Beijing's carved lacquer ware is one of China's traditional arts and crafts. Lacquer ware is decorated with exquisite engravings, has radiant luster, elegant shape, and pieces are resistant to humidity, erosion and heat. The technique involves applying a natural lacquer on a wooden surface, then engraving delicate designs on the lacquer.
The ancient craftsmanship of carved lacquer originated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in today's Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. The Song Dynasty (960-1279) saw rapid development of the technique. It was in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) that carved lacquer ware was introduced to Beijing, when the city was designated as the country's capital, which attracted many craftsmen. In the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Orchard Factory, an imperial lacquer workshop, was set up to meet increasing demand from the royal court. Skilled lacquer workers from all over the country gathered in the factory and through competing and cooperating with each other, they worked out unique characteristics of Beijing carved lacquer ware. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had its own imperial workshop specializing in the manufacture of carved lacquer wares. The industry reached its peak during the Qianlong reign, as the emperor was an enthusiast, who had his coffin decorated with carved lacquer. Yet, the industry declined as the Qing Dynasty entered its final period. At the celebration of Empress Dowger Cixi's 60th birthday, there were not enough craftsmen to work on lacquer wares.
The first commercial workshop of carved lacquer wares, "Ji Gu Zhai", appeared in 1904, set up by Xiao Le'an and Li Maolong, who saved the ancient craft from extinction. After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the government organized heirs of Ji Gu Zhai to set up a Beijing Carved Lacquer Factory, the only manufacturer of carved lacquer wares.
However, the ancient industry is yet again on the brink of extinction.
Beijing carved lacquer ware requires a complicated manufacturing process, which starts with a brass or wooden body. After preparation and polishing, it is coated with several dozen of layers of lacquer, reaching total thickness of 5 to 18 millimeters. Engravers must wait for the lacquer to dry so it won't crack. Then, engravers will cut into hardened lacquer, creating "carved paintings" of landscapes, human figures, flowers and birds, which is then finished by drying and polishing. It usually takes 6-8 months to finish a piece of carved lacquer ware.
The complicated manufacturing process and high production costs have resulted in high prices of carved lacquer ware, and a decreasing demand. The industry has seen a rapid decrease since the 1980s. Young people are reluctant to learn lacquer-carving skills, and many elders have passed away. There are only about 20 skilled craftsmen left alive.