Packaging is closely related to people’s daily life. Traditionally the guidelines on packaging in China are always “for the convenience of the users” and “pleasing to the eyes.”
In earlier days, natural materials were used in packing such as tree leaves, bamboo, lotus leaves, palm leaves, gourds, cocoanut shells, shells of shellfish, animal skin, etc. Later on, man-made material were used including fabrics, ceramics, metals, lacquer ware, woodware, jadeware, paper, etc. As early as the late years of the primitive society, packaging had already started. Bamboo tubes, gourd shells, cocoanut shells, earthen jugs, etc. were used to hold liquids; baskets made from bamboo or willow twigs, were used to hold solid objects. Sometimes commodities were directed wrapped in bamboo leaves, lotus leaves, etc. In China materials, ornaments and styles in packaging differ in different historical periods, changing with the productivity, and scientific and technological development, and conforming to the fashion of the time.
The pottery wares emerged in the Neolithic Age was the first great invention of man-made packaging materials. In comparison with natural materials, they have the advantages of being durable, antiseptic, and anti-worm-eaten. They also excel in long-distance transportation and in being various in forms. It is interesting that the earliest food cans were discovered in China – the twelve airtight food cans unearthed in Baoshan of Hubei in 316 B.C. These cans were tightly sealed with multi-layer materials such as straw mats, bamboo leaves, wet clay, etc. Individual cans were cased with bamboo baskets having a handle above for convenient carrying. On the outmost layer, silk was covered before they were tied up with thin bamboo strips or silk ribbon, which were sealed with clay, attached with label bearing the description of the food contained in the can. By this process the food can be kept for a long period of time without going bad or discoloring.
In the Shang and Zhou dynasties, traders started to appear. At that time, bronze vessels were commonly used as packaging material to hold alcoholic drinks, meat, etc. Other packaging material included earthenware, lacquer ware, wooden articles, leather utensils, bamboo articles, etc. which were also used as containers. The remnants of silk wrappings round the Shang-dynasty jade dagger-axe housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing are tightly adhered to its surface with the passage of time.
In the Sprng and Autumn and Warring States Period, trade became more flourishing. In order to attract customers, some traders laid special stress on the packaging o commodities. The ever-increasingly exquisite packaging sometimes caused the secondary to supersede the primary. An ancient Chinese fable entitled Selling he Casket without the Pearls is included in the classic Han Fei Tzu. It is about a native of the state of Chu selling pearls in the State of Zheng. He had a casket made of rare wood, scented it with spices, inlaid it with jade and other precious jewels. The result was that the
men of Zheng were eager to buy the casket, but returned the pearls to him.
Paper is the second significant invention with respect to man-made packaging materials. Before Cai Lun (?-121) made what was to be termed as paper in the Eastern Han Dynasty, ancient paper on which map was drawn already appeared in the Qin and Han dynasties. By the Western Han Dynasty bronze mirrors were wrapped with rough paper made from bamboo and hemp fibers. Improved paper was soon used in packaging articles of everyday use, food, medicine, etc.
Henceforth paper has become the most common and important packaging material. In the Tang tombs in Astana, Xingjiang, a traditional Chinese medicine called “weirui” pill wrapped in a small piece of square white hemp paper was unearthed, on which are the words “taking 15 pills each time on an empty stomach before going to bed.” When printing was invented in the Song Dynasty, the technique of package printing was developed and applied to practice. The combination of paper making and printing, in addition to the application of traditional Chinese culture and arts such as poetry, painting, calligraphy and seal-engraving, made traditional packaging manifest rich national flavor in decoration and external appearance. Besides, following the development of lacquer craft, lacquer vessels used as packaging material were prevailing in the HAN Dynasty and have since been used through the ages as a major packaging material.
In the Sui, Tang and Song dynasties, Chinese economy remained stable and thriving; cultural and economic exchanges with foreign countries occurred frequently. Exotic cultural impact often reflected on commodity packages. Take the then more flourished ceramic crafts for an example. Quite a number of ceramic utensils were distinctive in shape, refined in designs, of which some bearing the local flaver of the Western Region. When earthen and china cups, bottles, jugs, etc. were used to hold wine or vinegar, customers often attracted by the tasteful packages. Even the wine and vinegar contained in the vessels were benefited from it and had a rise in selling price. On the outer packages of some commodities, places of production, the name of shops were marked so as not only to ensure genuine goods at a fair price, but also prevent fake quality commodities from passing off.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, with the budding of capitalism, people’s commodity consciousness intensified, as manifested in commodity packaging where all sorts of lacquer cases and silk cases used for packaging became more and more elegant and sumptuous. Packaging itself seemed to became a form of art in which the most typical was the packaging of articles for the use of the royal court in the Qing Dynasty. Actually such were specially manufactured, some by the imperial workshops and some by folk craftspeople. The former embodies typical royal style and characteristics of the times in material choosing, designing and ornaments whereas the latter gives expression to practical use, with ornaments that are designed to fit the taste of the imperial family. Needless to say, the materials used in the royal workshops are largely red sandlewood, lacquer ware, enamel, bamboo carvings, sold and silver inlaid vessels, silk fabrics, etc., and the decoration procedures include carving, engraving on gold and silver, painting inlaying, baking, weaving, etc., showing the superb skills of the Qing-dynasty arts and crafts.