Chinese bowl from the early eighteenth century showing a scholar sitting on a chair in a pavilion and reading. Probably a scene from a novel. Musée Guimet, Paris.
The chair probably arrived in China in the second or third century AD but took a very long time to become a general item of furniture. It was probably European in origin, whatever detours it may have made to arrive in China (via Persia, India or northern China). Moreover, its original Chinese name, still current today, means ‘barbarian bed’. It was probably first used as a seat of honour, either for lay or religious purposes. And even recently in China chairs were reserved for guests of honour and old people, while stools were used much more frequently, as in Europe in the middle ages.
In fact, there must have taken place in China (some time before the thirteenth century) a major expansion of life-styles, accompanied by a separation between seated life and squatting life at ground level, the latter domestic, the former official: the sovereign’s throne, the mandarin’s seat, benches and chairs in schools. .. it is worth while noting these two types of behaviour in the everyday life of the world: the seated position and the squatting position. The latter is omnipresent except in the West, and the two only came together in China.
Image and text via Fernand Braudel: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century: The Structures of Everyday Life.