Four hundred years ago Japanese lac-quer craftsmen sailed to China to study Ming dynasty techniques for making lacquer ware. There they copied Xiushi Lu, a book about lacquering techniques which may never have gotten into print. When they returned to Japan, they took their copy with them. Recently, Suoo Yu-ming, a researcher at the National Palace Museum, went to Japan to obtain a photocopy of this long-lost crafts classic. He brought it back to Taiwan, giving Chinese of this day and age a chance to study it.
Stressing the academic subjects covered in the imperial civil-service exams, Chinese traditionally viewed the vocational sciences as being rather crass pursuits and looked upon crafts techniques as petty skills. As a result, ancient books devoted to crafts are few and far between, and the most famous of them-Xiushi Lu (on lacquering), Tian Gong Kai Wu (on various crafts), and Yingzao Fashi (on construction techniques)-have all at some point been lost in China, only to be rediscovered in Japan.
Literati sneered upon crafts
Among the scant scholarship on Chinese crafts, research into lacquering techniques is particularly sparse. Even in the Complete Collection of Graphs and Writing of Ancient and Modern Times, the largest of ancient Chinese encyclopedias, lacquer and lacquer ware barely get mentioned. In Taiwan, virtually all of the research papers on lacquer have been written by just one scholar, Suoo Yu-ming. He explains that there are two reasons for this: First, scholars of ancient Chinese artifacts have always paid most of their attention to bronze ware and turtle shells because they are inscribed with Chinese characters. Second, most of the available ancient pieces of lacquer ware weren't unearthed until the last half of this century, which partly explains why there isn't nearly as much scholarship on them as there is on, say, jade artifacts or porcelain.
Lacquer ware in China reached its zenith in the Ming dynasty. One Ming lacquerer, Huang Cheng, who lived in Xinan County, Anhui Province, wrote a book about the knowledge that he had acquired over a lifetime. It was rare indeed for a craftsman to be able to write. Because society attached little importance to craft techniques, it is quite possible that this book never made its way into print. Later, Yang Ming, a Ming-dynasty master of lacquer ware, added notes to it, making its content even more comprehensive. Yet it was still not printed. From the preface by Yang Ming, one imagines that there were very limited numbers of such books, which were written neither for fame nor fortune, and very soon all traces of them were lost in China.
Becoming a Japanese national treasure
Though overlooked in China, the book was copied by Japanese studying Chinese lacquering techniques, and after being passed along from one collection to another, the lone copy of the book eventually became part of a collection at the Tokyo National Museum, where it is designated an "important national cultural asset."
Chu Chi-chien, who served as finance minister during the early years of the Republic of China, was greatly interested in crafts and manufacturing. He learned of the existence of Xiushi Lu from a book by Ohmura Seigai, a Japanese scholar of Chinese art history. Using his political connections, Chu was able to get hold of the book and make a copy. With this, he made 200 more copies in a wood block printing. Half of these were brought back to be stored in China, but they were destroyed during the War of Resistance Against Japan, so that Xiushi Lu was lost to Chinese once again.
In 1972, Suoo Yu-ming, a researcher for the National Palace Museum, went through academic and curatorial exchange channels to obtain a photocopy of the book.
Although he finally had possession of the book, Suoo could find no-one who understood the ancient painting terminology and descriptions of lacquering processes. Then one day Fan He-chun, who had studied in France, happened to read a newspaper article Suoo had written about the book. Fan, who had studied chemical engineering, had once learned how to repair lacquer ware at a French museum, and was thus familiar with the techniques used to manufacture it. By combining their academic and practical experience, Fan and Suoo were able to make a complete explication of this elaborate work, written more than 400 years before by Huang Cheng.
A craftsman's exquisite essay
In beautiful language the book first makes an explanation of the tools, materials, and equipment used for the manufacture and preservation of various kinds of lacquer ware. Because the author was writing from personal experience, a novice to the field can make quite respectable lacquer ware simply by following his instructions.
Moreover, though lacquer was Huang's trade, in the text he reveals a broad knowledge of the classics, and interspersed throughout are appropriate elegant classical references. For instance, in the section "The Movement of Heaven," he relates a passage in the Book of Changes ("Heaven is constantly moving, and likewise the righteous man works always to strengthen himself") to the process of making a ceramic base for lacquer ware, in which one turns it like a top that never stops spinning. In the section "Wind Blows," he says that when polishing a piece of lacquer ware one should rub "calmly and steadily, like a breeze caressing a face." The book also describes common mistakes.
The most praiseworthy portion of the book is the last section entitled "Imitation." Huang Cheng believed that there are two forms of imitation. The first is "copying from the past," which involves preserving the beautiful aspects of a tradition. This means doing one's best to learn the spirit and techniques of the ancients, rather than making slavish reproductions. He holds that it's not hard to make exact copies of ancient works, even to the point where the signatures and seals are the same, but that in such cases the craftsman reproducing the work should sign too, so there is no doubt that it is a reproduction and not a forgery. The second form of imitation is "copying from the present," which means looking at the techniques and feelings expressed in the lacquer ware of different locales and incorporating some of their beautiful aspects into one's own work. Suoo Yu-ming values the Xiushi Lu not only for passing down knowledge about lacquering techniques, but even more for what it shows about the upright character of ancient craftsmen.
The oldest production line
In truth, lacquering as it was practiced had a unique strength rarely seen among ancient Chinese crafts: Not only were different people responsible for different stages of making lacquer ware, but each of them had to sign a slip acknowledging responsibility for their work. The system greatly resembles modern production lines.
In the British Museum in London, there is a Han dynasty cup with handles, on which are engraved 67 characters, detailing when and where the cup was made, how it is used, what it is called and how much it holds. It also bears the signatures of craftsmen who made it, as well as the names of the overseeing imperial official and the director and assistant director of the factory.
With gratitude Suoo Yu-ming says: "This information was not recorded in books and sheds light on the scale of lacquer ware production at that time. While a lifetime may last at most a century, artifacts can preserve the spirit of an age for eternity. Knowledge about Chinese lacquer ware and the craft of making it have filled in a page in what is otherwise a largely blank history of Chinese crafts."
Suoo Yu-ming is Taiwan's preeminent researcher into the history of lacquer ware in China. It was his search that turned up a copy of the long-lost Ming dynasty book on lacquer ware, Xiushi Lu. (photo by Pu Hua-chih)