Chinese Lacquer Art
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
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According to historical documents, lacquer trees were widely planted during the Warring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 lacquerwork, not restrained from material sources, can be made in any shape. The
improved craftsmanship gave rise to a multitude of lacquerwork varieties.
Red Lacquer Bowl
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 lacquerworks
have been characteristic of Chinese lacquer art.
Lacquerworks 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.
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 lacquerwork is
a masterpiece both for its painting and calligraphy.
One of the prominent achievements of the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) is its progress in
lacquerwork techniques. For instance, gold and silver pieces are cut into different
patterns to be embedded in lacquer roughcasts and polished. Thus exquisite lacquerworks
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 lacquerwork were made with extremely
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.
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 lacquerworks have already receded from the list of people's daily utensils.
How to integrate lacquer art with modern life while enhancing its artistic value is an
issue requiring in- depth study of lacquer artists.
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 ofTsinghua 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
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.
Carved Black Lacquer Box of the Yuan Dynasty
Carved Black Lacquer Box, made by Zhang Cheng of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), is a
representative of carved lacquer wares of that period. The lacquer box is 6 cm in height
as a whole and 14.5 cm or so in width. It looks like an arched roof and its body is in the
shape of a column.
The box adopted the technique of lacquer carving. During the making process, the box was
first painted with black lacquer over one hundred times. After the black lacquer formed a
color layer, it was painted with red lacquer several times. Repeated this way over and
over again until the lacquer layers reached the needed thickness, the artisan carved the
box with cloud patterns in alternating red and black layers of lacquer until three red
lines appeared on the section of lacquer layers. The box has three groups of cloud
patterns on its cover and body. This carved lacquer ware is now preserved in the Anhui
Provincial Museum. The work is of primitive simplicity and full of elegance, having very
high artistic value and representing the highest level of China's lacquer carving
Chinese carved lacquer probably dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). As noted in the
Treatise on Lacquer Decoration by an artisan of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Tang lacquer
ware was done on smooth boards using a vermilion color
Special lacquer ware
workshops were set up in the Ming Dynasty, producing pieces distinguished for bold, simple
lines and rich colors. Works of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), on the other hand, are known
for their detailed designs and elaborate composition.
The Jingzhai Workshop, established in 1901 in Beijing, worked for many years in the Qing
style. Over the past 40 years or so, the craftsmen there have begun to experiment with
deep relief carving, hollowing and three-dimensional techniques. More than 20 colors are
now used, a great change from the traditional four. A handful of factories in the Beijing
area, with a combined work force of 20,000, produce carved lacquer ware -- both
traditional items like jars, boxes writing articles, dishes and personal adornments, as
well as prize-winning artistic creations.
Ringling Asian Art Center.