Warring States (Qin) Chinese Lacquer Bronze Form Vessel, 

Chinese Museum

Chinese Lacquer a Long Elegant History

Over the longstanding Chinese history, numerous treasures and heritages have been left behind, among which the lacquer art is a brilliant one. China is the earliest country in the world using natural lacquer. In the early 1970s, archeologists unearthed a red lacquer wood bowl in an excavation in the Neolithic Hemudu remains in Yuyao, Zhejiang Province. It is estimated that the bowl was made 7,000 years ago, the oldest existing lacquer ware in the world.

What is Chinese Lacquer?

East Asian lacquer is a resin made from the highly toxic sap of the Rhus verniciflua tree, which is native to the area and a close relative of poison ivy. In essence, lacquer is a natural plastic; it is remarkably resistant to water, acid, and, to a certain extent, heat. Raw lacquer is collected annually by extracting the viscous sap through notches cut into the trees. It is gently heated to remove excess moisture and impurities. Purified lacquer can then be applied to the surface of nearly any object or be built up into a pile. Once coated with a thin layer of lacquer, the object is placed in a warm, humid, draft-free cabinet to dry. As high-quality lacquer may require thirty or more coats, its production is time-consuming and extremely costly.

Warring States, Ear Cup

Eastern Zhou, Warring States Lacquer Ear Cup, MET Museum

  • By the Warring States period, Chu, noted for its lacquer production, was the major cultural force in south central China. The visual arts of Chu are often characterized as shamanistic in response to the prevalence of images of fairy like creatures riding on dragons, or clouds that change imperceptibly into dragons, and, as they meander through the sky, transform again into dragons. The playful, thin lines painted on this winged cup are a later stylized version of the traditional cloud-dragon motif. The two large winglike appendages on the cup are often described as "ears" in Chinese writings, and cups of this type, known from at least the eighth century B.C., are generally termed "ear-cups," or erbei. It was most likely once part of a matched set of eating and drinking vessels.
Song Dynasty lacquer

Song to Yuan period Lobed Carved Red Lacquer Tray

  • This large dish belongs to the class of carved lacquer known as renwu gushi (narrative scenes with human figures), which, like the flower-and-bird type, had its beginning in the late Song period (960–1279). The subject depicted on this platter, children at play in a garden, follows a Song tradition. The ladies' dresses are in the style of the period, making it clear that the design derives from a Song original. This is also indicated by the figure in the lower right of a child dressed up as a gentleman at leisure, who is being helped to his feet by two other boys and followed by another holding a parasol. He sports a type of tall hat made fashionable in the Song period by Su Shi (1036–1101), the most admired poet-official of his generation and a figure beloved by Chinese poets and writers for succeeding centuries. The carving of the platter, however, is very much in the high Yuan (1279–1368) style, which began to mature only in the first half of the fourteenth century. It shows the Yuan propensity for creating three-dimensional images in the relief (with particular success in the area of the pavilion and lotus pond). Some of the objects depicted, such as the set of incense-burning utensils on the table at the lower left, also indicate a Yuan date. The size of the dish has some bearing on its dating as well; there are no known lacquer or ceramic dishes of this size from the Song period, but there are a great number of large porcelain dishes dating from the fourteenth century. The pattern of cracks on the back of the platter reveals that its wooden core is constructed, as are those of all other known fourteenth-century dishes, by joining a smaller piece to the main body of the substrate with the grains of the two pieces perpendicular. This has been confirmed by radiography. The theme of children at play is expressive of the wish for offspring and the joy of having them, an idea reinforced by the presence of a pomegranate tree behind the large garden rock where children are playing hide-and-seek. The pomegranate fruit with its many seeds is frequently used as a symbol of progeny.
Yuan Imperial Box

Ming Yongle Period Imperial Lacquer Box with Dragons, MET Museum

  • A vigorous, sinewy dragon with flowing mane and beard, tufts of hair at the joints, a prominent snout and horns, and long whiskers is often found on works in porcelain, lacquer, and other material produced during the reign of the Yongle emperor. Although carved red lacquers in some number are known from this period, examples decorated in the elegant qiangjin, or "incised-and-gilt," technique are rare. The mounts are of iron with gold damascene decoration, and the original lock and key are cast in bronze with engraved decoration and gilded. Fine lacquerware such as this box was made for the imperial household and for diplomatic gifts.

Ancient Chinese lacquer

Qin Lacquer Bowl

Early Chinese Lacquer

Chinese Qianlong Period Throne

Qianlong Imperial Lacquer Throne, 18th C.

While items covered with lacquer have been found in China dating to the Neolithic period, lacquerware with elaborate decoration requiring labor-intensive manufacturing processes made its first appearance during the Warring States period. Lacquer as an art form developed in China along two distinct paths—pictorial (or surface) decoration and carving of the lacquer. Rarely are the two techniques used in combination. In early times, surface decoration took the form of painting or inlay. The earliest lacquered objects were colored black or red with the addition of charcoal or cinnabar to the refined sap. Because lacquer is such a volatile substance, only a few additional coloring agents will combine with it. During the Han period, incised decoration was also used. Several techniques gradually evolved after the tenth century: engraved gold (qiangjin), filled-in (diaotian or tianqi), and carved lacquer (diaoqi). The art of inlaying lacquer with mother-of-pearl was intensively developed during the Song period. In the sixteenth century, after a lapse of about a thousand years, the painting of lacquer was revived, but it was seldom employed on carved lacquer.

