Chinese Han lacquer cup

Contributed by British Museum

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Lacquer cups, like this one, were sometimes given by the emperor to an official as a gift or in lieu of salary. An inscription on the bottom lists the six artisans that made the cup and the seven product inspectors who guaranteed its quality. Lacquer objects were expensive, this cup is said to be worth 10 bronze cups. Lacquer objects were valued because they were time consuming to create. Lacquer is obtained from tree sap and a cup may require over six coats.

Who were the Han Dynasty?

China rivalled the Roman Empire in terms of wealth and size under the reign of the Han dynasty (221 BC ? AD 220). The Han established a central government and an efficient civil service. Applicants were tested on their knowledge of the teachings of Confucius. The state strictly controlled prices and merchants were not allowed to own land, become officials or even wear silk. However, the Silk Road allowed Chinese merchants to trade silk and other products as far as the Roman Empire.

Lacquer was thought by the Han to have magical qualities as an elixir of immortality

Layering perfection

The lacquer used on Chinese, Korean and Japanese objects is the sap of the ‘lacquer tree’, Rhus verniciflua, also known as Toxicodendron vernicifluum. This species belongs to the Anacardiaceae family which contains many useful trees including those used for food such as pistachio, mango and cashew.

The sap of the lacquer tree is very toxic and caustic. It can cause severe blistering of the skin and allergic reactions as well as breathing problems. Nevertheless these trees were cultivated specifically for producing this durable coating, lacquer.

Sap is tapped by slashing the trunk of a tree horizontally up to 10 times. When first collected the sap is a creamy or greyish yellow colour but it changes to a brownish black on exposure to light. Before the lacquer can be used it needs to be filtered and heat-treated.

Creating a lacquer object, such as the Chinese Han cup, is a very painstaking and time-consuming process with many thin layers of lacquer being applied with special tools to a wooden core. On occasion as many as 300 coats may be applied and each layer must dry and be polished before the next one can be applied. As lacquer hardens very slowly this may mean that only one layer can be put on in a day.

Specialist craftsmen used cypress wood spatulas and brushes of human hair to apply the layers of lacquer. Fine rat or mouse-hair brushes were used for the detailed fine lines of gold design and many other different forms of decoration were used by lacquerers such as silk patterns, sharkskin texture and silver or gold dusting.

Lacquered objects are usually polished to a very high gloss and are extremely durable. A variety of materials can be used to colour it. For example, traditional red and black lacquer was often made by adding the mineral cinnabar for the red colour and carbon or iron oxide for the black colour.
The richness of the colour, the extraordinary craftsmanship involved and the fact that raw lacquer is so toxic and difficult to use means that lacquer wares became luxury items treasured by the upper class.

Caroline Cartwright, scientist, British Museum

The new industrial revolution

Forty years ago, 60% of the Chinese population, which is one fifth of the world’s population, was engaged in agriculture and one of the main Chinese exports was pig bristle in an economy that was smaller than that of Belgium. Fast forward to today and 60% of the population are working in industry. China has overtaken Germany as one of the world’s major exporters and it’s the biggest manufacturer of almost everything; all the objects of everyday use, particularly those high volume, low value added, high turnover objects.

But increasingly China is moving up the value chain to higher grade technologies and recovering in a sense that position of pre-eminence it held in the Han dynasty and through much of its history as a technology innovator. We see China now reconnecting this enormous industrial revolution, the biggest, fastest, most overwhelming industrial revolution the world has ever seen is reconnecting to a tradition of Chinese technological innovation, moving onto another phase.

Isabel Hilton, journalist and broadcaster

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 09:51 on 20 May 2010, FMLunnon wrote:

    Dear colleagues WHY can't I listen on-line to today's prgramme as it is broadcast? As BBC workers you shd be aware that there are parts of this country (THIS country) where one needs a fancy radio even to get FM, let alone digital-- but broadband is fine, and I wanted to hear about this cup at the first opportunity, not later.

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  • 2. At 19:00 on 21 May 2010, Simon wrote:

    The transcript states that in 4BC China's population was recorded as "57,671,400 individuals - nearly 15 times the population of the Roman Empire". However I think this is wildly wrong - 15 times the population of Roman Britain perhaps (conquored in the following century), but most estimates of the Roman Empire as a whole suggest in the order of 60 million - about the same size as suggested in this census (unless like the Doomesday survey it only counted certain types of people).

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  • 3. At 15:37 on 22 May 2010, Caroline wrote:

    The Chinese using special gifts to establish the relationship between countries is based on the idea of "If you want to get something,give first".We give present doesn't mean we are weak or fear,it show the confident of the ruler,a confident to handle the world.To rule the world through force is like storm,it cannot last.Tolerance and soft handle will let pepole convinced to the power,just like sunshine.That is the lesson that Han Dynasty has learned this from the quick fall of Qin.

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  • 4. At 22:44 on 23 May 2010, NippyNelmo wrote:

    I subscribe to this series (amongst many others) with an RSS feed to my MP3 player. This guarantees that I never miss an episode and enables me to listen to (almost! - Sorry Count Arthur) what I want, where I want and when I want. I find this programme series absolutely compulsive listening. If ever there was justification for the licence fee then Radio 4 is it. Thank you BBC, you're a true national treasure.

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  • 5. At 16:20 on 25 May 2010, J D Hill wrote:

    Simon ? Thanks for raising this. You are right that the population of Han China?s empire at the time was not 15 times the entire population of the Roman Empire. It was in fact about 15 times the number of Roman citizens, which was around four million at the end of the 1st Century BC. The actual population of the whole Roman Empire is not known for certain, although estimates put it at c.45 million at the end of the 1st Century BC, rising to c.50-60 million in the 2nd Century AD. This is being corrected in the transcript and the Radio 4 programme.
    JD Hill, British Museum

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