Lacquerware are objects decoratively covered with lacquer. The lacquer is sometimes inlaid or carved. Lacquerware includes boxes, tableware, buttons and even coffins painted with lacquer in cultures mostly in the Eastern Asia.
During the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600–1046 BC) of China, the sophisticated techniques used in the lacquer process were first developed and it became a highly artistic craft, although various prehistoric lacquerwares have been unearthed in China dating back to the Neolithic period and objects with lacquer coating found in Japan dating to the late Jōmon period. The earliest extant lacquer object, a red wooden bowl, was unearthed at a Hemudu culture (ca. 5th millennium BC) site in Zhejiang, China. During the Eastern Zhou period (771–256 BC), lacquerware began appearing in large numbers, thus this was the earliest era from which notable quantities of lacquerware have survived.
By the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), special administrations were established to organize and divide labor for the expanding lacquer production in China. Elaborate incised decorations were known to be used in a number of Chinese lacquerware during the Han Dynasty.
In the Tang Dynasty (618–907), Chinese lacquerware saw a new style marked by the use of sheets of gold or silver made in various shapes, such as birds, animals, and flowers. The cut-outs were affixed onto the surface of the lacquerware, after which new layers of lacquer were applied, dried, and then ground away, so the surface could be polished to reveal the golden or silvery patterns beneath. This was done by a technique known as pingtuo. Such techniques were time-consuming and costly, but these lacquerware were considered highly refined. It was also the period when the earliest practice of carving lacquerware began.
The art of inlaid gold, silver, and mother-of-pearl continued from the Tang into the Song Dynasty. Several existing decorative techniques gradually developed further after the 10th century, such as qiangjin (engraving filled in with gold), diaotian or tianqi (inlaid with lacquer of a different color), and diaoqi (carved lacquer). Especially the art of inlaying lacquer with mother-of-pearl was intensively developed during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). However, during the Song, the artistic craft also made use of inlaid gold in a process of which is to engrave intricate patterns in the lacquer surface and to fill the intaglio with gold powder.
The knowledge of the Chinese methods of the lacquer process spread from China during the Han, Tang and Song dynasties, eventually it was introduced to Korea, Japan, Southeast and South Asia. In Japan, the art of lacquerware-making came along with Buddhism and other cultural artifacts from China via Korean Peninsula during the 8th century, and carved lacquerware came to Japan from Ming Dynasty China during the 14th century. One of the earliest Japanese techniques for decorating the lacquer surface was, besides painting simple designs, the gold and silver foil inlay of the Nara period (710–784). This technique was transmitted from China during the Tang Dynasty (618–907).
Han Dynasty lacquered wood wine cup, bottom side, dated to 4 CE
Yun-de is lacquerware in Burmese, and the art is called Pan yun (ပန်းယွန်း) . The lacquer is the sap tapped from the varnish tree Melanorrhoea usitata or Thitsee that grows wild in the forests of Myanmar (formerly Burma). It is straw-colored but turns black on exposure to air. When brushed in or coated on, it forms a hard glossy smooth surface resistant to a degree effects of exposure to moisture or heat.
Bayinnaung's conquest and subjugation in 1555-1562 of Manipur, Bhamo, Zinme (Chiang Mai), Linzin (Lan Xang), and up the Taping and Shweli rivers in the direction of Yunnan brought back large numbers of skilled craftsmen into Burma. It is thought that the finer sort of Burmese lacquerware, called Yun, was introduced during this period by imported artisans belonging to the Yun or Laos Shan tribes of the Chiang Mai region.
Manufacture and design
Lacquer vessels, boxes and trays have a coiled or woven bamboo-strip base often mixed with horsehair, and the thitsee may be mixed with ashes or sawdust to form a putty-like substance called thayo which can be sculpted. The object is coated layer upon layer with thitsee and thayo to make a smooth surface, polished and engraved with intricate designs, commonly using red, green and yellow colours on a red or black background. Shwezawa is a distinctive form in its use of gold leaf to fill in the designs on a black background.
Palace scenes, scenes from the Jataka tales, and the signs of the Burmese Zodiac are popular designs and some vessels may be encrusted with glass mosaic or semi-precious stones in gold relief. The objects are all handmade and the designs and engraving done free-hand. It may take three to four months to finish a small vessel but perhaps over a year for a larger piece. The finished product is a result of teamwork and not crafted by a single person.
The most distinctive vessel is probably a rice bowl on a stem with a spired lid for monks called hsun ok. Lahpet ok is a shallow dish with a lid and has a number of compartments for serving lahpet (pickled tea) with its various accompaniments. Stackable tiffin carriers fastened with a single handle or hsun gyaink are usually plain red or black. Daunglahn are low tables for meals and may be simple broad based or have three curved feet in animal or floral designs with a lid. Water carafes or yeidagaung with a cup doubling as a lid, and vases are also among lacquerware still in use in many monasteries.
