Lacquer is a natural substance obtained from the lacquer
tree which has its home in China, a country still leading the
world in lacquer resources. Much of the country is suitable for
growing the tree, but most of the output comes from five
provinces-Shaanxi, Hubei, Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan.
Raw lacquer is the sap of the lacquer tree, which hardens in
contact with air. A tree becomes productive 3-5 years after
planting, and entails hard work on the part of the tapper. He
can only get the latex in June and July each year and must tap it
in the predawn hours before the cock's crow and sunrise. For
the sun would reduce the moisture in the air, stopping the flow
of the latex.
Lacquerware has a long history which extends back to the
remote ages in China. From the neolithic remains at Tuanjie
Village and Meiyan Township (both in Wujiang County, Jiangsu Province) were unearthed in 1955 a number of lacquer-painted black pottery objects, two of which, a cup and a pot, were
discovered intact and found to bear patterns painted in lacquer
after the objects had been fired. They are the earliest lacquered
articles ever discovered in China and are now kept in the Museum of Nanjing.
Before the invention of the Chinese ink, lacquer had been
used for writing. Twenty-eight bamboo clips found in a Warring
States (475-221 B. C. ) tomb at Changtaiguan, Xinyang,
Henan Province, bear a list of the burial objects with the characters written in lacquer.
Lacquerware is moisture-proof, resistant to heat, acid and
alkali, and its colour and lustre are highly durable, adding beauty to its practical use. Beijing, Fuzhou and Yangzhou are the
cities leading in the production of Chinese lacquerware.
The making of Beijing lacquerware starts with a brass or
wooden body. After preparation and polishing, it is coated with
several dozen up to hundreds of layers of lacquer, reaching a total thickness of 5 to 18 millimetres. Then, gravers will cut into
the hardened lacquer, creating "carved paintings" of landscapes, human figures, flowers and birds. It is then finished by
drying and polishing. Traditional Beijing lacquer objects are in
the forms of chairs, screens, tea tables, vases, etc. Emperor
Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty, an enthusiast for lacquerware,
had his coffin decorated with carved lacquer.
Yangzhou lacquer articles are distinguished not only by
carvings in relief but by exquisite patterns inlaid with gems,
gold, ivory and mother of pearl. The products are normally
screens, cabinets, tables, chairs, vases, trays, cups, boxes
Fuzhou is well-known for the "bodiless lacquerware", one
of the "Three Treasures" of Chinese arts and crafts (the other
two being Beijing cloisonne and Jingdezhen porcelain).
The bodiless lacquerware starts with a body of clay, plaster
or wood. Grass linen or silk is pasted onto it, layer after layer,
with lacquer as the binder. The original body is removed after
the outer cloth shell has dried in the shade. This is then
smoothed with putty, polished, and coated with layers of lacquer. After being carved with colourful patterns, it becomes the
bodiless lacquerware of extremely light weight and exquisite finish.