The Chinese Art of Carved Cinnabar Lacquer

The Chinese Art of Carved Cinnabar Lacquer

Beautiful carved cinnabar lacquer is used in many Asian cultures, the art of carving lacquer is unique to China. Lacquer is the resin (or sap) of a family of trees (rhus verniciflua) found throughout southern China. It is a unique & amazing material that hardens when exposed to oxygen and becomes a natural plastic that is resistant to water and can withstand heat and certain acids.

Chinese cinnabar Lacquer Box & Cover

First found in China during the late Neolithic period (ca. 5000–ca. 2000 B.C.), lacquer was an important artistic medium from the sixth century B.C. to the second century A.D. and was often colored with minerals such as carbon (black), orpiment (yellow), and cinnabar (red) and used to paint the surfaces of sculptures and vessels. There is very little evidence for the use of lacquer in China from the second to the eighth century: eighth- to tenth-century examples are often beautifully constructed but with simple shapes and very little or no decoration. In the twelfth century, however, a new class of luxury lacquer objects—carved lacquer—appeared. Carved lacquer, which is predominantly red, is often known as "cinnabar" lacquer, a reference to the use of this powdered mercury sulphide as the primary colorant.

Cinnabar Lacquer Box Qing Dynasty Chinese

Like all lacquer objects, carved pieces have a base that is usually made of turned wood: it is the lacquer that is worked and not the underlying material. In the carved-lacquer technique, multiple layers (often thirty or thirty-five, but at times up to two hundred) are applied onto a substructure in the shape of a box or dish, exposed to air and dried, and carved to create lush geometric motifs, engaging scenes of figures enjoying nature, and lively birds flitting among flowers. In early examples, layers of yellow and green lacquer are interspersed among the predominant red to give a subtle depth to the overall design that is set against a plain background. The extraordinary narrative scenes found on lacquers of the late fourteenth and fifteenth century, on the other hand, have delicately carved backgrounds in which different geometric designs are used to show earth, water, and sky. In addition, in a related technique, a red lacquer background is carved with thin lines that are filled with gold, gold powder, or lacquer that has been tinted black, green, or yellow.

Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer Dragon box & cover

Cinnabar Lacquer pieces have a distinctive red colour combined with highly detailed & decorative carving. The origins of cinnabar lacquer-ware are lost in the mists of time, but are believed to date back as far as 2,300 years ago. In today’s market, the best available pieces are from the mid- to late-Qing dynasty period of the 18th and 19th centuries, although pieces from the 17th century occasionally appear at auction.

chinese cinnabar lacquer vase

Earlier pieces, dating back as far as the 13th century, are only to be found in museums or private collections. Even those in museum collections are rarely seen because they are so light sensitive.


This highly coloured lacquer-ware often takes the form of jewellery, plates, boxes, or vessels such as jars and vases. Common motifs used in the carving include dragons, flowers, idealised landscapes and mythical birds.

Artisans created the coral red or pink colour of these pieces by adding cinnabar, a naturally occurring mercury ore, to the lacquer. The lacquer came from a type of Sumac tree native to China and was harvested in much the same way as rubber, by cutting the bark of the tree and collecting the sap.

cinnabar lacquer box 14th century

A rare antique Chinese lacquer charger, dating back to the 14th century, has sold for a record-breaking £210,540 in an auction held by Cotswold auctioneers, Kinghams. The circular charger, measuring 30cm in diameter, is made of red lacquer and depicts exotic birds swooping in flight amongst an extensive array of petals and foliage in high relief.

Lacquer is a resin or sap found in a particular family of trees in southern China. When exposed to oxygen, it hardens to form an extremely hard-wearing natural ‘plastic’. The distinctive red colour of the charger is achieved by the use of toxic powdered mercury sulphide as the predominant colourant. Carved lacquer is a distinctive and time-consuming craft that has been used in China for over 3,000 years, with thick carved coatings developed in the 12th century.

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