everything that you would need to continue your leisurely pursuits in the afterlife.

[0:46] Here, though, we’re much later. We’re in the Ming Dynasty, so actually, a lot more materials have survived, wood being one of them.

Dr. Harris: [0:53] Anything made of wood that was as ancient, for example, as the Han Dynasty or earlier, would likely not have survived. Wood decomposes so quickly.

Dr. Brennan: [1:03] We’ve got a great insight into what the furniture from this period might have looked like.

Dr. Harris: [1:08] In addition to dozens of figures in a procession, some of the figures carrying a sedan chair for presumably the person who this tomb was for. But we see a daybed, trunks, tables, chairs, racks, and everything so carefully carved, so thoughtfully carved.

Dr. Brennan: [1:28] There’s a difference between even just the two sets of figures. We have wooden figures with hats and robes carrying the sedan chair. Those contrast with the servants, ready to help with whatever needs the tomb occupant would have.

Dr. Harris: [1:48] Art historians can look at miniature furniture from this tomb and get a sense of how furniture was made and the design of the furniture itself.

Dr. Brennan: [1:52] As we look closely at this, you can see that the Ming aesthetic was very clean, simple lines. Not a lot of ornamentation, but everything fit together in very geometric patterns, a lot of careful joinery and little flourishes, just slightly upturned edges. Very elegant aesthetic.

Dr. Harris: [2:18] For example, when we look at the daybed that has the rattan, the weaving in the center, we look at those legs. We can see a little flourish, a little curve toward the bottom. Or the table that probably contained a fire for the water and the teapot to be heated has lovely curved legs.

Dr. Brennan: [2:26] We also see openwork. When we look to the daybed, we see intricate carving of the wood, as if this was also a larger piece of furniture or even part of the openwork or lattice on a garden corridor.

Dr. Harris: [2:44] And minimal decoration that we see in the Ming dynasty is really a contrast with the style of the next dynasty, the Qing, which is much more elaborate and highly decorative.

Dr. Brennan: [2:50] Looking closely at some of these features, you can see even the techniques used in furniture carving and the way that pieces were joined together.

Dr. Harris: [3:04] I see, in that table with the teapot, mortise and tenon joinery in the wood. We can see the metal clasps on the sides of the trunk.

Dr. Brennan: [3:11] We’ve got the same materials as one would have in life. This concept of the afterlife and the needs that one would have in the afterlife changed, but they certainly reflect the fashions of that time.

Dr. Harris: [3:18] Not everyone could have afforded this, but if you could, you’d want to bring these things into the afterlife.

Dr. Brennan: [3:24] This is an important point too, about this Confucian ideal and this idea of filial piety, that the sons of the tomb occupant would provide the best possible burial for the deceased. At any scale of life, they would always try and buy the best and provide the most for their ancestors.

Dr. Harris: [3:43] That Confucian idea of everyone playing their role, observing funerary rites, and honoring one’s ancestors.

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The Ming dynasty, an introduction

Ming dynasty on The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Craig Clunas, Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Culture of Ming China, 1368–1644 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007).

Cite this page as: Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan and Dr. Beth Harris, "Miniature furniture and figurines in a Ming tomb," in Smarthistory, January 19, 2022, accessed July 13, 2024,