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Chinese and Japanese Lacquer

Lacquer comes from the sap of the Lac tree, a type of Sumac tree which is commonly found in central and southern China. The principal constituent of the sap is urushiol, the word urushiol being derived from the Japanese word 'urushi' meaning lacquer. The lacquer is extracted in a similar way to rubber by making incisions in the bark of the tree and collecting the sap.

Different pigments

Lacquer can be mixed with additional, natural ingredients to create all sorts of pigments. The most important of these natural ingredients are cinnabar for red, iron sulphate for black, iron sulphate combined with cinnabar to produce brown and gamboge for yellow.


When a Chinese lacquered object is produced, the lacquer is applied on top of an object usually made of bamboo, wood or metal. Typical lacquered pieces produced are boxes, plates, trays and vessels such as jars and vases. A considerable amount of time is taken when creating a lacquer piece. Each time a new layer of lacquer is applied, one must wait until the coat is completely dry before applying the next.  After many coats have been applied, possibly as many as up to around three hundred, the lacquer is then decoratively carved to display various designs, patterns and subjects.


Another type of carved lacquer and a personal favorite is guri-lacquer, the word 'guri' being Japanese. This technique involves several layers of different coloured lacquers being applied over the top of one another in a regular sequence. When objects are decorated they are usually carved with geometric patterns, one of the most popular patterns being the lingzhi scroll pattern. Although we have adopted the Japanese word 'guri', the technique is in fact Chinese. However, this was still a popular technique in Japan used mainly on portable medicine boxes called inro. The guri-lacquer technique can be traced as far back as the Tang dynasty (618 BC -  907 AD).

If you have any Chinese ceramics or Asian Art items in general, please contact Robin Newcombe, Asian art specialist at Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent.