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Carved cinnabar
lacquerware plate
Lacquerware refers to objects, usually boxes, covered with lacquer (a processed tree sap). In Imperial times lacquerware was greatly prized partly because the large amount of skilled labor required to make lacquer objects. As many as 200 thin layers of lacquer were applied to some objects, with each coat requiring drying and polishing before the next layer was applied.

True lacquer is the sap or resin from the “son” (“urushi”, “thitsi” or varnish) tree, which grows abundantly in China. It has a peculiar buttery smell in its paste form, and produces an intense allergic reaction in many people. It is not unusual for the hands of sufferers to swell to twice their normal size. Even though craftsmen who work with lacquer are not allergic to it they are careful to keep their hands covered.

James C. Y. Watt and Barbara Brennan Ford of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “ 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.” [Source: James C. Y. Watt and Barbara Brennan Ford, East Asian Lacquer (1991), Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Lacquer is one of the strongest adhesives found in the natural world. It is resistant to water, acids, alkali and abrasion. Lacquer saps comes out of the tree creamy white like latex from a rubber tree and have traditionally been made brown or black by mixing them with resin in an iron container for 40 hours. Around 10 coats of lacquer are applied to a typical piece.

History of Lacquerware in China

Lacquerware was introduced to China from Europe. Before 300 B.C., varnishes, enamels and lacquers were made from gum arabic, egg white, gelatin and beeswax. Today most lacquers are made through chemical processes.

James C. Y. Watt and Barbara Brennan Ford of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: 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. [Source: James C. Y. Watt and Barbara Brennan Ford, East Asian Lacquer (1991), Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“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.” \^/

Lacquerware Traditions in China, Japan and Korea

James C. Y. Watt and Barbara Brennan Ford of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “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.” [Source: James C. Y. Watt and Barbara Brennan Ford, East Asian Lacquer (1991), Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“In Japan, on the other hand, the underlying shape of a lacquer object is never lost sight of and surface decoration is paramount. The earliest lacquer surface decoration known in Japan, apart from simple designs painted on lacquered objects of the prehistoric period, is the gold and silver foil inlay of the Nara period. Almost certainly this technique was transmitted from Tang China, the source of the dominant cultural influence on Japan at this time. However, once this technique of lacquer decoration had been introduced into Japan, it took on a life of its own and, in fact, continued to develop there into recent times. (Meanwhile, the same technique all but died out in China after the demise of the Tang dynasty in the tenth century.) During later periods, other metals were also used for inlay in Japan, such as lead, tin, and pewter. A technique developed to the highest degree in Japan is the use of gold and silver in powder form, either mixed in to form gold or silver lacquer, or sprinkled over the lacquer surface to create a graduated gold or silver effect. Indeed, the Japanese exploited every physical property of lacquer: as a liquid for painting; as a solid surface that can be built up in certain areas of the composition; and as an adhesive, especially for gold and silver (in either foil or powder form). The resultant works often display great subtlety and delicacy, and maki-e (gold or silver) lacquer is one of the supreme achievements of Japanese decorative art.\^/ “In Korea, too, it is known that lacquer surfaces were decorated with metal foil inlay more or less contemporaneously with the Tang dynasty in China, during Korea's Unified Silla period. In the subsequent Goryeo period, however, perhaps following the lead of southern China under the Song dynasty, mother-of-pearl inlay became the dominant decorative technique for Korean lacquer, and it has continued as such to the present day. Although lacquers of the Goryeo period exhibit some marked similarities to a certain class of mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer produced in Song China, gradually Korean lacquer evolved a distinctive national style. The finest lacquerware of the late Goryeo and early Joseon periods makes rich use of mother-of-pearl inlay, often in combination with tortoiseshell, and gives an impression of great sumptuousness.\^/

Producing Lacquerware

rightHigh-quality lacquerware pieces take a long time to make because many layers of lacquer are applied and each takes a long time to dry. When the process is finished the lacquer is polished to a brilliant shine.

Once lacquer becomes hard it is inert and extraordinarily durable. Contrary to what you might think, lacquer dries best in a humid atmosphere. Some craftsmen place their objects for several days after each lacquer application in special closets with the temperature set at 23̊C and the humidity is 80 percent.

The most common colors of lacquer are amber, brown, black and red. Additives can used to make violet, blue, yellow and even white lacquer. Green and violet shades can be achieved with reeki pigments developed in Japan in the early 20th century.

Over time laquer cracks largely because of fluctuations in humidity and the gold and metal foil used as decoration peels away. Restoration involves painstaking cleaning, taking microscopic samples to see what material is best for strengthening the lacquer surface; applying lacquer from the urushi tree or a synthetic resin

Lacquerware Craftsmanship and Design

Lacquerware is usually made by coating split bamboo or wood with lacquer, then adding intricate hand-painted designs or inlays of gold or silver foil or other materials. Typical lacquerware is gold on black lacquer or yellow and green on a red brown background. Master craftsmen carve designs into the layers of lacquer without touching the wooden substrate. Foil has traditionally been kept in place with animal glue.

