Chinese Lacquerware
The Art of Lacquering in China.

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Lacquered Ming Tea Bowl Stand
(16th century) with mother of pearl
inlay designs, holding a Song
Dynasty Tea Bowl (13th-Century)

Chinese Lacquerware (4,500 BCE onwards)
Characteristics and History


What is Lacquerware? Characteristics
Origins and History
Han Dynasty
Tang Dynasty
Song Dynasty
Yuan Dynasty
Ming Lacquerwork

For more about the arts and crafts of Asia,
please see: Asian Art (from 38,000 BCE onwards).

Graved Red Lacquerware Box,
17th-Century Qing Dynasty
Frankfurt Museum of Decorative Art.

For dates of early cultures,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For later dates and chronology,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For movements and periods,
see: History of Art.

What is Lacquerware? Characteristics

In Chinese art, the word lacquerware refers to a variety of decorative techniques used to coat wood, bamboo, metal or other surfaces, with a hard, resinous finish. Originating during the era of Neolithic art, lacquering was originally intended as a form of waterproof protection for wood and bamboo, but the process rapidly became a greatly valued method of decorating fine objects. Now a highly skilled decorative art, it often involves the application of many layers of lacquer to the core material. The resin used in Chinese lacquerwork is obtained from a species of tree (indigenous to China) known as Toxicodendron vernicifluum, commonly called the Lacquer Tree. The resin, which is taken only from trees that are at least 10 years old, contains an active ingredient called urushiol, plus a number of phenols suspended in water. These ingredients react with each other, and with the surrounding oxygen, causing the lacquer resin to harden: a rather slow process known as "aqua-polymerization". The lacquer is sticky, and must be applied slowly using a brush, with a fluidity not unlike that practised in Chinese painting and its sister art of calligraphy. The result, however, can be quite spectacular, especially when iron compounds or other colour pigments (like red, powdered cinnabar) are added. The lacquer produces an extremely durable and beautiful finish, that is almost totally impervious to water, and highly resistant to damage by acids/alkalis or abrasion. Numerous lacquered items, for instance, have been unearthed in perfect condition from waterlogged Iron Age tombs in Suixian and elsewhere. Like other types of traditional Chinese art, including jade carving, ceremonial bronze casting, and Chinese pottery, lacquering in China dates back to prehistoric art times. Thereafter, trade in lacquered objects developed between China and both central and eastern Asia, and Chinese know-how had a major impact on Korean art as well as Japanese art and Indian culture. Many different types of items were lacquered, including: furniture and other household objects, domestic ware, food-serving implements, cosmetics boxes, music instruments, even coffins.

The term "lacquer" stems from the Sanskrit word laksha, a reference to the populous Lac insect and its resin-like residue which was used as wood finish in India. (The Lac also secreted a scarlet colourant, which was the third most expensive pigment, after gold and ultramarine, during the Renaisssance in Italy.)

To begin with, raw lacquer was mixed with charcoal or iron oxides (typically from ochre, a naturally tinted clay containing ferric oxide) to produce black, red and yellow lacquers. Later, during the period from the Xia culture (c.2100-1600) to Zhou Dynasty art (1050-221 BCE), special pigments were added to extend the colour range. Later, during the Song era (960-1279) and Ming era (1368-1644), more advanced decorative techniques were developed using gold and silver powders and flakes.

Although Chinese lacquerware has predominated, other Asian forms with different characteristics have developed alongside. For example, lacquer trees in Thailand, Vietnam and Burma, contain "laccol" or "thitsiol", instead of the Chinese ingredient urushiol. As a result, the finish they give is softer and takes longer to set, although (unlike urushiol) the lacquer does not cause any sort of allergic reaction, and can therefore be applied by hand.


Origins and History

Lacquerware first appeared during the era of Neolithic Art in China: the oldest known lacquer object - a red wooden bowl - was found at a Hemudu culture site, dating to 5000-4500 BCE. However, it wasn't until Shang Dynasty art (c.1600-1050 BCE) that more sophisticated methods of lacquering were developed. Later, during four centuries of Han Dynasty art (206 BCE-220 CE), numerous centres of lacquerware production were established, and - as trade also expanded - knowledge of the Chinese process spread to Korea, Japan, and the rest of South-East Asia.

For important dates in the evolution of lacquering in China, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).

