Cut open the skin of a lacquer tree. Stick a shell into the opening. The natural liquid that falls out like teardrops is what we call Chinese lacquer. At this moment, the lacquer has a creamy color, which would darken after an oxidation process.
In China, people have been using lacquer for over 7,000 years since the Hemudu culture during the Neolithic Period. Ancient Chinese used to consider lacquer "solid in nature, brilliant in color". Lacquer used as paint can resist humidity, heat and corrosion. And on top of that, artists are able to create many stunning shades. For example, the lacquer objects unearthed at the Chu tomb of the Warring States period (500-221 BC) that are vermillion inside and ink black outside. The wood body was rotted inside but the lacquered skin still looks perfect as if it were made yesterday, young and going like time itself. The cultural connotations of lacquer are modesty, kindness, simplicity, majesty and everlastingness; it is pure yet filled with thousands of varieties, simple but inclusive of millions of possibilities.
Guo Moruo wrote this poem: "The lacquer from Xi Shu is used to make Fuzhou bodiless lacquerware. From hands that could stun everyone, anything can be made and glow." The Fuzhou bodiless lacquer objects are a type of lacquer ware whose body is made of mud or plaster. Artists would laminate the body with layers of ramie cloth or silk, leave it air-dried and get rid of the original body. Then, they make the lacquer fillings by mixing big-grained, medium-grained and fine-grained ash made of smashed bricks with raw lacquer. Using the fillings as the foundation, they would paint layers over the mould. Days of painting efforts will become a shield against the flowing time. As the last step, artists would polish the object with sandpaper and in water for a shinier, perfect look.
It is a challenge for lacquer artists of our day to look for modern meanings and free expressions in a traditional medium. With lacquer, they return to the cultural bloodline and restore the original innocence of lacquer. In the process, they try every possibility that might turn traditional techniques and the spirit they have into a modern art form. Through years of painting and polishing, they have found a way to connect the ancient and modern times and lead us to the future ahead.
Shen Kelong in an interview: [7:30] What modern artists draw from the lacquer are its genes. How our ancestors understood and used lacquer has become my expressions. What we need today is not to pass down all the techniques, but the mental approaches.