Museum Dictionary

Chinese Carved Lacquerware

Have you ever gone hiking in the woods and broken out in a rash from some wild plant, such as poison ivy? When you break out, your skin gets red and very itchy, doesn't it? One plant that will almost certainly make you break out is the poison sumac tree, or lacquer tree, which grows in Japan and other Asian countries.

These days, however, even if you go hiking in the mountains in Japan, you probably would not break out from the lacquer tree. This is because the number of lacquer trees has greatly decreased in recent years. While this may be a good thing for hikers, it is a sad thing for Japanese culture. The loss of the lacquer trees is one of the reasons that the traditional art of lacquerware-making has almost ceased.

Lacquerware is made using the sap of the lac tree. The raw lacquer sap has the bad quality of making people break out in a rash, but when used properly, it has very good qualities too! If you paint lacquer sap onto, for example, a wooden bowl or tray, it will dry to a very hard, durable finish with a rich, beautiful sheen. Lacquer can turn a simple dish into a work of art! Even as far back as the Jomon Period, from 10,000 B.C. to 300 B.C., the Japanese painted lacquer onto combs, bowls and other implements. From ancient times through the Edo Period, the Japanese used lacquer to make their lives richer.

As I said before, the lacquer tree grows not only in Japan, but in Southeast Asia, China, Korea and other parts of Asia. The lacquer tree does not, however, grow in Europe or America. In the West, lacquerware was often called "japan," showing that lacquerware-making is an Asian art.

The history and culture of Japan, however, are not nearly as old as those of China! From the very beginnings, when Japan was still called the Yamato Taikoku and was ruled by the Empress Himiko, Japan has looked up to China and imported Chinese culture. This also relates to lacquerware; the Japanese actually learned the art of making lacquerware from China!

In the Shosoin Treasury (large warehouses in the city of Nara, which have some of the oldest art objects in Japan) almost all the lacquerware pieces were imported from Tang Dynasty (8th Century) China! These works were imported into Japan together with the religion of Buddhism. Here, however, let's talk not about the Chinese lacquerware that came to Japan in the 8th Century, but a kind of lacquerware that came into Japan from China in the 14th Century, during the Kamakura Period. The lacquerware I am referring to is called "carved lacquerware."

There are several types of carved lacquerware, including red carved lacquerware, black carved lacquerware, and polychrome carved lacquerware. Carved lacquerware is made by painting layer-upon-layer of lacquer onto, for example, a tray until the layers build up a good degree of thickness. The best pieces have hundreds of layers! Then the artisan carves a design into the thick, hard lacquer.

  • Carved Cinnabar Lacquer Tray
    with Blue Magpies and Camellias

    China, Yuan Dynasty (14th century)
    Diameter 32.4cm, height 3.5 cm
    Important Cultural Property (Korin-in Temple, Kyoto)

This technique was brought to Japan from Yuan Dynasty China in the 14th Century, during Japan's Kamakura Period, together with Zen Buddhism. The Zen Sect of Buddhism (called Chan in Chinese) took root in Japan in the city of Kamakura, in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture. Today, many Zen temples in Kamakura and other parts of Japan still have antique pieces of carved lacquerware that have been used down through the ages for Buddhist ceremonies. Many of the works remaining are implements used for burning incense, such as trays on which to place the incense burners and incense containers to hold the incense. Thanks to the careful preservation of the Zen temples, these works of Chinese Buddhist lacquerware are still around today!

  • Carved Black Lacquer Tray with Volute Pattern
    China, Yuan Dynasty (14th Century)
    (Korin-in Temple, Kyoto)

Now, let's talk about how to make carved lacquerware. First, in order to build up a thick layer of lacquer, the craftspeople had to paint hundreds of layers of lacquer onto a thin wooden core! But they couldn't paint on all those layers at once; each layer had to dry for several days before the new layer could be applied. That is a lot of work! It probably took years just to build up the proper amount of lacquer!

After the hundreds of layers of lacquer had built up to become smooth and hard like jade, the craftspeople had to carve into the layers with a sharp knife. This was hard work too! The Chinese craftpeople must have had a lot of patience and dedication to do such difficult and tedious work! Such carved lacquerware could only have been produced by a people with as much perseverance as the Chinese!

Japanese craftspeople studied these techniques with great tenacity. One man named Tsuishu Yozei formed a school of lacquerware artists in the Muromachi Period that still exists today! However, the Japanese were very smart, or maybe just very sly, and they found a new way to produce the same effect as the Chinese carved lacquerware with much less work! Instead of carving designs into a hard, thick layer of lacquer, they first carved designs into wood and then coated the wood with a thick layer of lacquer so that it looked as if it had been carved! This new craft was given the name Kamakura bori, or "Kamakura carving." Perhaps the Japanese did not have as much patience as the Chinese. But they created a very interesting new art form!

Can tell the difference between the carved lacquerware tray and the Kamakurabori incense container below?

  • Carved Black Lacquer Tray with Volute Pattern
    Diameter: 37.2 cm Height: 5.4 cm
    China, Yuan Dynasty (14th Century)
    (Kyoto National Museum)
  • Incense Container with Volute Pattern in Kamakurabori
    Muromachi Period, 16th Century
    (Konrenji Temple, Kyoto)

Text by Akio Haino, Department of Fine Arts
English Translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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