The long cultural and artistic history of China has produced a large number of original and distinctive artistic achievements. One that is quickly recognised is cinnabar lacquer, with its distinctive red colour, sometimes referred to as China red, sealing wax red or vermilion.
With its 5000 year long recorded history, we need to go back in time by around 2300 years, where we find the first record of cinnabar lacquer being used.
Cinnabar lacquer developed into an important artistic medium from the sixth century B.C. to the second century A.D. At this early period, lacquer ware was also produced not only in red, but in black, using carbon as a colouring agent and orpiment, a natural mineral resulting in a canary yellow lacquer ware. These three lacquer colours were mainly used to surface colour sculptural works and vessels.
The distinctive carved red cinnabar, which we recognize today, first appeared in the 12th century as a new class of luxury objects. Cinnabar as a decorative art has been and is used in many Asian cultures however carved, red cinnabar is unique to China.
What exactly is cinnabar?
Cinnabar pigmented lacquer is derived from a native Southern Chinese tree, the Chinese Sumac, (rhus verniciflua), usually referred to as the Lac tree.
The lacquer itself is produced with a trunk tapping process much like that of the rubber tree. Small cuts are made in the trunk of the tree and the sap collected by dripping into a jar.
This lacquer is an amazing material that hardens when exposed to the air and becomes a natural plastic that is resistant to water and can withstand heat. (Lacquer ware refers to any surface which has been coated with lacquer, resulting in a hard and durable surface.)
The first coat is, in this case, not the last! Lacquer ware can require sometimes as many as two hundred coats! As each coat dries, the next coat is applied until the desired thickness has been achieved. When the final layer has air dried, the second phase of the deeply carved decoration commences.
Carving is done by a highly skilled artisan who, with razor sharp cutting tools, begins the slow process of carving the undecorated lacquer surface of the object.
Cinnabar is carved lacquer which is predominantly red in colour. Actually, the term, cinnabar is the name of a naturally occurring mineral pigment, mercury sulfide, which provides the red colour. It’s the name of this pigment which gives us the name, cinnabar. For a dark red colour, iron oxide is added to the lacquer, producing a rich dark lacquer. Cinnabar is generally found in a massive, granular, crystal-like form and is bright scarlet to brick-red in colour.
In ancient China and in today’s China, red is a very propitious colour. It is considered a warm and energetic colour, symbolizing luck and good fortune. Red is used in many aspects of life such as cultural ceremonies, weddings, birthdays and particularly at Chinese New Year. A red cinnabar lamp placed in prominent position, is a colour not to be missed!
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