The Ancient and Exquisite Art of Chinese Lacquerware

The word 'lacquer' is first found in Latin texts from the Middle Ages and it is believed to be derived from the Persian word "lakh", meaning red paint.

Persian Lacquer Book CoversIt should be noted however, that "lakh" is also a Hindi word, designating a lacquer used in India. Most scholars agree that the word in both languages has a common root, but that it entered Latin via Persian documents.

In Asia and the Far East, the gum comes from the "Rhus Verniciflua" (Toxicodendron Verniciflua). This tree is native to central and southern China and possibly Japan, although it may have been transplanted to the latter location.  Lacquer resin was being harvested on a large scale in China as early as 1,000BC.

Types of Lacquer and its Application:
In Europe, as in India, natural lacquer is a gum-like resin deposited on trees through the activity of some insect species, such as "Tachardia Malacca." This substance was used to recreate the lacquered furniture styles that became immensely popular throughout Europe from the sixteenth century onwards. 

In order to collect the gum, it is necessary to cut stripes in the bark, thereby forcing the sap - viscous and grey-white in color - to run out. This procedure is quite similar to tapping rubber trees, but less resin can be collected per tree before doing permanent damage to the tree.

Natural Lacquer ResinThe original color of the sap darkens due to contact with the daylight and air and becomes dark brown. At the same time, but more slowly, the sap hardens to an amber-like solidity.

Before it can be used, the dried sap is heated to liquify it. Then it is filtered. It is slowly homogenized by heating and mixing and finally stripped of any excess water which boils away.

The lacquer, dried and purified, should be up to 80% "urushiol" (lacquer acid). The chemical name is derived from the Japanese word "urushi". The remaining 20% consists of rubber and other organic bodies, in small quantities.

This material, now pure can be used directly as a transparent lacquer. However, If one wishes to obtain a colored lacquer, special natural pigments can be added, such as cinnabar for red, pine soot or lamp black (and later iron sulfate) for black, sulfide arsenic for green and brown. For white, a mixture of lacquer and lead carbonate (white lead) can be used. This last color was already being used on Chinese lacquer well over 2,000 years ago. However, it is unstable and the color usually alters over time, becoming almost always dark gray.

For proper drying, Asian lacquer requires a relatively high degree of humidity, about 75% to 80% and a temperature between 25° and 30° and this for several days. What takes place during the drying process involves a very complex chemical process of polymerization and oxidation, that remains to this day unexplained. All we know for certain is that the process involves water and oxygen in some inexplicable, but crucial role.

Between the drying phases, the lacquer should be applied in very thin layers on the physical medium, so that oxygen can be involved in the curing process. If the painted lacquer layer is too thick, it is impermeable to the air and this slows the polymerization and stops its development.

When the lacquer is finally dry, it is virtually indestructible and very long lasting. This quality makes lacquer a perfect, protective coating for a huge variety of everyday, household objects.

Applied in many layers it can also become a de facto sculpture. These lacquer sculptures are a distinct and unique form of artistic expression.

Lacquerware MoldsThe supports over which lacquer is usually applied are typically made from; wood, basketry, paper, leather, metal and even ceramic.

The wood is dried and aged to avoid the problems resulting from the expansion and contraction which occurs with changes in temperature. The substrate is then covered with a layer of lacquer to seal it and then it is covered with a layer of cloth. This cloth gives the subsequent layers of lacquer a texture they can bond with.

It is only after drying and polishing the prepared object that the craftsmen would proceed with the coats of lacquer used to color the surface.

Lacquerware in China:
Lacquerware has had an important place in Chinese art since time immemorial.

For many years, scholars of Chinese art believed that lacquer first appeared on the wares of the Shangyin era (1,766-1-121BC). Then one day it was discovered in Zhejiang Province, amongst Neolithic artifacts, a distinctly lacquered wooden bowl which can be dated to 4,000BC.

Warring States LacquerThe first finely finished lacquerware appears during the Warring States period (475-221BC). Under the Qin and Han numerous new designs appeared.

In 106BC, after an imperial edict, Empress Deng inexplicably prohibits lacquerware to be used in the Imperial Court. Artists continued to manufacture exquisite lacquerware during this time, but it was for the use of the provincial market exclusively.

Under the Tang Dynasty (618-906), the first carved lacquer appears. The first known piece is a piece of carved Chinese armor discovered in Fort Miran - once a Buddhist temple built in the eighth century in East Turkestan, but subsequently used as a Tibetan military base.

Tixi ArmorThis armor, of Chinese manufacture, was probably seized as war loot by the Tibetans when they invaded Gansu in the eighth century. This was not purely decorative, as armor coated with thick layers of lacquer were especially strong. This type of decoration is called 'Tixi' by the Chinese (meaning 'rhino skin'). Westerners however, have come to use the name, 'Guri' - a Japanese term - to describe any kind of carved lacquer made ​​from layers of different colors on a backing.

