Red Cinnabar Lacquer Vase

Few pieces of the lacquer of China and of Japan reached the hands of
collectors before the beginning of foreign trade by China and the
opening of Japan in the mid-nineteenth century. Just how few may be
guessed from the fact that the Orientals who allowed over sixteen
thousand pieces of porcelain to be exported to Europe in one of the
years of the eighteenth century permitted but twelve pieces of lacquer
to leave their shores. And how eagerly these bits were sought by the
collectors of the time! Marie Antoinette was one of them, and the
Marquise de Pompadour another. The collection of the former of some
hundred pieces is preserved in the Museum of the Louvre. Madame de
Pompadour was, in all probability, a collector of greater
discrimination. She possessed rare artistic sense, and the hundred and
ten thousand livres the marquise expended on her collection tempted even
the shut doors of Asia!

Lacquer undoubtedly originated in China. Just when, we may not know, but
it is of ancient ancestry. In fact, lacquer as a material has been used
for centuries by the Chinese in industrial art. We can imagine that
lacquer was at first employed as a preservative for the woodwork on
which it was used as a coating, developing as time went on into a medium
for artistic work of the highest order. Lacquer is not an artificial
mixture such as our copal and other varnishes but is principally the
natural product of the _Rhus vernicifera_, the Chinese lac tree, _Ch’i
shu_. Therefore it is virtually “ready-made” when extracted. The tree
abounds in central and southern China and is assiduously cultivated for
its valuable sap.

Usually wood, most frequently cedar or magnolia, thoroughly dried and
seasoned, forms the basis of lacquered objects. The form is thinly but
securely constructed and primed. The surface is carefully ground down
and coated thickly with a prepared varnish. This surface, when dry, is
in turn made smooth by abrasion. Next this base is very skilfully
covered with a layer of specially prepared silk, paper, or a cloth woven
of hemp fibers, all depending upon the size and projected quality of the
article. Successive coats of the prepared varnish are then applied,
each being allowed thoroughly to dry. Finally the _lac_ is applied,
layer after layer, spread on at first, and then added to by means of
fine brushes of human hair. Those parts of lacquer-work which stand
forth in relief are first built up with a lacquer “putty” of special

There are never less than three or more than eighteen layers of lacquer
employed, thorough drying requisite to each separate layer. It is
interesting to note that several hundred hours may be taken up with the
preparation of the grounding before the actual lacquering is begun! With
a paste of white lead the artist outlines his design. Next he fills in
the detail with gold and colors, over which a coat of transparent
lacquer is applied.

In the reign of the founder of the Ming dynasty in China, Hung Wu, there
was published the “Ko ku yao lun” (A.D. 1387), a learned antiquarian,
art, and literary work written by Tsao Ch’ao, and comprised in thirteen
books. From this we learn of the following sorts of lacquer then held in
esteem: ancient rhinoceros horn reproductions, carved red lacquer,
painted red lacquer, lacquer with gold reliefs, pierced lacquer, and
lacquer with mother-of-pearl incrustations. Tsao Ch’ao’s erudition
enables us, I think, to trace Chinese lacquer-work back to the Sung
dynasty with reasonable certainty. Another Chinese writer, Chang
Ying-wen, wrote a little book, the “Ch’ing pi ts’ang” or “Collections of
Artistic Rarities,” which describes objects shown in an art exhibition
held in the province of Kiang-su in the spring of 1570. After references
to lacquers of the Yuan and the Sung dynasties he says in effect:

In this our Ming Dynasty carved lacquer of the reign of Yung Lo in
the Kuo Yuan Ch’ang factory, and that made in the reign of Hsüan Tê
was surpassing in its color of cinnabar hue and also in its
craftsmanship as well as in characters of the calligraphic
inscriptions incised underneath the pieces.

