Tradition of Chinese Garden Stools

Written by gail cohen
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Tradition of Chinese Garden Stools
All that's missing is a Chinese garden stool to complete the picture. (Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images)

At first blush, they look so much like conga drums you might think you hear The Buena Vista Social Club playing in your head, but the object you're studying has nothing to do with Cuban music: It's the traditional, barrel-shaped Chinese garden stool that has captured America's collective decorating heart. In the hands of inventive Americans who tend to multipurpose everything, you'll find these stools in too many materials, finishes and styles to count. You, of course, are welcome to use them as they were originally intended, to care for your peonies.

History of Chinese Garden Stools

Chinese garden stools have been around for around 1,000 years, according to historians and cultural anthropologists. The barrel- or drum-shaped stool represents the evolution of garden seats that originated as tree stumps and large rocks, both used to keep Chinese herb and flower cultivators at plant level so gardeners could manicure their beloved gardens. But it was more than just practicality that made the Chinese garden stool a must-have: Buddhist beliefs, that man and nature are one, link gardeners every time they sit atop a rock or tree stump to tend a garden.

Material Evolution

If you have an opportunity to study the courtyard of a typical ancestral Chinese home, you will find lush and harmonious landscaping reminiscent of orderly Japanese gardens. Into this environment, the wood garden stool evolved as early as the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 A.D.). The wood stools weren't able to withstand the weather fluctuations and had to be pulled under roof when rains fell. That's why artisans began creating garden stools of sculpted rock and glazed stone or porcelain. These days, the sky's the limit, though porcelain, Elmwood and Calamander woods (popular because this wood can be incised with delicate carvings) are favoured by the Chinese when they craft their exports.

Decorating the Chinese Garden Stool

The Chinese never met a utilitarian object they didn't long to beautify, and by the Ming Dynasty (early 17th century), a garden stool cottage industry existed throughout China. Wood, porcelain and stone artisans carved, decorated and finished stools, selling them at market. The most popular traditional Chinese garden stool embellishment remains the nailhead motif. It symbolises the hardware used to construct ancient Chinese drums, so you weren't off base when those Cuban conga drums came to mind. Other traditional patterns and trim include bas-relief, fretwork and carvings of sacred symbols such as dragons, peacocks and phoenix.

Contemporary Chinese Garden Stools

Find traditional Chinese garden stools everywhere: in garden centres, big box stores, high-end department stores and on websites in enough shapes and colours to cover several provinces in China. Contemporary Chinese garden stools are square, spherical and hexagonal, some made with unique finishes such as cracked porcelain or iridescent paints. Use yours to tend flowers, hold beverages and snacks (with or without a glass topper) or as a birdbath pedestal. You can also perch a sundial, bird cage or statue on yours, but if you have a poetic soul and crave authenticity, find one decorated with ancient poems or romantic tales written in Chinese characters.

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