Carved lacquerware is a unique Chinese handicraft made by applying many layers of natural lacquer on bases of various shapes and then carving designs on the layers of lacquer with different types of knives. Different from other decorative lacquerware, the coating of carved lacquer has dozens or even hundreds of layers. For some large items, the process of lacquering alone is time consuming and often takes months or even a year to finish, that is why this craft is often called sculpting with time.
Beijing carved lacquerware dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), became popular in the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, and flourished in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. It is an important type of Chinese lacquerware craft and the quintessence of Beijing's traditional arts and crafts. Simple and solemn in its shape, the Beijing carved lacquerware has exquisite patterns. Being moisture proof as well as heat, acid, and alkali resistant, it will neither deform, nor degenerate. In 2006, Beijing carved lacquerware was listed as one of China's national intangible cultural heritages.
Serving as a Special National Gift
During the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing in May 2017, three of the six national gifts from the Chinese government to foreign state leaders were Beijing carved lacquerware. In fact, in the history of China, carved lacquerware was presented as a national gift on many occasions.
Lacquerware originated in China more than 1,500 years ago. The ancient Chinese collected light gray-white sap from lacquer trees, and then after adding pigments, painted it onto appliances. Lacquer not only helps in resisting erosion, moisture, and wearing, but is also decorative.
The earliest lacquerware was mainly a product of any core material being first coated with lacquer and then decorated with inlays and patterns, or the product of a base being first carved and then coated with a layer of lacquer. By the Tang Dynasty, a new technique came into being where a base material was repeatedly coated with lacquer until it was thick enough to be carved. The most common colors used during this period were red and black. By the Ming and Qing dynasties, the craft reached its peak, and all the famous masters at that time were the inheritors of heritage.
The development of carved lacquerware is closely related to the strength of national power. As such items were produced according to rigid and time-consuming procedures, they were exquisite and expensive, and only the royal court could afford to have them. In addition, they were also used by the imperial court as national gifts to other countries. According to historical records, the central government of the Tang Dynasty gave carved lacquerware as gifts to the minority tribe leaders in the border areas, who treasured them for their exquisite craftsmanship and complicated techniques. During the five years from 1403 to 1408, the Ming Emperor presented national gifts to Japan three times, including 203 pieces of carved lacquerware.
The special status of carved lacquerware to serve as national gifts was further enhanced from Ming to Qing dynasties, which can be said to give direct impetus to the development of carved lacquer industry. The Orchard Factory in Beijing was a big imperial lacquer workshop established in the Ming Dynasty. It gathered skilled lacquer workers from all over the country, and laid the foundation for the development of the lacquer techniques in Beijing, and the flourishing of the Beijing-styled carved lacquerware.
In the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Qianlong was a carved lacquerware lover and vigorously promoted its production. As the imperial court demanded a great variety of carved lacquer products, the crafts production witnessed unprecedented prosperity during the Qianlong period. The products were rich in variety, ranging from big items like screens, tables and chairs to small pieces, such as plates, boxes, bottles, and cans, all embodying exquisite workmanship with more variations and colors. In addition, new products inlaid with jade were developed.
The carved lacquer in the Qing Dynasty was different from that of the Ming in techniques that emphasized fineness and details in artistic expression. The number of lacquer layers became increasingly thicker so as to increase the layers of carving to enhance the three-dimensional effect, and more refined cutting techniques were required to produce fine and detailed chisel work. The Qing court had a professional setup for carved lacquering. The organization was huge, with division of labor: Each process from lacquering, carving, inlaying, and gold lacquering were all carried out by professional craftsmen. Nevertheless, with the weakening of the national strength in the middle and late Qing Dynasty, the government-run workshops had to be closed due to shortage of funds in the late Qing Dynasty. The industry declined with lacquering skills on the verge of extinction.
Revival of Beijing Carved Lacquerware
In the 20th century, the restoration of the palace treasures by the Qing government, as well as the massive acquisition of Chinese cultural relics in the West, led to a wave of repairing and replicating cultural relics. Some folk craftsmen got enlightened from the repair of damaged lacquer goods in the Qing Palace, and began to study and replicate carved lacquerware. After years of hard work, they succeeded in reviving the carved lacquer skills in the Qing Dynasty. More than 20 workshops were established in Beijing then, and one of them was called "Mingguzhai." Yang Zhixin is the fourth generation inheritor of Mingguzhai. He has been engaged in the industry for more than 30 years.