There was a notable revival of interest in lacquer-work in the years
that followed the upset condition of China during the close of the Ming
period, when lacquer-work was of necessity neglected. During the
lifetime of Emperor Ch’ien Lung (1736-1796), Père d’Incarville, a member
of the French Academy and a Jesuit savant of note, wrote a “Memoire sur
le Vernis de la Chine,” published with illustrations in 1760. We find
him saying: “_Si en Chine les Princes et les grands ont de belles pièces
de vernis, ce sont des pièces faites pour l’Empereur, qui en donne, ou
ne reçoit pas toutes celles qu’on lui présente._” This, in itself,
stimulated European interest in collecting lacquer at the time.

In recent years Canton and Fuchow have been centers for the manufacture
of painted lacquer, called _hua ch’i_, and Peking and Suchow for carved
lacquer, or _tiao ch’i_. However, the collector must not look for any
pieces of finest quality in the _tiao ch’i_ since the reign of Ch’ien
Lung, who lent carved lacquer-work his warmest approbation. We are told
of a certain celebrated Arabian traveler, Ibn Batuta by name, who was in
Canton about the year 1345 and made note of the excellence of the
lacquer-work he found there at that time. That of Fuchow is described in
the words of Monsieur Paléologue as “most seductive to the eye from the
purity of its substance, the perfect evenness of its varnished coat, the
lustrous or deep intensity of its shades and the power of its reliefs,
the breath of the composition and the harmonious tones of the gold
grounds and painted brushwork.”

Of late years the collecting of the lacquers of Japan has engaged many
of the most enthusiastic and discriminating connoisseurs, and there are
many public as well as private collections of lacquer objects in
America. Probably the favorite objects in Japanese lacquer are those
interesting and beautiful little inrō or compartment box, indispensable
to every Japanese gentleman’s attire in earlier days, and to which was
attached by a silken cord the netsuke, or button, by means of which it
was suspended from the obi, or sash. These lacquered inrō have not been
surpassed for their beauty and are of literary interest.

Of the varieties of Japanese lacquer one may make mention of the
_nashiji_, generally known to Western collectors as “avanturine,” so
named by Europeans from its resemblance to avanturine Venetian glass.
When _kirikané_ (torn gold leaf) is employed the lacquer is called
_Giobunashiji_. The _togidashi_ lacquer is that in which the pattern is
produced by grinding and polishing, revealing the gold ground.
_Hiramaki-ye_ is the Japanese term used for all those lacquers which
have design not raised above the surface more than the thickness of the
lines that trace it. Then there is to be found a combination of the
flat-gold lacquer with the relief-gold lacquer. The red Japanese lacquer
is known by the native name of _tsuishu_, and the black lacquer is
called _tsuikoku_; those in which the design is carved out of the
lacquer-formed or superimposed layers which are exposed by the incisions
of the graver are called _guri_. The _chinkinbori_ lacquer, in imitation
of the Chinese lacquer, is a sort of patterned lacquer, the design of
which is produced with a rat-tooth graver and the incision filled up
with gold.

Honnami Kōyetsu (1556-1637) is one of the earliest Japanese lacquerers
of importance whose work has come down to us. Koma Kiuhaka, who died in
1715, was another lacquerer of great distinction, the founder, in fact,
of a “school.” Bunsai, Kōrin, Yastuda, and Yasunari were brilliant
followers. Kōrin (1661-1716) was the most famous lacquerer Japan has
ever produced. It was he who first extensively used mother-of-pearl and
pewter ornament in Japanese lacquer in combination with the decoration.
Collectors will find few signatures on pieces of lacquer; the work
itself must be the guide.

Fifteen hundred years ago there lived a Chinese painter, Wu Tao-tzu,
famous in Celestial lore, of whom it was said that it seemed as if a god
possessed him and wielded the brush in his hand. This greatest of all
Chinese masters was held in high esteem by the emperor. One day, wishing
to possess a landscape of one of his favorite bits of scenery, the
emperor directed Wu Tao-tzu to go forth and paint it. In the evening Wu
Tao-tzu returned, but empty-handed.

“Why!” exclaimed the emperor; “where is the landscape? You have

“O august Serenity, Son of Heaven!” replied Wu Tao-tzu, “I have it all,
all the landscape, here in my heart.”

