Lacquerware is some of China’s most distinguishable craftwork, ranging from small pieces of pottery to large tables and other types of furniture. The practice dates back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.) in China and has since been spread to other cultures, with strong traditions in places like Burma and Japan.
Lacquerware is created by extracting the sap from one of several species of trees native to East Asia. Early creators of lacquered objects discovered that this sap could be painted onto objects and, when hardened, it produced a shiny, durable finish that was aesthetically pleasing.
Chinese lacquer makers would sometimes spend years painting objects with dozens of layers of lacquer, each taking weeks or months to dry. Later, specialized artisans would carve ornate designs into the firmly hardened lacquer, creating the illusion of delicately carved wood with an unusually shiny exterior.
Most varieties of the varnish sap turn black with exposure to the air, creating the well-known deep black shiny lacquerware that China is so famous for. However, other types of sap may take on red or amber hues, offering a more delicate and exquisite looking object. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about lacquered objects is that they appear to be simple wooden pieces in different colors, but lack the thickened appearance of traditionally painted wood.
Most of the early lacquer pieces were smaller objects like cups and vessels used in ritual ceremonies. Several ornately carved boxes exist dating to the Qing Dynasty in the 1700s, while simpler dishes and trays have been preserved from the Song Dynasty hundreds of years earlier.
Lacquerware is still an extremely popular craft in China and it is also considered a national treasure and beloved craft. Lacquered pieces can often be purchased cheaply, though hand made objects, which take months or years to fully paint and finish, can still be extremely expensive. There are also several museums boasting vast collections of lacquerware, such as the Nanjing Museum in Jiangsu Province.