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Lacquer cup

Lacquer cup excavated in North Korea [4 CE]-02-0000-02-0000. From the Han Dynasty [220 BCE-221 CE]-02-0001-02-0001. Made of lacquered wood and bronze. Image from The British Museum.

Object IdentificationEdit

This lacquer cup was unearthed in North Korea during the 4th Century CE and was linked to the Han Dynasty [221 BCE – 220 CE] in China which had several military districts or commanderies located on the Korean peninsula. Lacquer was widely used in ancient China and archeologist date the first use of lacquer to nearly 7000 BCE.

Lacquer is derived from the sap of the sumac and because of its high resistance to humidity, temperature and corrosion, pristine and well preserved artifacts have been recovered throughout Asia. Lacquer ware was typically “given by the emperor to an official as a gift or in lieu of salary ” The cup seen here is a shallow oval with a diameter of 17.7 cm. On either side, it has a handle or ear and the motif painted on the lacquer depicts angular birds resembling patterns on inlaid bronzes.

Manufacturing and Technical EvaluationEdit

Lacquer wares has been used in China for nearly ten thousand years from the first dynasty Xia [21c BCE – 16c BCE] through the Warring States period where lacquer began to be used extensively and throughout the Han Dynasty as well. Lacquer was also a very valuable economic commodity. By the time of the Han, lacquer production had largely been controlled by the government where the first practical use of assembly lines allowed for mass production of lacquer wares. Because lacquer ware required many coats and drying time, the use of assembly lines was the best suitable method for manufacturing of such items.

The assembly line was divided among specialized craftsman including the su-kung who “prepared the base, which might be of hemp cloth, wood, or bamboo basketwork; after priming, the base was covered with successive layers of lacquer by the hsiu-kung . After this process was complete the top layer was polished by the shang-kung who prepared it for the painters, the hua-kung."

Of the various techniques, one of the more common methods was first to mold wood or clay into the shapes that were desired. Afterwards a layer of silk cloth would be bound around the molds and each layer would be coated with lacquer. Once the lacquer had dried and become solid, the molds would be removed. Also during this period, “lacquer ware at its best was widely used as daily utensils. Then black and red were the major colors, and the categories were extended to boxes, earrings, rulers, veils, chessboards, stools and so on”. Originally, lacquer was simply painted on bamboo or wood. Many of these items would be used in ritualistic ceremonies including burial rituals because lacquer was perceived by the Han to have magical properties necessary for the afterlife [Karetzky, 56-61].

As production of lacquer ware increased, new techniques emerged “including multicolor, needle-incising, gold leaf adhering, hawksbill adhering, chasing, and embossing ”[]. Once the craft began to develop, new lacquer ware appeared including “colored drawing lacquer, painted gold lacquer and fill-in lacquer, carved lacquer - painting lacquer on in a thick layer, and then carving patterns into it, and lacquer inlaid with gold, silver, bronze, jade, gem or other decorations”.

The process of creating lacquer ware was very complicated and required an initial mold on a bamboo or wood carving as well as bronze casting then applying the lacquer with various techniques. The actual process itself was fairly manageable and did not require advanced skills.

This particular cup was excavated from the tombs of Chinese colonists at Lo-lang (Nangnang) in North Korea.

Local ContextEdit

Lacquer ware served many purposes for the ancient Chinese and was highly valued in society. Cups such as this one were extremely valuable due to the material used and time it took to create. According to the British Museum , this particular cup was intended for the emperor himself and created at the Western Factory workshop in Shu (Sichuan Province) and inscribed with the names of each worker at various manufacturing stages of the design and creation as well as the supervisors at the factory.


The people of the Han Dynasty viewed lacquer as “an elixir of immortality” and often included lacquer ware in burial tombs [James, 17]. Red and black paintings on lacquered coffins were very important “to the development of Han iconography”[James, 19]. Excavated tombs have produced vast quantities of lacquered bowls, dishes, toilet boxes, trays and tables each beautifully decorated with swirling volutes that appear to transform themselves into tigers and phoenixes or dragons sporting amidst clouds. [Sullivan, 51]

Following the death of Qin Shihuangdi in 210 BCE, China was reunited under the Han Dynasty. The dynasty was divided into two periods known as the Western and Eastern Han.


