Lacquer ware is a sort of artifacts using wood or other materials as body on which lacquer is coated. Chinese lacquer-painted woodenbowl discovered in the Hemudu remains in Yuyao, Zhejiang Province in 1978, which went back 7,000 years.
In the Neolithic Age, lacquer was still at an exploring stage. From the Xia, Shang and Western Zhou dynasties down to the Spring and Autumn Period, lacquer ware had experienced its initial prosperous period. During the warring states period and han dynasty, tree cultivation started to be taken seriously, conducive to lacquer production on a grand scale which lasted for centuries. The classic historical records writes that Chuang-tzu (c.369-286 B.C.), the great philosopher was once an official administration was established to take charge of lacquer production, which was managed under strict organization with elaborate division of labor. The inscriptions on Han Dynasty lacquer utensils excavated in Rakrang of Korea in 1932 tell in detail the date, location, division of work and names of officials involved in the manufacturing. According to the record, division of labor was clear and definite, in which lacquer body preparing, lacquer coating, painting, bronze buckle fixing, finishing, etc., each was done by specific craftsmen. In addition, there were workers specialized in making lacquer, providing materials, etc.
In the early Warring States Period, lacquer ware body was made of wood, which is thick and heavy. Later on, other materials (gray ash generated from the sumac reinforced with flax fibers), tough oxhide, etc. The state of Chu was the hub of lacquer production at that time where the articles made were red and black in color, mostly red patterns painted on black background with primitive simplicity. Animal patterns, geometric figures, and patterns reflecting social life such as chariot and horse, dancing, hunting, etc. were used for decoration. Already were products rich in variety, to be used not only as utensils, stationery, ornaments for furniture, but also for musical instruments, weapons and funerary objects, partly in place of bronze ware. They were therefore much favored by dukes and princes in spite of their high price.
On the basis of the Warring States Period, lacquer craft attained new progress in the Han Dynasty, production scale
expanded and production area more extensive, centered on the Shu and the Guanghan prefectures of Sichuan Province. The cloud-patterned lacquer bell 57 centimeters high and the cloud-and-dragon patterned lacquer plate 53.6 centimeters in diameter are typical large-sized lightweight artifacts reflecting the advancement of the art of lacquer. Full set of lacquer works had appeared, such as multi-lattices cassette which contains as many as nine, even eleven lattices different in size and shape, which are both practical and space-saving. The prevailing ornamental patterns included floating-cloud patterns and animal patterns, which are rich in color, with lines vigorous and racy, drawing vivacious and spirit resonant.
When it came to the Eastern Han Dynasty, lacquer manufacture entered a period of slow progress, though not without some noteworthy results. In the Tang Dynasty, the gold and silver peace level-off craft was a marked achievement. The process is first to have thin silver and gold sheets made in the shape of characters, birds animals, flowers, etc. affixed to smoothed lacquer body, and then apply two or three layers of lacquer on the body when it is dried, then grind the body till the golden and silvery patterns appeared. Finally polish to make a finished product. Lacquer articles made under such technique, though costly and time-consuming, are highly refined, with golden and silvers luster pleasing to the eye. It is recored in the ancient books Miscellaneous Notes of Youyang and Deeds of An Lushan that Emperor Xuazong of the Tang Dynasty and hisconclbing Yang Yuhuan had bestowed to his patronized official An Lushan lacquer articles manufactured using the above-said craft. In the Song Dynasty the gold inlay craft was initiated, the process of which is to carve patterns on the surface of the lacquer and then fill gold powder into the intaglio. At that time, lacquer ware was produced not only by the government, but by ordinary people. In the masterpiece painting Pure Brightness Day on the River, one can detect private-run lacquer store in Kaifeng, then the capital of Northern Song Dynasty.
During Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, a new upsurge in lacquer ware production arose. Governmental and non-governmental undertakings coexisted and co-developed. The carving paint technology had achieved brilliant results in which fluid and smooth patterns were formed on thickly spread lacquer using a special cutting skill by a bunch of outstanding craftsmen. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the lacquer technology, combined with architecture and furnishings, turned from the sphere of practical use towards adornment, producing some four hundred varieties under fourteen major categories including overspreading, tracing design in gold, carving-inlay, etc.
During the Yongle Period (1403-1424) of Ming Dynasty, a lacquer-making institution serving the royal court exclusively called Guoyuanchang was established in which two kinds of lacquer, the carving paint lacquer and the inlaying lacquer were exquisitely produced, known as royal production. In the meantime, production among the common people was also popular with a host of outstanding craftsmen revealed, such as Jiang Hui from Suzhou, a dab at gold-lacquer, Yang Xun who went to Japan to learn Japanese lacquer technology, and Zhou Zhu who was skilled in the “hundred-treasure inlay” technique. Moreover, in the Ming Dynasty, the sole extant ancient book about lacquer technology – Lacquering was written by Huang Dacheng, a master artisan in lacquer work from Xin’an (present-day Xin’an County, Anhui Province). In giving an account in detail of lacquer making procedures, materials, implements, color lacquer formula, decoration methods, etc., it well inherited, summarized, and developed China’s lacquer technology.
Based on the achievements of Ming Dynasty lacquer work, a number of manufacturing hubs appeared in the Qing Dynasty, each specialized in an individual species with local flavor, such as carving lacquer in Beijing, mother-of-pearl inlay lacquer in Yangzhou, bodiless lacquer in Fujian, etc. Tom Chippendale, famous British furniture maker in the 18th century, ever designed lacquer furniture using Chinese works for reference. The works he designed, adorned with patterns tinged with oriental appeal such as dragon, flowers, Buddha, pagoda, etc., prevailed for a time known as “Times of Chippendale.” The art of Chinese lacquer, as one of the significant varieties of Chinese traditional handicrafts, spread first to East Asia, Southeastern Asia, and then to North American via Western Europe and was well received there.