Chinese lacquer-ware: Past and present

Chinese lacquer-ware, with a history of 7,000 years, is characterized by both antiquity and modernity, exquisiteness and magnificence. Its smoothness, beauty, elegance and splendour have always been very appealing. But nowadays the number of lacquer-ware craftsmen has fallen sharply

Chinese lacquer-ware
Chinese lacquer-ware

Contributing Reporter
Shi Yue

The early 1980s was the heyday of Beijing’s carved lacquer-ware, which is one of the most famous lacquer-ware. At that time export orders came in thick and fast, earning huge amounts of foreign currencies for the state. Before that in the 50s, the employees of Beijing Carved Lacquer-ware Workshop were among the best paid in Beijing and many people worked there as a result of family connections. Enormous changes have taken place since then. The market in the last decade has shown that lacquer-ware, although still appealing to some collectors, declined in popularity. Apart from museums, very few individuals in China collect lacquer-ware. It is hard for the current production, sale and collection of low and medium-end specialties or high-end works of art to become sizable businesses. The number of lacquer-ware craftsmen fell sharply, among whom we find Mr. Wen Qiangang, a true grand master in the art of carved lacquer-ware.

Chinese lacquer-ware
The history of lacquer-ware as told by Mr. Wen Qiangang in Wén Xīn Dīao Qī (A Literary Mind and the Carving of Lacquer-ware) opens a window into the world of lacquer-ware.

The Chinese character // ‘lacquer’, is a pictograph which depicts sap oozing out from the cuts in the shape of the character // ‘eight’ in the trunk of a lacquer tree. This sap is raw lacquer, which is creamy white at first but turns into a brown gelatinous substance as it meets the air. When used as a varnish, it forms a hard coating which feels smooth and adds a beautiful sheen to the surface of an object. Lacquer, therefore, is called “the oriental skin”. Lacquer-ware is acid and alkali resistant and the use of lacquer can effectively inhibit the growth of microorganisms. People today will find that large numbers of ancient lacquer-ware from the Warring States period (476-221 BC) and the Qin and Han Dynasties (221BC-220 AD), despite having been buried underground for over two thousand years, have remained intact and still attract people’s attentions with their exquisite decorative patterns.

The earliest lacquer-ware discovered so far is the big bowl painted in red lacquer unearthed at the remains of Hemudu, Zhejiang province, which dates back to over 7,000 years ago. After the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), porcelain became very popular. As a result, the production of lacquer-ware gradually declined. In the 7th century, the craft of lacquer-ware was introduced into Japan where its own technique and distinctive style developed. In the West, china in the sense of ‘porcelain’ and japan in the sense of ‘lacquer-ware’ are homographs with the two nations’ names China and Japan respectively.

Chinese lacquer-ware

The Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties (960-1911) witnessed a resurgence of lacquer-ware in China, with government controlled production and private production of lacquer-ware co-existing side by side and developing together. In the Ming Dynasty the technology of lacquer-ware production advanced comprehensively, giving rise to 14 different techniques and methods, and nearly 400 varieties of lacquer-ware which were simply “too many for people to distinguish”. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, the outflow of a large number of lacquer-ware from the imperial court further aroused the interest of foreigners. Since then the focus of lacquer-ware has gradually shifted from its practical use to its artistic value.

The value of lacquer-ware lies not only in its history but also in its exquisite workmanship. A lacquer tree has to grow for at least ten years before slit for lacquer and only 2 jin (1 kg) of raw lacquer can be extracted from 3,000 trees. Therefore, there is a saying among lacquer producers that “100 li (50 km) of walking plus 1,000 cuts produces only 1 jin of lacquer”.

Chinese lacquer-ware
The breathtaking works of lacquer-ware at the 14th Chinese Arts and Crafts Masterpieces and the International Artworks Exhibition in 2013.

According to different craftsmanship, designs, colours, and geographical origins, lacquer-ware can be categorized into a wide range of varieties such as lacquer-ware with gold-painted designs, filled-in lacquer-ware, lacquer-ware inlaid with mother-of-pearl, lacquer-ware with gold or silver inlays, lacquer-ware inlaid with jewels, carved lacquer-ware, etc. Among well-known types of lacquer-ware are Fuzhou’s “bodiless” lacquer-ware, Xiamen’s gold-painted lacquer-ware, Guangdong’s lacquer-ware decorated with patterns of gold powder, Yangzhou’s lacquer-ware inlaid with mother-of-pearl, Jishan’s lacquer-ware inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the polished lacquer-ware of Pingyao, Shanxi province, Chengdu’s lacquer-ware embedded with silver foil and coated with transparent lacquer, the mottled flat lacquer ware of Tunxi, Anhui province, Beijing’s carved lacquer-ware, and the black lacquer-ware of Nantou, Taiwan province.

Chinese lacquer-ware

Take the technique of carved lacquer-ware for example. The mould for a piece of lacquer-ware has to be coated with a layer of red lacquer of a certain thickness. For this purpose it has to be painted at least 20-30 times, and sometimes up to 100 times. Then patterns will be carved in the lacquer. A more complicated technique is called colour-layer revealing, in which the mould is first coated with several layers of different colours of lacquer, then the layer(s) over the desired colour is removed in accordance with the colour patterns of the design so that the desired colour is revealed. In Record of Lacquer Decoration, it is said that “red flowers, green leaves, purple branches, yellow fruits, rosy clouds and black stones, etc.” can all be revealed by this method. In the production process, to adjust the colours and their lustre, precious ingredients such as tung oil, cinnabar and coral are added to the lacquer. The majority of lacquer-ware production involves such steps as selection of raw materials, shaping of the mould, lacquer coating, colour painting, polishing and burnishing, and drying. Each step has to be accomplished in accordance with strict standards as a single mistake will lead to complete failure.

There is a saying among lacquer producers that “100 li (50 km) of walking plus 1,000 cuts produces only 1 jin of lacquer”.

Chinese lacquer-wareChinese lacquer-ware, with a history of 7,000 years starting from Hemudu culture (5,000 BC – 4,500 BC), through the Qin, Han, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties and all the way to this day, is characterized by both antiquity and modernity, exquisiteness and magnificence. Its smoothness, beauty, elegance and splendour have always been very appealing. When he was young, Mr. Wen Qiangang made great efforts to cut production costs by mixing cheaper dyes with lacquer, or to cut short the processes to improve output. However, the final products always turned out to be “not quite right”. By the time he turned fifty, he began to realize that traditional beauty and quality were forged by the accumulated experiences of millennia of craftsmanship, which could never be achieved by using cheap materials or cutting corners.

In 2002, the carved lacquer-ware workshop in which Mr. Wen had worked for more than half of his life was relocated from Xuanwumennei. It saddens Mr. Wen that nothing is left except for its business registration information. Nevertheless, the few master pieces he produces each year are always bought up before they are offered for sale, which gives him more confidence. “Although the trade of carved lacquer-ware is in a slump,” said Mr. Wen, “it will never die”.

After retirement, Mr. Wen founded his own studio, which by 2014 is 12 years old. Although already in his 70s, he is still working vigorously and energetically. He is especially consoled by the fact that a number of young lovers of carved lacquer-ware have been trained in his studio. “It is one way of living to put the money you earn into your pocket and leave,” he said. “It is another way of living to do something for this dying traditional handicraft. I’d rather pass the handicraft of carved lacquer-ware to the next generation.”


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Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Number 33. Volume IV. July 2014.

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