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    

Chinese Carved Card Case Rare Chinese Canton Export Lacquer Fan Brise - Qing 19th C.Stunning Antique Chinese Carved Card CaseChinese Box Case, Export Solid Silver,with Export Stamps Bamboo Decor Superb 19th Century Chinese Fine Carved & Shaped Sandalwood Card Case.Large Antique Chinese Paktong? Scholar's Ink Box W/ A River Landscape & Poem.Antique Chinese Bronze Puzzle Box Circa 1800sExquisite 19th Century Chinese Carved Tortoise Shell Card Case BoxAntique Chinese Song Dynasty Qingpai Qingbai Box With Flower Floral DesignTwo Of Chinese Antique Porcelain Scholars Ink Boxes Artist SignedG102: Chinese Tsuishu Lacquer Ware Inkstone Case With Appropriate Good WorkAntique Chinese Song Dynasty Qingpai Qingbai Celadon Box With Flower MotifAntique 19thc Qing Chinese Export Canton Gold Lacquer Jewellery / Trinket BoxMid 19th Century Chinese Cantonese Fine Carved Mother Of Pearl Card Case.Chinese Paktong White Copper Brass Calligraphy Writing Scholar Ink Box MarkedJade Swan Box - Bird Container, Well Hollowed - ChineseVietnamese Chinese Mother Of Pearl Rosewood Box. No Zitan. No HuanghualiAntique Chinese Cinnabar Red Lacquer Box With Salvage Bracelet And Earings PartsAntique C1890 Chinese Nicely Carved Wood Box In Very Good Condition, With KeyFine Chinese Box Wanli Mark BoxRare Large Chinese Antique 19thc Cow Bone Inlaid Wooden Work Box - Teak ?Antique Chinese Square Tea Or Ginger Jar Famille Rose Qianlong Mark - No Reserve19th C. Chinese Dovetail Hardwood Box And Two Lacquered Paste BoxesChinese Rare C.1910 Antique 4 Signed Solid Silver Filligree Big Box No ReserveNice Chinese Deeply Carved Sandalwood Square Antique Box19th Century Chinese Canton Carved High Relief Case BoxAntique Chinese Enamel Koi Box With Wood LinerVintage Wood Brass & Jade Chinese Jewellery BoxAntique 19th Century Chinese Genuine Zitan Wood Jewelry Vanity Box Inlaid Antique Japanese Chinese Bronze Cloisonne Enamel Box Zitan Rosewood ShouCinnabar Lacquer Bronze Container - Lidded Chinese BoxAntique 19c Chinese Enameled Copper Box Fine Hand Carved Relief Lady DeityFine Old Chinese Yellow Cloisonne Floral Decorated Tea Caddy Lidded JarCollectible Chinese Exquisite Workmanship Palisander Storage Box W DragonsOld Chinese Export Carved Green Jade Brass Wood Jewelry Ring Trinket Wooden BoxA Fine Chinese Antique Biscuit Porcelain Box - MarkedFine Chinese Bowl Chenghua Mark BoxVintage Chinese Carved Lacquer Cinnabar Swan BoxAntique Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer BoxAntique Carved Chinese Cinnabar Match Box HolderChinese Cinnabar Lacquer Carved Red & Black - Swan/goose Box - 12 1/2"China Old Handwork 1 Set Solders Shape Chess With Box Paint Dragon Phoenix Bx57lAntique Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer BoxVintage Dragon Design BoxChina Collectible Old Handwork Painting Dragon Blue And White Porcelain BoxVintage Chinese Enamel Trinket Box/jewelry Box , Butterfly Shape Box.Fine Old Chinese Red Brick Cloisonne Floral Decorated Lidded Box Tea Caddy19th-20th C. Chinese Four Stacking Famille-rose Covered BoxesAntique Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer Box, Carved Figures In LandscapePair Vintage Chinese Enamel Trinket Box/jewelry Box ,cigar Box Enamel Box.Ingenious Chinese Hardwood Skillfully Carving Wooden Box -dragon PhoenixOld China Handwork Superb Copper Incense Box Armored God Turquoise Beads Bx45r21China Old Handwork Wood 1 Set Jewelry Box Paint Phoenix Fu Bx58m12 Superb Vintage Collectible Cattle Bone Hand-painted Pots Toothpick BoxDecorated Boxwood Highly Difficulty Carved Floding Box --- Western TrinityAsian Superb Collectible Old Handmade Red Dragon Phoenix Leather Box + CompassAntique Chinese Carved Hardstone Lidded Box C1900A Vintage Stunning Chinese Dragon Heavy Metal BoxJade Paste Box - White & Green - Chinese Ink ContainerBeautiful Chinese Silver Copper Handmade Horse Drawn Vehicle Jewelry Box