Perhaps he made some discreet concession to the material side of the
adventure, for straightway he proceeded to cover a wall of one of the
apartments in the palace with a marvelous scene, such as the one he had
spent the day in contemplating. The next morning it was finished.
Delighted, the emperor came to view it. “Ah,” said he, “wonderful,
wonderful! It is the river, the bamboo, and there those majestic rocks!”

At the word, Wu Tao-tzu clapped his hands, and lo! there in the rocks of
the picture a cavern appeared. Wu Tao-tzu stepped into it, the entrance
closed, and Wu Tao-tzu disappeared from earth. Surely no legend better
illustrates the Chinese point of view, that a painting is the home of
the painter’s soul.

That is the story which was told to me one day when, happening into a
Chinese shop where some antiques and curios were offered for sale, I
chanced to pick up a tiny bottle. It was not over two and a half inches
high. Its weight proclaimed it crystal. A miniature scene and
inscription were skilfully and beautifully painted inside.

“This,” said the intelligent Chinese attendant, in answer to my
question, “is little bit painting. Story one man artist man very much
great. Him name Wu Tao-tzu.”

Then he told me the story, a golden nail on which to hang a bottle!
Surely enough, there was depicted Wu Tao-tzu entering the cavern. The
inscription vouched for the incident.

“But what a tiny bottle! What was it used for?”

“Much little bottle China old time fine like this. More other bottle
kinds use snuff for, medicine for. Look yes you please.”

The Celestial showed me how the ivory “spoon,” running the depth of the
bottle and fastened in the coral stopper, was manipulated to fetch forth
portions of anything a vial of this sort might contain. In snuff-taking
the “spoon” was emptied on the thumb nail and the “sniff” deftly taken.
That was my introduction to the fact that snuff-taking in the Orient had
fostered a fashion that produced objects of virtue fully as interesting
and beautiful as, and certainly more curious than the snuff-boxes
affected by the Europeans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

After this is it any wonder that the collector’s instinct should have
led me to be enthusiastic about Chinese snuff-bottles as a field for
browsing? And soon I found that the fascination of these little objects
of art had exerted no small influence on other collectors.

Fine snuff-bottles were not to be found at every turning. Nevertheless
they were not so rare as one might imagine, although, as with any other
class of art objects, supreme examples were difficult to obtain at any
price. If China has a population of four hundred million souls it must
not be assumed that her craftsmen have produced anything like four
hundred million snuff-bottles. True it is that men, women, and children
of China smoke, but they do not all take snuff.

Nearly all of these bottles that we see in collections are, perhaps,
snuff-bottles, though many of them were used for medicines, as the
Chinese were great medicine-consumers. They used medicines when
well–which was most of the time–in diminutive doses, perhaps as
charms, and when ill in quantities that would amaze and frighten us.
Hecate and her witches never prepared caldron more terrific than the
Chinese physician of yesterday devised for his certainly suffering
patient. The famous _materia medica_ of herbal which Li Shi-chin spent
thirty years in preparing, a work published in 1590, contained over
eighteen hundred prescriptions dear to the heart, though I fear
disastrous to the well-being of the Chinese invalid pro-tem. Gallon
containers would not have sufficed for some of these prescriptions,
while others–the least virulent, and therefore to be toyed with–were
harbored in the tiny bottles that snuff was, later, to usurp.

Miniature Chinese bottles found in Egypt and in Asia Minor–bottles of
porcelain bearing inscriptions in Chinese from the Chinese poets–show
that in the tenth century communication already existed between the
extreme boundaries of Asia. Arabs traded at Canton and Hangchow to the
end of the Sung dynasty, 1279. These little bottles were probably used
by the Arabs for kohl, the black substance with which they painted their
eyelashes. Sixty years before Li Shi-chin’s herbal–“Pun tsao” was its
title–tobacco was introduced into China, and before long tobacco as
snuff became popular and fashionable.

Among the ornamental articles of Chinese adornment, says an authority on
eastern costume, in none do they go to so much expense and style as in
the snuff-bottle, which is often carved from stone, amber, agate, and
other rare minerals with most exquisite taste. Jade, of course, was most
precious of all and often imitated in glass, as were topaz, amethyst,
tourmaline, amber, and other stones and substances.

