Pterocarpus santalinus, is otherwise known as red sandalwood and zitan to the Chinese. It is a rare, slow growing evergreen tree that grows to around 8 metres (Figs 1 & 2) The wood has a dark, almost purple appearance, which generally has a straight or slightly interlocking grain and often contains orange flecks (Fig 3). The wood’s density is another factor that helps to identify it, as it is comparatively heavy to other woods and it sinks in water.
The density of the wood combined with its deep colour and silky surface, was an ideal medium for intricate carving in furniture and works of art (Figs 4, 5 and 6). The wood was thus in high demand by the Imperial Court from the Ming to the Qing dynasties and local supplies came from the southern regions such as Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. Despite the use of zitan being carefully monitored and restricted to the Palace Workshops by the Qing dynasty, local supplies were exhausted by the continuing demand and led to imports being sought from south east Asia.
Prices for zitan furniture have increased rapidly since the turn of the millennium with the increased activity of the mainland Chinese in the market. Pieces of significant value are generally larger scale works that were made for the Imperial Court, such as thrones, cupboards and tables (Figs 4, 6 and 7). These pieces are often carved with dense designs in high relief and often depict the imperial subject of dragons writhing energetically amongst swirling clouds above breaking waves. Sometimes pieces can be left uncarved in their entirety or in just certain parts, as in the front and sides of the bed (Fig 9), where the subtleties of the grain and colour can be appreciated.
Top quality scholars objects such as brushpots and table screens have also become highly sought after, especially pieces that are inscribed and dated (Figs 10 and 11). These objects would have originally been accoutrements to the literati scholar’s studio, where pursuits such as painting, calligraphy and playing the qin would have been practiced.