East Asian lacquer is a resin made from the highly toxic sap of the Rhus verniciflua tree, which is native to the area and a close relative of poison ivy. In essence, lacquer is a natural plastic; it is remarkably resistant to water, acid, and, to a certain extent, heat. Raw lacquer is collected annually by extracting the viscous sap through notches cut into the trees. It is gently heated to remove excess moisture and impurities. Purified lacquer can then be applied to the surface of nearly any object or be built up into a pile. Once coated with a thin layer of lacquer, the object is placed in a warm, humid, draft-free cabinet to dry. As high-quality lacquer may require thirty or more coats, its production is time-consuming and extremely costly.
While items covered with lacquer have been found in China dating to the Neolithic period, lacquerware with elaborate decoration requiring labor-intensive manufacturing processes made its first appearance during the Warring States period. Lacquer as an art form developed in China along two distinct paths—pictorial (or surface) decoration and carving of the lacquer. Rarely are the two techniques used in combination. In early times, surface decoration took the form of painting or inlay. The earliest lacquered objects were colored black or red with the addition of charcoal or cinnabar to the refined sap. Because lacquer is such a volatile substance, only a few additional coloring agents will combine with it. During the Han period, incised decoration was also used. Several techniques gradually evolved after the tenth century: engraved gold (qiangjin), filled-in (diaotian or tianqi), and carved lacquer (diaoqi). The art of inlaying lacquer with mother-of-pearl was intensively developed during the Song period. In the sixteenth century, after a lapse of about a thousand years, the painting of lacquer was revived, but it was seldom employed on carved lacquer.
Carved lacquer is a uniquely Chinese achievement in lacquer art and is also, in a way, lacquer art in its purest form. It is not known when this technique was invented. Lacquers of a thickness sufficient for relief carving were produced no later than the Southern Song period, as is known from archaeological excavations and from materials that were brought to Japan at the end of the Song period. This method of lacquer production reached its greatest flourishing from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century.
In Japan, on the other hand, the underlying shape of a lacquer object is never lost sight of and surface decoration is paramount. The earliest lacquer surface decoration known in Japan, apart from simple designs painted on lacquered objects of the prehistoric period, is the gold and silver foil inlay of the Nara period. Almost certainly this technique was transmitted from Tang China, the source of the dominant cultural influence on Japan at this time. However, once this technique of lacquer decoration had been introduced into Japan, it took on a life of its own and, in fact, continued to develop there into recent times. (Meanwhile, the same technique all but died out in China after the demise of the Tang dynasty in the tenth century.) During later periods, other metals were also used for inlay in Japan, such as lead, tin, and pewter. A technique developed to the highest degree in Japan is the use of gold and silver in powder form, either mixed in to form gold or silver lacquer, or sprinkled over the lacquer surface to create a graduated gold or silver effect. Indeed, the Japanese exploited every physical property of lacquer: as a liquid for painting; as a solid surface that can be built up in certain areas of the composition; and as an adhesive, especially for gold and silver (in either foil or powder form). The resultant works often display great subtlety and delicacy, and maki-e (gold or silver) lacquer is one of the supreme achievements of Japanese decorative art.
In Korea, too, it is known that lacquer surfaces were decorated with metal foil inlay more or less contemporaneously with the Tang dynasty in China, during Korea’s Unified Silla period. In the subsequent Goryeo period, however, perhaps following the lead of southern China under the Song dynasty, mother-of-pearl inlay became the dominant decorative technique for Korean lacquer, and it has continued as such to the present day. Although lacquers of the Goryeo period exhibit some marked similarities to a certain class of mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer produced in Song China, gradually Korean lacquer evolved a distinctive national style. The finest lacquerware of the late Goryeo and early Joseon periods makes rich use of mother-of-pearl inlay, often in combination with tortoiseshell, and gives an impression of great sumptuousness.
East Asian Lacquer Decoration Techniques
carved lacquer (diaoqi)—This method of decoration involves carving built-up layers of thinly applied coats of lacquer into a three-dimensional design.
“engraved gold” (qiangjin)—A decorative technique in which an adhesive of lacquer is applied to fine lines incised on the lacquer surface, and gold foil or powdered gold is pressed into the grooves.
“filled-in” (diaotian or tianqi)—Decoration in which lacquer is inlaid with lacquer of another color. There are two methods of filled-in decoration: one involves carving the hardened lacquer and inlaying lumps of other colors; the other is called “polish-reveal” (see below).
maki-e—The general term in Japanese for lacquer decoration in which gold or silver powder is sprinkled on still-damp lacquer.
nashiji—A Japanese lacquer technique that produces a reddish, speckled surface, also called “pear-skin,” by the sprinkling of especially fine, flat metal flakes over the half-dry lacquer base.
“polish-reveal” (moxian)—A variety of “filled-in” lacquer decoration. Thick lacquer is applied repeatedly in certain areas to build up a design; then the ground is filled with lacquer of a different color and the entire surface is polished down to reveal the color variations.
Department of Asian Art. “Lacquerware of East Asia.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/elac/hd_elac.htm (October 2004)