Various round boxes with lids, small and large, are known as Yun-It including ones for paan called Kun-It (betel boxes). Yun titta are rectangular boxes for storing various articles including peisa or palm leaf manuscripts when they are called sadaik titta. Pedestal dishes or small trays with a stem with or without a lid are known as kalat for serving delicacies or offering flowers to royalty or the Buddha. Theatrical troupes and musicians have their lacquerware in costumes, masks, head-dresses, and musical instruments, some of them stored and carried in lacquer trunks. Boxes in the shape of a pumpkin or a bird such as the owl, which is believed to bring luck, or the hintha (Brahmani goose) are common too. Screens and small polygonal tables are also made for the tourist trade today.
Bagan is the major centre for the lacquerware industry where the handicraft has been established for nearly two centuries, and still practiced in the traditional manner. Here a government school of lacquerware was founded in the 1920s. Since plastics, porcelain and metal have superseded lacquer in most everyday utensils, it is today manufactured in large workshops mainly for tourists who come to see the ancient temples of Bagan. At the village of Kyaukka near Monywa in the Chindwin valley, however, sturdy lacquer utensils are still produced for everyday use mainly in plain black.
A decline in the number of visitors combined with the cost of resin, which has seen a 40 fold rise in 15 years, has led to the closure of over two thirds of more than 200 lacquerware workshops in Bagan.
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Lacquerware is called by the Sinitic compound shikki (漆器) in Japanese. The native term for lacquer is urushi (漆), source of the English hybrid word "urushiol". Etymologically, urushi may be related to the words uruwashii ("beautiful") or uruoi ("watered", "profitable", "favored"), due speculatively to their value or shiny appearance, or perhaps the humidifying rooms used in production of lacquered wares.
The 17th-century term "japanning" refers to a range of techniques to imitate various Asian lacquerware, but especially those developed in Europe and Great Britain to resemble lacquerware imported from the Orient. These commonly employed a black, oil-based varnish, ("Japan black", "Brunswick black", etc.), on wood and later metal substrates, eventually finding a variety of 19th- and early-20th-century industrial applications. Japan black was famously Ford's preferred automotive finish until the advent of quick-drying, variously colored nitrocellulose lacquers.
History and regional production
Although there is some evidence of cultivation of the lacquer tree in prehistoric times, (perhaps for extraction of urushiol adhesives), the art of lacquerware most likely arrived in Japan from China through the Korean Peninsula along with Buddhism and the Chinese writing system in the Asuka and Nara periods (6th through 8th centuries).
By the Kamakura period (1185–1333), Japanese craftsman under the influence of the Song Dynasty arts focused on carving Buddhist imagery into thick coats of lacquer, (Kamakura-bori). Japanese craftsman at this time began applying a thin lacquer coat to carved wood substrates, in this way reducing production times and making lacquerware available beyond temples to samurai and merchants.
Today, lacquerware is produced throughout the Japanese archipelago, with many regional techniques and variations. Besides the very old Kamakura tradition mentioned above, (and still alive today), the port town of Wajima provides a good example of regional lacquerware. Wajima-nuri, dating back to the 16th century, is characterized by use of the elm-like Japanese zelkova, (keyaki 欅), powdered earth, and delicate features formed from cloth. (See the Japanese article, 輪島塗.)
(A more complete list of regional lacquer traditions is available in the Japanese article.)
Vietnamese lacquer painting
In 1924 the Ecole des Beaux Arts was established in Hanoi. This institution was to be the birthplace of the revitalised art of lacquer painting. In 1934 the school opened its lacquer department and it was from here that such luminaries of the art as; Bui Trang Chuoc, Nguyen Van Binh, Nguyen Khang, Nguyen Duc Nung, Nguyen Tien Chung, and Pham Van Don would emerge.
It was the first generation of Vietnamese students of the Indochina School of Fine Art during the 1930s, who elevated the craft of lacquer painting to a truly fine art. Less interested in decor than their craftsmen predecessors, it was also these men who would begin a series of artistic innovations from which craftsmen producing purely utilitarian or decorative pieces would also benefit.
Creating images with crushed eggshell, painting pigment over gold and tin foil and adding sand to lacquer were all techniques developed by those first students. The metallic color lacquerware for which Vietnamese craftsmen are rightly famous, was first developed by artists experimenting with many innovative techniques.
After the reunification, the art of lacquerware was slowly dying out in Vietnam. But since the 1980s, the government has recognized it as a vital cultural and economic force and has encouraged the business community to invest in the craft. As a result we see a resurgence of lacquerware and a proliferation of lacquerware products from Vietnam.
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