Tixi lacquers generally come in three different designs: heart-shaped patterns, patterns in the form of a sword hilt known as Ruyi, or the style called Xiangcao (meaning foliage and fragrant herbs).
Heart Shaped Pattern Ruyi Pattern Xiangcao Pattern
The heart pattern probably appeared before the Ruyi, but they were both developed during the Song period. Later, only the Ruyi pattern was used. The Xiangcao pattern can appear alone or in combination with the other two patterns, on the side or bottom of an object. 

Yuan LacquerwareDuring the Yuan period (1279-1368), carved lacquers appear. These sculpted lacquerwares are either black or red.

In the early parts of the thirteenth century Yuan landscapes, rocks and tree trunks are usually carved in a simplified style. Waves are carved freehand and the more complex, decorative elements are usually separated and spread across the object, revealing the background patterns.

Yuan Sculptured LacquerwareIn later pieces, the waves are either exclusively S-shaped lines or these are combined with irregular waves. The background is almost invisible as the surface area is almost entirely covered with extremely compact and deeply embossed decoration.

The most beautiful lacquerwares created during the Yuan period are carved boxes. These boxes feature two birds flying against a background of flowers (this was a pattern already developed in the earlier Song period). The flowers are more realistic than those depicted during the Ming Dynasty.

Early Ming Lacquer CupAt the time of Emperor Hongwu (1368-1398), in the early Ming period, the waves are very precise and formal. Under his successor, Emperor Yongle (1403-1424), lacquer carved for the court is at its peak of development. Boxes and cups are now decorated with finely carved characters combined with floral motifs or highly realistic landscapes.

During the following period in Xuande, it is claimed that the artists were not reaching the quality of their predecessors and, in order to avoid punishment, bought boxes marked Yongle from the eunuchs of the palace. They then replaced the existing Yongle mark with their own carved and gilded brands.

The reverse side and bases of Yuan period lacquerware are always black. Later, during the Hongwu, Yongle and Xuande periods, these areas were painted with dark brown. During the Xuande to Jiajing periods the fashion changed again and they were once more painted black. In recent centuries, during the Longqing Jiajing and Wanli periods, these areas have been typically painted red. Occasionally objects from these periods have been discovered with black painting, but these objects have been reworked and re-lacquered. 

Yunnan LacquerThere were occasionally great upheavals in the production of lacquers, prompted by political manuevering at the Imperial Court. During the period 1436 to about 1522, the beginning of the Jiajing era, there were constant interruptions in the production process.

Although lacquerware was certainly being produced during these times of upheaval, they were not marked, and they were different from the imperial style.

Some of these pieces are called "Yunnan Lacquer", as a great many lacquer objects were made ​​by artists from Yunnan during this time. These are usually pieces made ​​from thick layers of lacquer and hard sculpture, often decorated with the three-friends motif - pine, bamboo and plum - they also inherit the name.

Ticai Lacquer BoxUnder the reign of Emperor Jiajing, carved red lacquer give way to carved polychrome lacquer called 'ticai'. This lacquerwork consists of layers of different colors that are carved so as to leave a pattern in different thicknesses giving depth to the image. The production of this type of work died off during the reign of Emperor Wanli and his immediate successors, but it came back into vogue during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, who commanded the creation of large quantities for his personal and household use.

Black and Gold LacquerwareIn the sixteenth century, gold and polychrome painted lacquer and basketry were experiencing a great boom in southern China. Artists appear to have been influenced by the lacquerware of neighboring regions such as Japan and Korea. Many pieces in an identical style were also made ​​in the Ryukyu Islands of japan.

Tianqi LacquerTianqi lacquer is an inlaid, polychrome lacquer style. It is worked in combination with qiangjin painted lacquers and inlaid with fine gold leaf in an incised surface. This style met with great success from the Jiajing period and throughout the time of Wanli.

This technique was already known by the artists of the Three Kingdoms (220-265AD). A cover of a decorated qiangjin box was found in 1984 in the tomb of Zhu Ran who died in 249AD.

Lacquerware utilizing this technique was made ​​throughout the following dynasties. The climax of this technique came in the early fifteenth century, as can be seen in the collections of qiangjin lacquers held at the Palace Museums in Beijing and Taiwan.

Being carved lacquers, the quality does deteriorate over time, albeit gradually. Unfortunately, most of the pieces from this period have now disappeared. It was primarily used for the decoration of the most common types of household objects and furniture and these often received rough treatment. This particular style of lacquerware was most popular during the Jiajing and Wanli periods, as during these times polychrome decorations were very popular. 

Inlaid PlateThe first lacquer to be inlaid with mother of pearl has been found in tombs of the Western Zhou (1100-771BC). However, it was actually developed in the Tang period and knew its peak of perfection under the Song.

Today the established antique styles of lacquerware continue to be utilized to produce beautiful and useful objects. In China, the sense of historical continuity flows onward and with it the tradition of fine lacquerware continues to grow strong.

Author: Amel Ryan
Amel Ryan

Amel Ryan is a designer and manufacturer of exquisite lacquerware products.
(c) Copyright – amel designs. All rights reserved World Wide.

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