Rising Dragon: Ancient Treasures from China

Chinese Lacquer

Lacquering, the application of thin layers of lac tree sap onto a wood or basketry core to create vessels with an impermeable surface, was initially employed in China for utilitarian purposes. The earliest examples date to the 7th century B.C.E. and by the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), black lacquered bowls and cups were painted with colored lacquer decorations.

Chinese lacquer, as well as Japanese and Korean, is made from the purified sap of the native Rhus vernicifera tree. The lacquer is harvested from the trees by removing a strip of bark, which allows the sap to ooze into a container. Most pieces have at least two layers of lacquer, although the finest wares may require over 100 layers, each with a drying period of up to five days. Colored lacquer is made by adding finely ground minerals such as lamp black or iron salts for black and cinnabar for red.

By the 13th century, artists were exploring the decorative properties of lacquer by carving and incising the surface, as well as inlaying such materials as mother-of-pearl. The Imperial Cylindrical Brush Holder is an extraordinary example of cinnabar lacquer that has been intricately carved back to its green and yellow background underlayer. The Incense Box achieves its bold, three-dimensional design with numerous, alternating layers of black, yellow, red and green lacquer, carved in a way that exposes the play of colors between the different strata.

Imperial Cylindrical Brush Holder with Scenes of Refined Pastimes, Qianlong Reign (1736-1795)

Incense Box, Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)

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