Han Dynasty Lacquerware (206 BCE - 220 CE)

By the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), lacquerwork had become a flourishing crafts industry, and because the whole process was up to 10 times more expensive than equivalent bronze casting, lacquered vessels rivalled bronzes as the most prestigious medium for making ceremonial or ancestral offerings. At this time, lacquer production was based at Changsha and in four regional government-controlled centres in Sichuan, where the process was divided into several different stages, and performed by specialist artisans. The sugong, for instance, primed the core to be lacquered, which might consist of wood, bamboo, cloth or even metal. After this, successive layers of lacquer were applied to the core by the xiugong. The top layer was then applied and (when dry) polished by the shanggong, after which the huagong - specialist Chinese painters - completed the decoration. Other craftsmen might be employed to inlay or engrave the design, add gilding, or an inscription.

Examples of highly decorated Han lacquerware - mainly from the state of Chu and from Sichuan - include the set of four nested coffins (c.170 BCE) discovered in the tomb of a mid-level aristocrat at Mawangdui, which were said to have taken the equivalent of one million man-hours, to complete. Lavishly equipped, the well-preserved wooden tomb has several outer compartments containing some of the finest early Chinese silks, arranged around the lacquered coffins.

Note: The Han Dynasty is also famous for producing the earliest examples of Chinese porcelain, made in the province of Zhejiang, around 100-200 CE).

Tang Dynasty Lacquerware (618-906)

During the period of Tang Dynasty art (618–907) new decorative methods were developed for discerning connoisseurs: Chinese lacquer workers began cutting sheets of silver or gold into animal, bird and flower shapes. These were then affixed onto the surface of the lacquered object, which was then re-lacquered, rubbed and polished (using a technique known as pingtuo), to reveal traces of golden or silvery patterns peeping through. Other techniques, such as carving lacquerware were also introduced. It was also during the Tang era that Chinese craftsmen passed on the gold and silver foil inlay method used by the Japanese in the Nara period (710–784).

Song Dynasty Lacquerware (960-1279)

The goldsmithing art of adding inlaid gold and silver to lacquerware was continued by the Song, to which were added new techniques, including qiangjin (engraving inlaid with gold), diaotian (inlaid with differently coloured lacquer), and diaoqi (carved lacquer). The art of inlaying lacquer with mother-of-pearl was also enhanced under the Songs. Song Dynasty art also exerted an important influence on the Kamakura period (1185–1333) in Japan, when Japanese craftsman began carving Buddhist imagery into thick coats of lacquer, using a technique called Kamakura-bori. Another craft reportedly developed during the Song period is "zhezhi" - better known in the West as Origami paper folding, the name given to its sister version from Japan.

See also: ivory carving.

Yuan Dynasty Lacquerware (1271-1368)

During the era of Yuan dynasty art, Chinese lacquer experts mastered the techniques of incising, engraving and filling-in with gold leaf or silver powder, and began carving floral patterns, dragons, serpents and other images through a thick layer of red or (more rarely) black lacquer. According to the artistic manual, "Essential Criteria of Antiquities" by Cao Zhao, the experts in this style of carving were Zhang Cheng and Yang Mao, both pupils of Yang Hui. Up until the 1950s, it was believed that carving pictorial imagery in lacquer was first introduced in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but in 1959 the discovery in a tomb near Shanghai of a lacquer box carved with figures in a landscape, dating to 1351, provided clear evidence that this technique was already firmly established in China by the mid-14th century.

Ming Dynasty Lacquerwork (1368-1644)

Lacquer carving continued during the era of Ming culture, as well as the succeeding Qing Dynasty art,in many different factories and production centres. It achieved a particularly high standard under the Ming Yongle Emperor (1360-1424; ruled 1402 onwards), and Xuande Emperor (1399-1435; ruled 1425 onwards), being noted for its carved red lacquer dishes, trays, boxes, and cups. Decorative motifs include, landscapes with figures, as well as dragon, phoenix, and floral designs, carved deeply against a typical yellow background. Later, under the Jiajing Emperor (1507-67; ruled 1521 onwards) more realistic designs appeared, characterized by a shallower, sharper style of carving, occasionally through as many as nine coats of different colours, against intricate floral or figurative backgrounds. Painting and inlaying with mother-of-pearl, gold lacquer and other materials were also popular.

Note: During the later Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a fashion for Chinese decorative techniques like lacquerware spread throughout Europe, notably in the fields of decorative arts and crafts, interior design, textiles and silks. Known as chinoiserie, it became especially popular during the era of Rococo.

Further Resources

For more about traditional arts and crafts in China, see the following:

- Terracotta Army Warriors (c.208 BCE)
- Qin Dynasty art (c.221-206 BCE).
- Chinese Buddhist Sculpture (c.100-present)
- Arts of the Six Dynasties (220-618 CE)
- Sui Dynasty art (589-618)

• For more about decorative arts and crafts in China, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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