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.

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    

Large Antique Carved Chinese Export Calling Card CaseA Chinese Ming-style Cloisonne Enamel Lotus Box & Cover, Mark Of QianlongChinese / Japanese Colonial Parcel Gilt Solid Silver Battleship Table Box C.1900Nice 19th C. Century Chinese Cantonese Card Case. 9,5 X 5,8 X 1 Cm.Chinese Fine Porcelain Box With Bat Mark 18th Century Paste PotAntique Vintage Chinese Bronze Ink Paste Box With Markings In Chinese MarksAntique Chinese Pewter Tea Caddy 19th Century + MarkLarge Antique Chinese Qing Dynasty Langyao Oxblood Red Glazed Porcelain Vase 19cAntique Stunning Chinese Asian Large Bronze Figural Cloisonne BoxAntique Huge Chinese Hand Carved Wood Box 19th C.Antique Chinese Canton Rare Catolic Cross Case Box Card CarvedLarge Chinese Export Solid Silver Chrysanthemum Box Circa 1900Vintage Antique Chinese Carved Celluloid Box Dresser Trinket Powder Dragon KoiRare 19th Century Chinese Export Solid Silver Fan Box Circa 1880Fine Old Chinese Carved Jade Panel Cloisonne Enamel Match BoxVery Fine And Large Old Chinese Cloisonne Enamel Box Cloisonne Box 12" Wide .Interesting C. 17th Century Chinese Casket - With Sotheby's ProvenanceAntique Chinese Carved Red Cinnabar Lacquer Covered Box 19th C.Beautiful Antique Chinese Solid Silver & Enamel Box Chinese Brass Copper Ink Stone Box Signed 19thcLot 2 Miniature Antique Chinese Rose Medallion Cylindrical BoxesFine Old Chinese Embroidered Silk Covered Birds & Floral Decorated Jewelry BoxNatural Cherry Trees Leather Making Tea Pot Storage Box Collectable Handwork DecAntique Chinese Carved Box Wood Monkey & Peach - French Flea Market FindChinese Natural Hetian Jade Hand-carved BoxChinese Cherry Trees Orchid Carved Elegant Noble Timber Tea Box Pot CollectibleVintage Collection Old Marriage Series Leather Jewelry BoxesGood Chinese Famille Rose Canton Enamel On Copper Box 19th C Lady MusiciansAntique Chinese Lacquer Box With FiguresAntique Chinese Cloisonne Blue Enamel Floral Blossoms Scholar Humidor Jar BoxChinese Old Bronze Hand Republic Of China (1912-1949) Zhang Xue Liang Ink BoxAsian Chinese Old Handmade Carved Cat Collect Statue Box Delicate OrnamentVintage Antique Chinese Cloisonné Hinged Footed Domed Chrysanthemum Flowers Box 5 Chinese Vintage Hand Satin High-grade Snuff Bottle BoxOld China Rosewood Wood Inlay Shell Eight Treasures Art Picture Scroll Box BoxesChinese Vintage Tibet Silver Embossed Chinese Dragon Precious Tobacco BoxLovely Chinese Old Cloisonne Handmade Carved Tortoise Collect Statue Box FigureBone Hand-carved Bamboo Lid Plum Flower Jade Jewelry Box Antique Collection OldAsian Chinese Old No Plastic Handmade Carving Cat Collect Statue Box ArtAsian Chinese Old Copper Handmade Carving General Collect Statue Ink Box China Decorate Handwork cloisonne Carve Flower Delicate Women Purple Jewel Box Chinese Antique Hand Worked Bronze Old Cigarette Box Collection AqqChinese Antique Ancient Buddha Buddhist Color Relic Box Monk Crystal Tower #988 Ancient Chinese Old Jingdezhen Porcelain Handmade Inlay Copper Dragon Jewel Box Collectible Handwork Old Miao Silver Carve Dragon Phoenix Exorcism Toothpick BoxLovely Chinese Old Handmade Carved Cat Collect Statue Box Gift OrnamentBoxwood Highly Difficulty Carved Floding Box --- Avalokitesvara & Heart Sutra/11Chinese Antique Cinnabar Box **signed Reign MarkChinese Sterling Silver Enamel Box With Frog & Turtle MarkedChinese Old Bronze Cicada Ink Box Carve Words For Chinese Calligraphy FreeChinese Traditional Art Leather Painting Flowers Jewelry Box Collectible Antique Chines Famille Rose Porcelain Seal BoxCollectible Decoration Porcelain Paint Crane & Flower Longevity Tothpick BoxChina Collection Handwork Porcelain Paint Calssical Belle Auspicious Jewel BoxAsian Chinese Old No Plastic Handmade Painting Belle Collect Toothpick Box Tibet Silver Embossing The Ancient Philosophers Figure Rare Seal Box Old collect Old Handwork Carving Red Copper Dragon And Figure Snuff Or Jewelry Box GiftExquisite Vintage Antique Camel Bone Plum Trinket Jewelry Box Boxwood Highly Difficulty Carved Floding Box --- Kwan-yin & Zenzai Boy & MaidChinese High Relief Carved Wood Dragon Box China Burma India 1945 Wwii C.b.i.