According to Yang, after the founding of the People's Republic of China, the local government of Beijing supported the development of this traditional handicraft industry by bringing together the carved lacquerware artists who had been separated during war to form a carved lacquerware cooperative, which was later reorganized into the Beijing Carved Lacquer Factory. With several generations of artists' efforts, Beijing carved lacquer products look more dignified, elegant, and gorgeous, having a touch of imperial art. Most products are themed on what were favored by the imperial courts having those auspicious patterns of flowers, birds, dragons, and phoenixes. In terms of production techniques, modern Beijing carved lacquer emphasizes sharp and precise cutting, and the boldness of lines. For a long time, Beijing carved lacquerware has been one of the main Chinese handicrafts for export.
There are also new innovations in carving techniques. In the past, it was generally flat carving, but nowadays, we see a combination of multiple techniques including embossing, hollow carving, and in-the-round carving. The colors of lacquer used are also more diverse than before. "Wall painting" is an innovative development of the lacquering techniques, a new product designed and produced to decorate the interior walls of high-grade buildings. It is made on a wood base, and after the carving is completed, it is embedded in the wall, making it look like a natural decorative part of the building itself.
After China introduced the reform and opening-up policies, in order to meet the market demand, carved lacquer artisans have constantly made innovations, integrating artware into daily life. According to Yang, in recent years, he has created a number of functional carved lacquer pieces, such as pen containers, Go chess boxes, fruit bowls, tableware, storage boxes, and even jewelry such as bracelets, strings of beads, and pendants that are loved by young people.
Polished with Time and Skill
Yang said that the process of making carved lacquerware is very complicated, including a dozen major such as including designing, making the base, lacquering, carving, and polishing. Each process has its own special technique, and since ancient times, these crafts have been completed by different workers, so the production of a carved lacquer item usually requires the cooperation of a team. Moreover, since different patterns require different engraving techniques, and there are several dozens of engraving techniques, few people can master them all.
The lacquer used in carved lacquerware is known as Chinese lacquer, and comes from the sap of natural lacquer trees. Most of the lacquer trees grow in the mountains, and the sap is collected like rubber. However, the output of a tree is extremely low. The collected sap has to be filtered and purified once again to become the Chinese lacquer that can be used as paint for carved lacquerware.
Being a key step in the production of carved lacquerware, lacquering should be done layer by layer; after one layer is applied, it must be left in a dark and arid environment to dry before applying the next layer. In order to ensure the quality of the coating so that it will last for years without cracking, only one layer can be applied in one day, and 17 layers equal a thickness of 1 millimeter. The coats of lacquer for a carved lacquer product usually should be 10-15 millimeters thick, and can reach 30 millimeters for some large works. Accordingly it often takes months or even a year to complete the process of lacquering alone.
After completion of the lacquering process, carving artists begin their parts of the work. According to Yang, the process of carving is also divided into two steps: the main body of embossment and the background shading. "Shading is the most distinctive process of carved lacquer," said Yang. "The carving process allows regrets under the knife, no matter what pattern is carved, no mistake in carving is allowed. Many straight lines and wavy lines have to be done in one go without stop. One wrong move, and all the work done will go down the drain." The work of polishing follows the completion of carving, and when all these processes are finished, a piece of carved lacquerware art is accomplished.
In his three decades of making carved lacquerware, Yang has tried many forms of innovation, changing traditional styling, simplifying the engraving lines, combining lacquering with filigree inlaying and so on. "Innovation is the vitality of a skill. Only through continuous innovation can it be dynamic," said Yang. Recently, he has been working on the "cross-disciplinary integration" of carved lacquerware and dark-red enameled pottery.
"In ancient times, carved lacquerware art was enjoyed only in the royal palace, being far removed from the lives of ordinary people. Now it should be integrated into people's daily lives, having the ability to both beautify life as well as having practical value. When more people like and use carved lacquerware, the craft will be able to be passed down for many more generations," said Yang.