During the Western Han [206 -9 BCE], Emperor Wudi “established Confucianism as the basis for correct official and individual conduct and for the educational curriculum” China also greatly expanded its trade routes along the silk road as far away as the Roman Empire. During the period of the Han, they were rivaled only in wealth and size by the Roman Empire. Under the reign of Wudi, philosophy, literature and poetry flourished throughout the dynasty. After the collapse of the Western Han, the Eastern Han Dynasty was established [25 -220 CE] and moved the capital to Luoyang.Liu Xiu of the Western Han royal family defeated the usurper, Wang Mang who took control following the Western Han collapse.


During the Eastern Han period there were thirteen different rulers beginning with Liu Xiu Guangwu [25-57 CE] and ending with Liu Xie Xian [189 -220]. The political climate of the Eastern Han was characterized as more authoritarian and Guangwu “reformed Wang Mang's policies entirely by shaking up the bureaucracy and setting up six ministers at the helm of state affairs to weaken the powers of 'Sangong' (Taiwei, Situ and Sikong)” Overall, the rulers of the Eastern Han were considered kind to the people and in order to “alleviate the lot of the people, [Guangwu ] released the serfs and made a thorough inventory of the land.”


Much the same as the Western Han, the Eastern Han collapsed largely due to taxation because the wealthy refused to pay taxes and placed the burden on the poor. Ultimately a Taoist Secret Society known as the Yellow Turbans revolted and led to the final collapse of the Han Dynasty.

World SignificanceEdit

The lacquer ware developed by the Chinese had profound impacts on cultural, religious and historical aspects of society. The silk road allowed for the vast trade of goods and lacquer has been found in Lou-lan and Niya in eastern Central Asia and at Begram in Afghanistan which clearly shows that these societies had extensive trade with the Han Dynasty because of the similar motifs found on the lacquer. [Rhie, 419].

Because of its resistance to humidity and temperature, lacquer was preferred among Buddhist monks and historians alike to preserve important documents. [Rhie,109]. It became standard practice for monks to coat Buddhist sutras with lacquer in order to preserve them. The Han’s further development of lacquer allowed many artifacts to survive the harsh conditions of time and nature so that Han history could be preserved long after they were gone [Rhie, 27]. Lacquer ware is still considered today to be of the finest achievements in artwork.

Suggested BibliographyEdit

James, Jean M. A Guide to The Tomb and Shrine Art of The Han Dynasty. Chinese Studies Volume 1. Lewiston; Queenston; Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1996.

Karetzky, Patricia Eichenbaum. Chinese Buddhist Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002

Rhie, Marylin Martin. Early Buddhist Art Of China And Central Asia. Volume 1. Leiden; Boston; Kohn: Brill, 1999

Sullivan, Michael. The Arts of China. Third Edition. Berkley; Los Angelos; London: University of California Press, 1984.

BBC. "Chinese Han Lacquer Cup," http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/0oYPF3oeT06fdg9_lhH96Q

British Museum. "Lacquer cup," http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/asia/l/lacquer_cup.aspx

British Museum. "Lacquered Sutra Box," http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/asia/l/lacquered_sutra_box.aspx

Cultural China. "Lacquer Ware with Ramie Cloth Body in the Han Dynasty," http://arts.cultural-china.com/en/40Arts233.htm

Encycopedia Britannica, "East Asian Arts: Stylistic and Historical Development: Qu'in and Han," http://www.uv.es/EBRIT/macro/macro_5001_91_7.html

History. "Han Dynasty," http://www.history.com/topics/han-dynasty

Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Han Dynasty," http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hand/hd_hand.htm

Warrior Tours. "China Lacquer Ware," http://www.warriortours.com/intro/crafts_lacquerware.htm

Warrior Tours. "Eastern Han Dynasty," http://www.warriortours.com/intro/history/han/eastern-han.htm [[Category: Sancai Ceramic Figures from Tomb of Liu Tingxun]]