Vietnamese Lacquerware

Lacquerware are objects decoratively covered with lacquer. The lacquer is sometimes inlaid or carved. Lacquerware includes boxes, tableware and even coffins painted with lacquer in cultures mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere.


Lacquer and producing lacquerware had been known to the Chinese since at least the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 BC – c. 1046 BC) era in China. This can be seen in the existing lacquerwares produced, mostly of ritual cups, dishes, and wooden chest boxes with a lacquer finish across the surface. Many of these priceless ancient Chinese or Japanese lacquer artifacts can be found in private collections and museums, such as the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C..

Lacquer production was under way in northern Japan by 7,000 BC, as early Jōmon were managing various plant resources, suggesting the so-called varnish tree Rhus verniciflua was being managed. In Japan, the art of lacquerware-making came along with Buddhism and other cultural artifacts from China during the 8th century, and 'carved lacquerware' came to Japan from Ming Dynasty China during the 14th century.

Burmese lacquerware

Yun-de is lacquerware in Burmese, and the art is called Pan yun. The lacquer is the sap tapped from the varnish tree Melanorrhoea usitatissima or Thitsee that grows wild in the forests of Myanmar (formerly Burma). It is straw-coloured but turns black on exposure to air. When brushed in or coated on, it forms a hard glossy smooth surface resistant to a degree effects of exposure to moisture or heat.

Bayinnaung's conquest and subjugation in 1555-1562 of Manipur, Bhamo, Zinme (Chiang Mai), Linzin (Lan Xang), and up the Taping and Shweli rivers in the direction of Yunnan brought back large numbers of skilled craftsmen into Burma. It is thought that the finer sort of Burmese lacquerware, called Yun, was introduced during this period by imported artisans belonging to the Yun or Laos Shan tribes of the Chiang Mai region.

Manufacture and design

Lacquer vessels, boxes and trays have a coiled or woven bamboostrip base often mixed with horsehair, and the thitsee may be mixed with ashes or sawdust to form a putty-like substance called thayo which can be scuplted. The object is coated layer upon layer with thitsee and thayo to make a smooth surface, polished and engraved with intricate designs, commonly using red, green and yellow colours on a red or black background. Shwezawa is a distinctive form in its use of gold leaf to fill in the designs on a black background.

Palace scenes, scenes from the Jataka tales, and the signs of the Burmese Zodiac are popular designs and some vessels may be encrusted with glass mosaic or semi-precious stones in gold relief. The objects are all handmade and the designs and engraving done free-hand. It may take three to four months to finish a small vessel but perhaps over a year for a larger piece. The finished product is a result of teamwork and not crafted by a single person.


A Chinese Ming Dynasty mother of pearl lacquer box, 16th century, Museum für Lackkunst, Germany.

The most distinctive vessel is probably a rice bowl on a stem with a spired lid for monks called hsun ok. Lahpet ok is a shallow dish with a lid and has a number of compartments for serving lahpet (pickled tea) with its various accompaniments. Stackable tiffin-carriers fastened with a single handle or hsun gyaink are usually plain red or black. Daunglahn are low tables for meals and may be simple broad based or have three curved feet in animal or floral designs with a lid. Water carafes or yeidagaung with a cup doubling as a lid, and vases are also among lacquerware still in use in many monasteries.

Various round boxes with lids, small and large, are known as Yun-It including ones for paan called Kun-It (betel boxes). Yun titta are rectangular boxes for storing various articles including peisa or palm leaf manuscripts when they are called sadaik titta. Pedestal dishes or small trays with a stem with or without a lid are known as kalat for serving delicacies or offering flowers to royalty or the Buddha. Theatrical troupes and musicians have their lacquerware in costumes, masks, head-dresses, and musical instruments, some of them stored and carried in lacquer trunks. Boxes in the shape of a pumpkin or a bird such as the owl, which is believed to bring luck, or the hintha (Brahmani goose) are common too. Screens and small polygonal tables are also made for the tourist trade today.


Bagan is the major centre for the lacquerware industry where the handicraft has been established for nearly two centuries, and still practised in the traditional manner. Here a government school of lacquerware was founded in the 1920s. Since plastics, porcelain and metal have superseded lacquer in most everyday utensils, it is today manufactured in large workshops mainly for tourists who come to see the ancient temples of Bagan. At the village of Kyaukka near Monywa in the Chindwin valley, however, sturdy lacquer utensils are still produced for everyday use mainly in plain black.

A decline in the number of visitors combined with the cost of resin, which has seen a 40 fold rise in 15 years, has led to the closure of over two thirds of more than 200 lacquerware workshops in Bagan.

 Japanese Lacquerware

Lacquerware is called by the Sinitic compound shikki (漆器) in Japanese. The native term for lacquer is urushi (漆), source of the English hybrid words 'urushiol' and 'urushi-ware'. Etymologically, urushi may be related to the words uruwashii ('beautiful') or uruoi ('watered', 'profitable', 'favored'), due speculatively to their value or shiny appearance, or perhaps the humidifying rooms used in production of lacquered wares.

Urushi is applied to wood or paper substrates to form urushi-wares.

The 17th-century term 'japan', refers to a range of lacquer techniques, but especially those developed in Europe and Great Britain to resemble lacquerware imported from the Orient. These commonly employed a black, oil-based varnish, ('Japan black', 'Brunswick black', etc.), on wood and later metal substrates, eventually finding a variety of 19th- and early-20th-century industrial applications. Japan black was famously Ford's preferred automotive finish until the advent of quick-drying, variously colored nitrocellulose lacquers.

History and Regional Production

Although there is some evidence of cultivation of the lacquer tree in prehistoric times, (perhaps for extraction of urushiol adhesives), the art of lacquerware most likely arrived in Japan from China and Korea along with Buddhism and the Chinese writing system in the Asuka and Nara periods (6th through 8th centuries).

By the Kamakura period (1185-1333), Japanese craftsman under the influence of Sung dynasty arts focused on carving Buddhist imagery into thick coats of lacquer, (Kamakura-bori). Japanese craftsman at this time began applying a thin lacquer coat to carved wood substrates, in this way reducing production times and making lacquerware available beyond temples to samurai and merchants.

Today, lacquerware is produced throughout the Japanese archipelago, with many regional techniques and variations. Besides the very old Kamakura tradition mentioned above, (and still alive today), the port town of Wajima provides a good example of regional lacquerware. Wajima-nuri, dating back to the 16th century, is characterized by use of the elm-like Japanese zelkova, (keyaki 欅), powdered earth, and delicate features formed from cloth. (See the Japanese article, 輪島塗.)

(A more complete list of regional lacquer traditions is available in the Japanese article.)

Web Reference:


 Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam, Vietnam Map

This webpage was updated 27th January 2020