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 the Near East. 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.