Collectors in Europe and America are beginning to realize what
interesting things in the way of snuff-bottles the Chinese glass-worker

All Occidental methods of glass-working have long been known to the
Chinese. They have proved themselves skilful with blown, pressed, and
molded glass. However, their fame as glass-workers rests chiefly with
their cutting, deep chiseling, and undercutting objects of glass. In
this respect they have not been surpassed. Their work in this field was
undoubtedly inspired by their wide and varied experience with glyptic
work, a field in which their accomplishments in fashioning jade and
other hard stones served them a good turn.

As glass presented a somewhat less resisting mass than that of nephrite,
jadeite, or rock crystal, the Chinese lapidary found in it ready
response to his craftsmanship. The carved glass objects of the Chinese
usually are small. They generally suggest by skilful coloring and
tinting the hard stones they imitate. The Chinese snuff-bottles are
especially remarkable in this respect, as they are also in the marvelous
fertility of invention bestowed on their decoration, though in form they
are nearly of one general type and do not vary greatly in size. From the
plain crystalline glass bottles decorated with landscape or figure
subjects (by deftly painting the interior walls of the bottle so that
the scene shows through) to the much-bejeweled bottles, all these gems
of Chinese fabrication are triumphs of the art, patience, and ingenuity
of the Oriental hand and mind.

It is interesting to note that the Chinese have never made claim to the
discovery of glass. The historical work, “Wei Luo,” based on
third-century records, chronicles that ten colors of opaque glass were
imported by the Chinese from Rome between the years 221 and 264. The
Chinese themselves did not learn the art of glass-making until the fifth

The fine porcelain snuff-bottles of the Celestials are indeed things to
be treasured. We find them in endless colors and designs. Some are
plain, some with under-glaze decoration, some cased with pierced
porcelain casing, others with molded decoration, and still others with
painted decoration. Occasionally one finds a porcelain bottle whose
glaze intentionally simulates glass.

The Chinese are skilful lapidaries. Their work in shaping jade and other
hard stones has not been surpassed. The Celestial craftsman likewise
shows great ingenuity in taking advantage of any irregularity in form or
color of the stone he is working. The various quartzes are worked by the
Chinese on the same treadle bench which they use in fashioning jade, and
they work quartz stones along the same general lines.

A study of Chinese snuff-bottles will indicate the unlimited range in
the decoration, form, etc., of these objects. It will be seen, however,
that they are all nearly of a size dictated by general convenience in
carrying in pockets and pouches. The stoppers of these Chinese
snuff-bottles are scarcely less beautiful in many instances than the
bottles themselves. As a general rule the stoppers are of material more
precious than that used for the bottle. Pearls and precious stones are
less often employed, and I have never seen a Chinese snuff-bottle
stopper inset with diamonds. The diamond is a stone the Chinese have
never appeared to regard highly except for its utilitarian
possibilities. Coral is a favorite for the snuff-bottle stoppers. Ivory
is not uncommon for stoppers, but fine ivory snuff-bottles are very
rare, as likewise are fine cloisonné enamel bottles.

There is no gainsaying that Chinese snuff-bottles cannot fail to attract
the collector by reason of their esthetic interest. At the same time,
few objects open up a more interesting intellectual treat than is
afforded by a study of these tiny bottles in respect to the subject of
their decoration. Colors, too, are to be studied. Five colors enter
popular Chinese tradition: black, white–the Chinese regard these as
colors–blue, yellow, and red, to each of which is attached definite
symbolism. Colors are, for instance, associated with the points of the
compass–black with north, red with south, blue with east, and white
with west. Yellow is the color associated with the earth, and so on.

Surely the treasured snuff-bottles of the Celestials offer the collector
much that is intellectually delectable; and as really interesting
specimens are not beyond the moderate purse, their enjoyment does not
necessitate the sacrifices that might deter the collector since these
little objects of art are not as hopelessly out of reach as were the
grapes to Tantalus!