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17. Oval Box
Yuan dynasty, 14th century
Dark brown lacquer with pewter trim
h. 4 in. w. 6 in. l. 14½ in.
from Julia M. White, Masterpieces of Chinese Lacquer: From the Mike Healy Collection, China Institute, New York

This lacquer box displays an elegant and restrained style that expresses the love of pure form seen in early, uncarved lacquers from China . The dark, mottled brown exterior of the body, with its twelve-lobed shape, speaks to a love of design as well as a simple, restrained order that was greatly appreciated by the Song and Yuan upper classes. An oval tray of red and dark brown lacquer fits into the base.

The red interior and base of the box, closely hidden except to the owner, belie the love of contrast and color within this type of lacquer box. A shallow tray nests inside the base. The interior red lacquer appears to be a relatively recent addition, although its color corresponds with similar examples. 1 The base of the interior tray is black and includes an inscribed mark; the same mark occurs on the base of the box, which is red. It appears that this mark may have been added later and may be that of a collector. 2 The box's form derives from similar ceramic forms of the period, which in turn may have metalwork as their ­prototype. 3

The outline of pewter (which defines the overall shape and enhances the box's form) may well have come from a ceramic heritage as well. Song Ding ware ceramics, with their delicate, unglazed lips, were sometimes rimmed in pewter for protection against wear. These lacquers may have relied on the same type of metal protection against rubbing or other damage to the delicate edges of the box.

A similar twelve-lobed, elongated box is illustrated in a 1990 exhibition catalogue of the Samuel Lee Family Collection of Tokyo. 4

Most of the excavated Song Chinese wares of this type have come from the areas around the Yangzi River valley from as far upriver as Hunan and down into the delta area. It could be that they are the result of the coming together of a lacquer tradition begun in the Han state of Chu farther in the interior. They also spring from an active and progressive ceramic production center around Hangzhou and the lower reaches of the Yangzi River , where a rise in production occurred through the Song period. 5

High lian , or cosmetic boxes, like cat. no. 3, as well as boxes of this shape have also been found in silver. The lian shape is seen in ivory too. 6 It seems likely from the literature of the period that production was great, and that lacquers of this sort were produced in factories. Even so, lacquer remained a luxury item for the wealthy and well-placed. Evidence of lacquer in use as a domestic and a court item can clearly be seen in contemporaneous and earlier paintings. 7


1. A round, lobed box in the Florence and Herbert Irving Collection is lacquered red in the interior dome but black in the base; see James C.Y. Watt and Barbara Brennan Ford, East Asian Lacquer: The Florence and Herbert Irving Collection (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991), cat. no. 3, pp. 4445.

2. Hin-Cheung Lovell, “Sung and Yuan Monochrome Lacquers in the Freer Gallery,” Ars Orientalis: The Arts of Islam and the East 9 (1973), figs. 2 and 3, presents examples of inscriptions on excavated monochrome lacquers, but they are consistently brushed on, not incised.

3. Lovell establishes this relationship in “Sung and Yuan Monochrome Lacquers.”

4. Lee King Tsi and Hu Shih Chang, Drache und Phoenix: Lackarbeiten aus China: Sammlung der Familie Lee, Tokyo/Dragon and Phoenix: Chinese Lacquerware: The Lee Family Collection, Tokyo (Cologne, Germany: Museum of East Asian Art, 1990), no. 24, pp. 7475.

5. Lovell, “Sung and Yuan Monochrome Lacquers,” pp. 12130, discusses monochrome lacquer production sites.

6. Sherman Lee and Wai-kam Ho, Chinese Art under the Mongols, exh. cat. (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1968), cat. no. 299.

7. Ibid. See also Lovell, “Sung and Yuan Monochrome Lacquers,” pls. 17 and 18, and Wu Tung, Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Tang through Yuan Dynasties (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts; Tokyo: Ôtsuka Kôgeisha, 1996), vol. 2: a Southern Song fan painting by Su Hanchen (act. 1120s1160s) shows a woman at her dressing table on which a stacked lacquer box sits (pl. 20, p. 128), and a detail of a Yuan painting depicts various types of lacquer boxes (pl. 128, p. 311).


© 2005 on loan to China Institute from the Honolulu Academy of Arts; photography by Suzo Uemoto.

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