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Chinese Arts - Handicrafts
Lacquerware 漆器文物

Lacquerware is actually not made from lacquer, it is only coated with. The core material can be everything, ranging from wood or bamboo to metal or even plastic. Traditional art uses in most cases bamboo to give a shape to the planned object. Lacquer is a kind of resin varnish that is secreted by a plant at points of injuries. If the varnish comes in contact with air, it crystallizes and so closes the wound. Artificial wounds in the shape of channels can be cut in the bark of trees to obtain the secreted gum or resin. Incense and myrrh are also such kind of secretions that are used in worshipping and for medicine. The Chinese tree Rhus verniciflua (syn. Toxicodendron vernicifluum), or lacquer sumach, produces a white, poisoneous secretion that can be used to coat objects in different colors. Chinese art uses almost exclusively red and black as colorings, very rarely gold. After varnishing, a second layer of laquer can be applied, and layers up to thirty are no rarity. The lacquer will dry exclusively in a dark and moist atmosphere, making the production of lacquerware a secret for a long time. Lacquerware has in most cases a gleemingly polished surface or is inlaid with different materials like gold, silver, jade, ivory or mother-of-pearl. The oldest examples of laquered goods come from tombs of pre-Shang cultures. The Warring States period and the Han dynasty was a flourishing time for lacquerware. Song artists invented the technique of lacquer carving (tihong 剔紅) and thus allowed the old art of lacquerware with its beautiful objects and designs to bloom newly in a renaissance that is still going on today. The Rhus lacquer is very resistant against alkalis and acids and thus was a widespread art material. The characteristic element that gives the lacquer its distinctive features is called "urushiol" (from the Japanese word for lacquer, urushi 漆). It made possible native designs in Burma and Japan, both famous for their lacquerware. The Chinese character for lacquer (qi) is a picture of liquid dropping from a tree 桼. The modern form adds water as the determinant 漆.
Unearthed from a tomb in Hunan from the early Warring States period戰國, we find a wonderful piece of a liquid container. It has the shape of twisted and intertwined dragons, some of them in simple black, and some of them with red patterns. The body is made of wood and covered with lacquer.
This is a 20 cm long box with the shape of a duck. The upper part is a cover. Black as ground color, the shape of the feathers is painted in red, accomplished by a hunting picture on the lower corpus. A piece from early Warring States period, from the tomb of Marquis Zeng 曾侯.
An arm-rest from the Warring States period, unearthed from a tomb of the state of Chu 楚 in the south. The wooden piece is carved with many types of animals, deer and birds, real and fabulous beasts. The are covered with black and red lacquer, length 51 cm.
From a southern tomb of the Qin Dynasty 秦, this 21 cm wide lacquer box is a beautiful example of early Chinese lacquer painting art. Again black as ground color, flowers and abstract ornaments are painted in red.
From the same tomb in Yunmeng 雲夢/Hubei, a rectangular box with abstract patterns, length 23 cm.
Covered with dark lacquer, the attention is driven to the simple flower-shaped inlaid mother-of-pearl at the top of the cover. The body of this Western Han Dynasty 西漢 box is painted with very fine flowers and grass in red.
This flat bottle from the early Western Han Dynasty is painted with seven leopards playing in the bushes. 48 cm tall.
A cosmetic container with seven small boxes inside (lian 奩) from late Western Han Dynasty. The container is covered with black and grey lacquer and inlaid with gold, silver, agate and pearls and thus is a very precious piece, painted with scenes of landscape, hunting, of musicians and mythical persons. Of the inner boxes, some are round or oval, some rectangular or quadrangular.
A spoon-like yi 匜 vessel from the early Western Han (length 33 cm). A red ground is painted with flowers, birds and fish, motifs most used during the Han Dynasty.
This is a detail of the coffin of a coffin (length 256 cm) of the early Western Han period, found near Changsha, in the tomb of Mawangdui 馬王堆 near Changsha/Hunan. On a black ground, the coffin is carved and lacquered in different colors with very outstanding motifs. We see souls and spirits, mythical beings walking on a floating cloud, showing the strong mythical background in thinking and religion of the south.
This round box from early Western Han contains ten drinking bowls with ear-shaped handles (erbei 耳杯). It is painted with plants, flowers and bird heads in red, yellow and gray on a black ground (length 21 cm). These beautiful examples of Han Dynasty lacquer art could only be conserved because they were well stored as burial gifts in tombs that have never been plundered.
A similar set for drinking wine together is this one, unearthed from a Western Han tomb in Jiangsu (21 cm length). It consists of a tablet with four feet. Upon the tablet are four ear-bowls.
Two lacquered ladles from Western Han, decorated with black dragons on a red ground.
The southern regions have always been a realm with different thinking and different arts. The shape of the animals and fabulous winged beasts shown on this tablet from the kingdom of Wu 吳 can barely be compared to the stylized dragons in the north (Three Kingdoms period 三國; 25 cm long).
This lacquered five-fold screen has been unearthed from the tomb of an official of the Northern Wei empire 北魏. The ground is lacquered in red and painted with different mythical and historical scenes. The picture shows a scene in the myth around the Emperor Shun 舜. The height of every part is 80 cm.
The back side of a Tang Dynasty 唐 mirror, black lacquer and inlaid with mother-of-pearl in the shape of a big dragon, symbol of fortune and wealth.
A 35 cm long box from the Five Dynasties period 五代, richly inlaid with mother-of-pearl in the shape of flowers, leafs and plants. It was unearthed from a pagoda in Suzhou.
In very beautiful black lacquer, we see here a wonderful example of the smooth, shining Song time 宋 lacquer that was exported to Japan and is still in use there today.
On a red ground and inlaid with silver and gold, we see here a wonderful example of a three stored box from the Song Dynasty.
Contrasting to the former, this Song time lacquer box has a very simple shape and no design at all.
Carved lacquer box from the late Southern Song Dynasty. While the inner side is covered with black lacquer, the outside is carved in meander patterns. The cover shows the simple and therefore very attractive picture of a cassia flower (diameter 9 cm).
Cloud patterns, carved in alternating red and black layers of lacquer, decorate this box from the Yuan Dynasty 元 (diameter 15 cm).
Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 collecting chrysanthemum flowers, carved lacquer with the lower layers in black, the upper ones in red. A box from the Yuan Dynasty, diameter 12 cm.
A beautiful chest from the Ming Dynasty 明 showing two dragons playing with a pearl, in different colors making lacquer art a real pictorial art.
Most carved lacquer objects are red like this dish from the middle Ming Dynasty (diameter 35 cm). It shows a bird, probably a phoenix, in a flower garden. The lowest layer of lacquer is in black, and the body of the dish is not wood, but leather.
This Ming time brush box is made of black carved lacquer. The rim is made of ivory.
Two poems and dragons playing within clouds are mother-of-pearl inlaids in a black lacquered surface of a late Ming Dynasty box (length 13 cm).
A double rhomboid shaped box from the Ming Dynasty. After carving lacquer, the holes were filled with gold wires, shaping flowers and dragons all over the surface (28 cm long).
Here a very rare exemplar of yellow lacquer for a chrysanthemum shaped box from the Qing Dynasty 清.
The Chinese word (not the character) for "bat" 蝠 is identical to the word for "luck" 福. Therefore, bats are a common object in Chinese art since Ming times. This khaki shaped box from the Qing Yongzheng period shows four bats flying in a flower garden (diameter 20 cm).
A wonderful piece with inlaid gold wires in the shape of many flowers and plants, containing five jade boxes, one quadrangular and four half-circles. The box itself has the shape of a flower. Qianlong period, diameter 30 cm.
Golden lacquer covers this melon shaped box from the Qianlong period. Gold powder was brought upon the still liquid lacquer. The surface of the melon is decorated with leafs and a butterfly (length 10 cm).
A landscape and eight fairies are drawn with green and black lacquer upon the gold powdered surface of this 23 cm diameter box from the Qianlong period.
Brush containers were made of every kind of material except metal. Lacquered wood and carved red lacquer was an ideal material to fit with bamboo brushes like this example from the middle Qing dynasty.
The shape of the old bronze vessels was imitated with different materials until the Qing dynasty. This is a carved lacquer vessel with the shape of a jue 爵, an antique libation cup.
A covered bowl for soup or for rice, having the shape of a hundred petal chrysanthemum flower.
Playing admidst waves, a dozen of dragons is carved out of a red lacquered quadrangular box from the Qing Dynasty.
This is an example of folk art lacquerware that is still used today in the mountainous regions of Southwest China and in Burma (Myanmar).

  © 2000 ff · Ulrich Theobald · Mail