Describing a lacquerware craftsman, W.E. Garret, wrote in National Geographic, an artisan "first weaves a cylindrical frame of bamboo and horsehair, over which successive coats of sap from the thitsi tree are applied. After each layer has dried, a worker puts the cylinder on a lathe for polishing. Using a stick in his right to spin the lathe, he smooths the surface with pumice.

"An artist then creates a pattern by scratching a design and covering the container with pigmented lacquer. Another polishing removes all the color except that caught in the depressions. These steps are repeated with successive colors until a multi-hued design is complete. Some tell a love story; others include figures from astrology or folklore." [Source: W.E. Garret, National Geographic, March 1971.]

East Asian Lacquer Decoration Techniques

East Asian Lacquer Decoration Techniques: 1) Carved lacquer (diaoqi) is a method of decoration involves carving built-up layers of thinly applied coats of lacquer into a three-dimensional design. 2) "Engraved gold" (qiangjin) is decorative technique in which an adhesive of lacquer is applied to fine lines incised on the lacquer surface, and gold foil or powdered gold is pressed into the grooves. [Source: James C. Y. Watt and Barbara Brennan Ford, East Asian Lacquer (1991), Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

3) "filled-in" (diaotian or tianqi) is a decoration in which lacquer is inlaid with lacquer of another color. There are two methods of filled-in decoration: one involves carving the hardened lacquer and inlaying lumps of other colors; the other is called "polish-reveal" (see below). 4) Maki-e is the general term in Japanese for lacquer decoration in which gold or silver powder is sprinkled on still-damp lacquer.\^/

5) Nashiji is a Japanese lacquer technique that produces a reddish, speckled surface, also called "pear-skin," by the sprinkling of especially fine, flat metal flakes over the half-dry lacquer base. 6) "Polish-reveal" (moxian) is a variety of "filled-in" lacquer decoration. Thick lacquer is applied repeatedly in certain areas to build up a design; then the ground is filled with lacquer of a different color and the entire surface is polished down to reveal the color variations.\^/

Chinese Enamel

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Cloisonne figures
Enamel is plastic-like material made from heating together substances such as feldspar, quartz, flurospar, borax, boric acid, soda, potash, saltpeter, clays, ammonium carbonate, stannic acid and water. Colors are produced by adding chemicals such as cobalt oxide for blue.

Enameling means coating a base of metal, pottery or other mineral substance with finely powered glass and then heating it until the particles melt together and form a glaze. Chinese enameling is usually done on ceramics. Many times the object is repeatedly dipped in the enameling material before it is fired in a kiln.

To make enamel, ingredients are mixed and melted into a liquid glassy mass and then poured into cold water. The water causes them to shatter into millions of small fragments called frit. The frit is then ground with clay, water and coloring material into a creamy material called slip. Articles to be enameled are dipped into the slip. After they are allowed to dry they may be stenciled or colored using other means. Afterwards they are fired in kilns.

The Chinese also practiced cloisonne, a form of enamel work where colored areas are separated by fine metal bands. Cloisonne glazed in a kiln like porcelain is stronger than porcelain because of the metal framework.

Chinese Cloisonné

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Foreign influence contributed to the development of cloisonné during the early fourteenth to fifteenth century in China. The earliest securely dated Chinese cloisonné is from the reign of the Ming Xuande emperor (1426–35). However, cloisonné is recorded during the previous Yuan dynasty, and it has been suggested that the technique was introduced to China at that time via the western province of Yunnan, which, under Mongol rule, received an influx of Islamic people. A very few cloisonné objects have been dated on stylistic grounds to the Yongle reign (1403–24) of the early Ming dynasty. [Source: Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Cloisonné is the technique of creating designs on metal vessels with colored-glass paste placed within enclosures made of copper or bronze wires, which have been bent or hammered into the desired pattern. Known as cloisons (French for "partitions"), the enclosures generally are either pasted or soldered onto the metal body. The glass paste, or enamel, is colored with metallic oxide and painted into the contained areas of the design. The vessel is usually fired at a relatively low temperature, about 800̊C. Enamels commonly shrink after firing, and the process is repeated several times to fill in the designs. Once this process is complete, the surface of the vessel is rubbed until the edges of the cloisons are visible. They are then gilded, often on the edges, in the interior, and on the base.\^/

Cloisonné objects were intended primarily for the furnishing of temples and palaces, because their flamboyant splendor was considered appropriate to the function of these structures but not well suited to a more restrained atmosphere, such as that of a scholar's home. This opinion was expressed by Cao Zhao (or Cao Mingzhong) in 1388 in his influential Gegu Yaolun (Guide to the Study of Antiquities), in which cloisonné was dismissed as being suitable only for lady's chambers. However, by the period of Emperor Xuande, this ware came to be greatly prized at court.\^/

Image Sources: 1) University of Washington; 2, 9) Palace Museum, Taipei; 3, 10) CNTO; 4, 5) Kyoto Museum ; 6) Metropolitan Museum of Art; 7, 8) Kent State University

Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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