The Best of Chinese Lacquered Antiques on Display

China’s history of making lacquer ware may be as old as the Neolithic Age. It is believed that at that time, the sap of what we call the lacquer tree was used to varnish and protect daily necessities.

A lacquered bow unearthed from Xiaoshan District’s Kuahu Bridge historical site and a lacquered wooden bowl excavated at the Ningbo Hemudu historical site give weight to the theory that Zhejiang Province was the origin of China’s lacquer ware culture. Daily necessities covered with lacquer were moisture-resistant, heat-resistant, corrosion-resistant, smooth and shiny. They found favor with people and gradually developed into a traditional craft along with dynasties.

Song Dynasty (970-1279) is considered the peak time when the lacquer industry boomed with Hangzhou and Wenzhou in southern Zhejiang Province, the two main lacquer ware producing centers. Artisans perfected the art and their superb skills greatly boosted the development of the craft during the period.

According to historical documents, Hangzhou was dotted with stores making and selling exquisite lacquer wares, which were popular with royal families and officials.

Later during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Jiaxing in north Zhejiang Province, gradually replaced Wenzhou as the new production center. At that time, the city’s famous watertown Xitang boasted groups of craftsmen, including Zhang Cheng, Yang Mao and Peng Junbao. Their personal lacquer wares were invaluable antiques and collected by museums and in the hands of private collectors.

Among private collectors, Hong Kong entrepreneurial couple Cao Qiyong and Luo Bizhen might be the most famous.

They donated 161 items, valued at 167 million yuan (US$27 million) to Zhejiang Museum. It was the largest donation received by the museum since 1947. They helped the museum to fill the void of lacquer wares from the Yuan Dynasty, and enrich the collection from the Qianlong Period in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Cao’s ancestral home was Zhejiang. The couple was drawn by traditional lacquer ware and began collecting them in the 1980s from around the world.

It is said the variety and quality of Cao’s donated artifacts was second only to that of Forbidden City. Most were items used by royal families in imperial palaces, such as dining ware, bowls, vases, furniture and decorative items.

Today, Cao’s donated antiques, together with lacquer wares collected from other Zhejiang cities, are on display in Gushan Pavilion of Zhejiang Museum. The exhibition runs through May 31, 2016. All the lacquer wares are categorized according to dynasties and making techniques. The exhibition begins with lacquered antiques in the Song Dynasty.

Song people preferred simple and plain styles, which made single-colored lacquer wares the dominant ones in the dynasty. Most common colors used were black, red and purple. The lacquer wares were usually shaped like petals or rhombus.

In addition, Song craftsmen carved on lacquer to create sophisticated patterns. An object was coated with around 100 layers of lacquer. Each had to be dried, smoothed and polished, thick enough to be carved with designs, figures and landscapes. Then, it was coated once again to seal it. A piece could take as long as five years to complete, depending on the complexity.

The highlight of the Yuan Dynasty is Zhang Cheng’s lacquer plate engraved with playing children. Today, only four pieces of Zhang’s works have been retained and can be found at Anhui Province Museum, National Museum of China and The Palace Museum. The exhibited plate was sculptured with six boys in a traditional Chinese garden with bonsai, odd stones, pine trees and clouds. The design is so exquisite that even the leaves of pine trees and pattern of garden’s slab stones could be seen.

In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), lacquer wares were popular with ordinary people and no longer restricted to the upper class. Xin’an in Anhui Province and Suzhou in Jiangsu Province produced and sold them. Meanwhile, newer techniques were also enriched at the time. Artisans began to embed gold and silver powder in lacquer to design pattern, figures and landscapes.
Date: Through May 31, 2016 (closed on Mondays)

Venue: Gushan Pavilion of Zhejiang Museum, 25 Gushan Rd

Source: Hangzhou English Portal