Filled Lacquered Peony Box

Tags: box | lacquer | Ming dynasty | National Palace Museum


Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
Diameter: 13.1 cm, height: 3.4 cm 
This round box has a flat top, straight sides, and a slightly concave base. The lid and sides were decorated using the "t'ien-ch'ih", or "filled-in", technique. The lid is decorated with yellow peonies on a red background with a silver powder pigment, which has since faded, used for the color of the flowers. The stems and leaves were rendered in black lacquer with yellow lines. Eight Sanskrit characters were written on the sides, again with silver powder pigment, set against a floral background. Red lacquer covers both the bottom of the box and the inside. In his "Songs of Yen-shih Laquerware", Kao Yu-ching, writing in the late Ming, remarked that, "T'ien-ch'ih is the best technique, followed by ‘p'o lo', and then the ‘t'i-hung' technique." From this we can see that the filled-in technique was regarded more highly than either the "animal hide (p'o-lo)" or "carved lacquer (t'i -hung)" methods. There were two basic techniques to make filled-in lacquer ware, the first being incising and filling in, the second being burnishing.

In the first, used for the golden lines on this example, the design is carved into the lacquer, and then these lines are filled with colored lacquer. With the second, seen on the peonies and the Sanskrit characters, the design is made using many layers of different colors, followed by a further lacquer layer covering the whole piece, which is then burnished. With both of these techniques, the lacquer surface is very smooth and the colors beautiful, and there are many references from commentators during the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties praising their virtues. These lacquer wares were produced by the imperial workshops of both these dynasties, and Wen Chen-heng, in the late Ming book "Chang wu-chih", notes that filled-in imperial lacquer ware boxes often made it into the studios of gentlemen scholars, and that those made in the Hsüan-te period (1426-1435) were particularly valued. This piece is an example of both these filled-in lacquer techniques in the 17th-century style.

Text: Ts'ai Mei-fen

Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum