For Chinese artisans and designers, boxes were always more than mere utilitarian objects. These containers for trinkets, jewelry, and games were often thickly lacquered until their surfaces could be carved and polished. Beyond lacquerware, artisans fashioned boxes from carved bone or filigreed silver. The European technique of cloisonné was also a popular treatment on Chinese boxes, as were similar treatments such as niello.

One of the most intriguing characteristics of Chinese boxes, other than the range of materials and techniques used to produce them, is that they are not necessarily square or even rectangular. Chinese boxes are often shallow and circular, with straight, intricately carved sides. Other boxes are lobated, resembling, for example, flower-like pentagons with rounded protrusions rather than a quintet of acute angles. Then there are the octagons, whose bases and covers often have gently curving sides that meet in the middle, where the boxes can be opened to reveal their contents.

In Europe, beginning in the 17th century, two conflicting terms described the influences of Asian art on the West. One was chinoiserie, which is a French word describing Chinese motifs in everything from architecture to pottery. The other term was japanning, which referred more particularly to lacquering techniques in furniture and decorative objects.

The word japanning suggested that these lacquering techniques originated in Japan, and, indeed, in the centuries that followed, many scholars believed that to be the case. But it is now widely accepted that lacquerware originated in China, and that its artists migrated to places like Japan and Korea to practice and promulgate their trade.

Most lacquered boxes began with an armature of wood if the box was large, a mud-like stucco if the box was of medium size, or hemp if it was small. Countless layers of lacquer were applied to the armature, each of which had to dry before another could be applied. Sometimes 200 to 300 layers were applied to a piece, each of which was sanded first with charcoal ash and then horn ash. Carving and inlay came later and was equally time-consuming.

Chinese boxes made of metals like copper and silver were enameled to produce cloisonné, a technique imported to China from Europe. Fine wire separated the enamels in the surface of the box to create everything from sprays of delicate flower blossoms to gaudy fire-breathing dragons. In fact, many cloisonné boxes produced in China were made for export to Europe, precisely to fulfill the European image of Chinese culture and aesthetics.

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Asian Art Museum

Asian Art Museum

You can get happily lost searching through the 10,000 or so objects on the Asian Art Museum's website. For example,… [read review or visit site]

Jan-Erik Nilsson's extensive reference on antique Chinese porcelain. Jam-packed with information (e.g. on porcelain… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

V.fine Large 19c Chinese Qing Cloisonne Enamel White Jade Plaque Desk Table BoxProfusely Carved Antique Chinese Cantonese Cow Bone Card Case No ReserveSuperb 18c Chinese Deeply Carved Cinnabar Lacquer Box Worked To Both Sides Mid 19th Century Chinese Cantonese Fine & Deeply Carved Cow Bone Card Case.Very Rare Set X 6 Chinese Export Silver Napkin Rings - C190019th C. Early 20th C. Chinese Hardwood Box, And Carved Stand Fine Wood QualityNice Fine Carved Chinese Cantonese Wooden Box, 19th Century.Rare Chinese Gilt Enamel Jewel Stone Box Carved White Jade ButterflyChinese Paktong Brass Copper Scholars Ink Stone Box Calligraphy 19thcAntique Chinese Export Silver Hung Chong Miniature Filigree Censer Box SaltFine Antique Chinese Scholars Calligraphy Paktong Copper Ink Box MarkedChinese Scholars Paktong Box Calligraphy 19thc19th Chinese Carved Zitan/redwood Wood Covered BoxAntique Very Large Chinese Bronze Cloisonne Box 23.6 By 14.5c By 8.5 CmChinese Paktong Brass Copper Scholars Ink Stone Box Calligraphy 19thcNice Fine Carved Chinese Cantonese Frame, 19th Ct. Dragons, Figures & Buffalo,Antique Victorian Chinese 19thc Carved Cow Bone Needle CaseAntique Chinese Cow Bone Brush Set - Just Under 400gFine Old Black Inlaid Oriental Box - Flowers / Butterflies - Chinese / JapaneseFine Antique Chinese Hand Deep Carved Roses Figural Scene Card Case Holder EtuiAntique Chinese Carved Hardwood Imperial Five Claw Dragon Decorated Box.Chinese Scholars Paktong Copper Ink Stone Box Landscape 19thcLarge Chinese Scholars Paktong Copper Brass Ink Stone Box Calligraphy 19thcA Pair Vintage Collect Handmade Old Precious Cloisonne Cranes Flower Mini Box Superb,large,cantonese,chinese,19th Century,carved,cow Bone Round BoxChinese Antique Enamel Boxes Early 20thFine Old Chinese Court Ladies Print Decorated Tea Caddy Advertisement Box Vintage Collectable Precious Wood Jewelry Gold Box Mother Pearl Inlay Birds Collectible Decorated Old Handwork Cloisonne Carved Flower Rouge BoxOld Chinese Metal BoxesChinese Antique A Red Guri Lacquer BoxesCollectableAntique 19th Asian Chinese Carved Cinnabar Lacquer Cloisonne Lidded Round BoxFine Old Chinese Brass Relief Fu Bats & Shou Character Motif Lidded BoxAntique Chinese Reticulated Carved Ivory Coloured Sewing Thread Dispensing Box China Old Handwork Fancy Noble CloisonnFine Antique Chinese Cinnabar Carved Lacquer Round Box & Cover 18th-19th CenturyPair Of Antique Chinese Lacquer String HolderFine Old Chinese Round Cloisonne Enamel Brass Trinket Box collectableSuperb Vintage Collectable Old DecorationVintage Collection Handmade Old Precious Wood Elegant Tea Box StatueSuperb China Old Handwork Tibet-silver Jewelry Ring Box Carved Castle Bx4dn16China Old Handwork Superb CloisonnVintage Chinese Enamel Cloisonne Smoking Set Very Rare MatchboxAntique Chinese Faux Tortoise Shell Dragon Cigarette CaseExquisite Antique Chinese Polychrome Porcelain Box Marked Yongzheng No ReserveHighly Carved Box, Oriental Style And Scenes, Intricate Vintage Collection Old Pretty Sad Flowers Brass Incense Burner BoxChina Rare Old Miao Silver & Cloisonne Carving Beautiful Usable Jewel BoxDecorated 100% Boxwood Highly Difficulty Carved God Of Wealth Statue Folding BoxAntique Original Trinket Box Cinnabar & Champlave' Enamel Amazing $300 ValueBeautiful Antique Chinese Cinnabar Carved Box, RedBoxwood Highly Difficulty Carved Floding Box --- BuddhaLovely Chinese Old Bone Collectable Handwork Carved Cat Snuff Box OrnamentChina Old Handwork Wood Book Shape Jewelry Box Paint Dragon Phoenix Bx51b01Fine Chinese Old 0x Bone Collectable Handwork Carved Elephant Snuff Box OrnamentCollectible Decorate Handwork Old Cloisonne Carving Flower Noble Red Jewel BoxCollectibles Old. Decorated Handwork Tibet Silver Carving Buddha Exorcism StatueAntique Asian Gilt Box Chinese India Jeweled Crowned Buddha Coral Turquoise