Lacquer Objects




Lacquer, which is highly toxic in the raw, is extracted from the sap of the lac tree indigenous to China.  The process of lacquering wood and other materials was invented in China and used to waterproof bamboo and wooden objects as early as Neolithic times, though few pieces survive before the Warring States period. Lacquerware was considered a wonderful luxury because of the hazardous and laborious process involved in making such objects.  Highly skilled craftsmen had to apply many thin layers of lacquer to achieve the final effect of a glossy coating.  Although we cannot be sure of the cost of the lacquer items in Marquis Yi's tomb, a later text from the first century BC reports that the price of lacquer was ten times that of bronze.   

Look at the objects below.  How do the designs take advantage of the glossy finish of lacquer and make the most out of a limited range of colors?  


The outer coffin of the Marquis Yi is to the left, the inner coffin below.  


How are the designs on the coffin related to designs on bronzes?



Lacquered outer coffin    Length: 3.2m, Width: 2.1m, Height: 2.19cm     

SOURCE:  Zhonguo zhongda kaogu faxian (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1990), p. 120.


Why have an inner and an outer coffin?  What changing attitudes toward the afterlife might this practice reflect?  

Think about the construction and layout of Marquis Yi's tomb.


Lacquered inner coffin               

Length: 2.49m, Width: 1.27m, Height: 1.32m            

SOURCE:  Suixian Zenghouyi mu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), pl. 4.

Below is a detail of the decoration on the inner coffin.  In the Chu culture a large number of spiritual powers both benign and malevolent were venerated and feared.  These beings were not understood as ancestors, though they do have the power to interfere in human affairs.  In representations they frequently take animal and semi-human form.   

Scholars are not sure of the role of these creatures on the inner coffin.  What do you think?  

HINT:  Consider the weapons in their hands. 

Detail of the design on the inner coffin

SOURCE:  Zhonguo zhongda kaogu faxian (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1990), p. 121.

Below is the cover of a lacquer trunk decorated with 28 lunar mansions (divisions of the sky).  A dragon is represented on one end of the lid, a tiger on the other. This is the earliest known celestial map in China.  

Lacquer box-cover                                                 Length: 82.7, Height: 44.8cm

SOURCE:  Suixian Zenghouyi mu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), pl. 89.


The stag to the left was found in the marquis'  burial chamber.  The movable head is fixed with real deer antlers.  The body is decorated with small almond-shaped designs and tiny dots to resemble the coat of a deer.    

Where else have you seen deer or deer parts?  How does this compare?  


Lacquer stag                                          Height: 86.8cm, length: 50cm         

SOURCE:  Zhongguo meishu quanji, Diaosu bian, 1 (Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), p. 142.

Below is a lacquer box in the unusual shape of a duck.  The duck has a removable lid on its back and the head can be turned from side to side.  It was found in the western chamber, which contained the remains of 13 young women.  There were fewer objects in this chamber than the others, but this box stands out for its high level of craftsmanship.  The surface is lacquered in black and decorated with red and yellow painting.    

What does the painting on the side of the duck show?

HINT:  Think of some of the musical instruments found in Marquis Yi's tomb. 

Lacquer box in the shape of a mandarin duck

Height: 16.3cm, length: 20.4cm

SOURCE:  Zhongguo meishu quanji, Diaosu bian, 1 (Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), p. 152.

Move on to Gold and Silver Objects from Marquis Yi's Tomb