Carved lacquer is a uniquely Chinese achievement in lacquer art and is also, in a way, lacquer art in its purest form. It is not known when this technique was invented. Lacquers of a thickness sufficient for relief carving were produced no later than the Southern Song period, as is known from archaeological excavations and from materials that were brought to Japan at the end of the Song period. This method of lacquer production reached its greatest flourishing from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century.

Chinese Lacquer's Evolution from Trees to Art Form

Yuan period lacquer Box

Yuan Period Lacquer Box, Cleveland Museum of Art Collection

Traditional Chinese lacquer art applies natural lacquer liquid from lacquer trees. China is abundant in lacquer resources. Lacquer trees in Mainland China are distributed in some
550 counties in 23 provinces.

Starting from red lacquer wood bowls and painted potteries in the Neolithic age, Chinese lacquer art enjoyed rapid development in the Warring Period (770-256BC) and the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), thanks to the upgraded productivity of the time.

According to historical documents, lacquer trees were widely planted during the Warring Period (770-256BC). Famous philosopher Zhuang Zi, founder of Daoism, worked as an official overseeing lacquer plantations for some time. At that time, lacquer was regarded as important as daily necessities such as linen, mulberry, fish and salt, and lacquer craftsmanship were remarkably raised. There were wood, bamboo and linen lacquer wares. Linen lacquer work, not restrained from material sources, can be made in any shape. The improved craftsmanship gave rise to a multitude of lacquer work varieties.

The Warring Period (770-256BC) embraced the first peak of lacquer art development, which continued into the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-25AD). Unearthed objects indicate that lacquer wares in the Warring Period (770-256BC) had substantially surpassed the previous ages in terms of varieties, production output and scope of distribution. In the Warring Period (770-256BC), lacquer wares were used in every sphere of society, including daily utensils, music instruments, tomb wares and even weapons. People of Chu, living in Hubei, like red color and made a large number of red lacquer wares. Their lacquer works featured two basic colors, red and black, creating unique visual effect. Red and black lacquer works have been characteristic of Chinese lacquer art.

Lacquer works in the Warring Period (770-256BC) represented unusually high levels in terms of design and coloring. The painted lacquer mirror case "Panorama of the Journey" unearthed in a tomb in Jinmen, Hubei, vividly showcases the life of its owner, known as a masterpiece of the time.

Chinese lacquer art came into its golden age during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). At that time, the court, nobilities and local merchants regarded lacquer wares as symbols of fortune and status. In order to satisfy personal material needs, they spent numerous human and financial resources to make exquisite lacquer wares. Decoration techniques witnessed new developments in the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD); inlaid gold and silver pattern appeared on the lacquer wares at that time.
Yuan lacquer boxes

Yuan Imperial Lacquer Stacking Box, 13th C.

During the ensuing Jin (265-420AD) and Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589AD), thanks to the introduction and widespread of Buddhism in China, lacquer art began to be applied to Buddha sculptures. One of the important excavations of this time is a lacquer wood screen unearthed in a tomb in Datong, Shanxi Province. The screen, carved with black inscriptions and painted in red lacquer, has lacquer paintings on it, which is based on "Legends of Heroic Women" of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). This lacquer work is a masterpiece both for its painting and calligraphy.

One of the prominent achievements of the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) is its progress in lacquer work techniques. For instance, gold and silver pieces are cut into different patterns to be embedded in lacquer rough casts and polished. Thus exquisite lacquer works came into being.

Lacquer art was further developed in the following Song Dynasty (960- 1279AD). The flourishing economy and stable society gave rise to varieties of lacquer wares, among which the most distinctive style is single-color lacquerwork. Though deprived of decorative patterns and designs, single-color lacquer work were made with extremely meticulous craftsmanship.

In the Ming Dynasty, a famous craftsman named Huang Cheng, based on experiences of his own and previous craftsmen, wrote the first book on lacquer art. The book was later annotated by another famous lacquer craftsman, which make it China's only completer theoretic works on lacquer art.

Late Ming Early Qing Coromandal Throne

17th C. Chinese Lacquer Coromandal Screen

Since the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), due to the widespread use of ceramics, lacquer wares gradually lost its popularity. In the modern time, with the improvement of people's life, traditional lacquer works have already receded from the list of people's daily utensils. How to integrate lacquer art with modern life while enhancing itsartistic value is an issue requiring in- depth study of lacquer artists.

Modern Lacquer

Modern lacquer painting, as an independent painting genre, has developed for some 40 years and has been recognized by public. Its success should be attributed to richness of traditional lacquer art and techniques. Modern lacquer paintings have been displayed in each national fine arts exhibition. And lacquer painting courses are now offered in several fine arts colleges, including the fine arts school of Tsinghua University, Nanjing Arts Institute and the crafts and design school of Fuzhou University.

Based on traditional lacquer techniques, modern lacquer artists have explored different qualities of lacquer and created many new techniques. Lacquer is not simply a decorative material. It is now used to stick egg shells and mental pieces. Lacquer is also used as a cohesive to make colored paint together with mineral pigment. The flowing quality of lacquer enables artists to use it at their will in their creations. When it is dried, lacquer can be grinded by charred wood or abrasive paper, which make the modern lacquer art possible.

Since the 1980s, Chinese lacquer art has been showcased in many countries including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and former Soviet Union and has drawn extensive interest of the international art circle.

If you have any questions or want to know more about your own lacquer pieces, contact us.
Thank you Sincerely, Peter Combs..Gloucester, Massachusetts (978) 283 3524

Chinese Porcelain collection

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