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    

19th C. Chinese Stacking Hardwood Lunch Box, Probably Huanghuali Antique Chinese Cantonese Fine Carved Wood Jewellery Box .Antique Chinese Lacquer On Wood Tea Caddy Hand Gold Gilt Box C1870 CantoneseVery Fine 19th Century Chinese Carved Cow Bone Puzzle Box.Superb 19c Chinese Export Silver Card Case Cigarette Box W Bamboo, Birds Signed Exquisite 19th Century Chinese Export Silver Enamel Box Creatures Flowers Signed19th Century Chinese Carved Cinnabar Lacquer Guri Paste Box & Lid Red & BlackHand Carved Dragon Antique Chinese Cigar Humidor W/ Burnisde Family CrestLge 5" 19c Chinese Carved Cinnabar Lacquer Box In A Good Deep Red Color & Patina18th/19th C Antique Chinese Carved Wood Covered Scholar's Box Possibly Zitan18th / 19th Century Chinese Blue And White Lobed Box & Cover19th C Antique Chinese Rosewood Document Box W Mop Pearl & Brass InlayChinese Porcelain Blue & White Cosmetic Box 19th Century Chinese Canton Famille Rose Round Decorated Box And LidStunning Large Size 19th Century Chinese Export Silver Box - Three DragonsAntique 19th Cent Victorian Carved Cow Faux Bone Silver Thimble Box Holder AcornAntique Chinese C19th Sarcophagus Sewing Box - Lacquer And Gilt ((complete))Antique Chinese Red Lacquer Gilt Leather Storage Travel Trunk Coffee Table Box 1Pair 20th C. Chinese Doucai Enamel Boxes With Loop Handles And Dragons, Marked19th C. Chinese Bamboo Framed And Woven Food Carrier Or Picknic BasketAntique 19thc Chinese Hand Carved Bamboo Wood Box W/ Lid, CaddyGenuine Old Cinnabar Lacquer Carved Lidded Scholar Box - 19th CenturyChinese Canton Carved Card Case, 19th Century B425: Popular Chinese Tsuishu Lacquer Ware Accessory Case With Good WorkRare Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer Seal Paste Or Incense Box & Cover, Ming Period A/f19th Rare Fine Chinese Export Silver Cigarette Case Repousse Dragon Marked19th C. Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer Covered BoxPerfect Blue & White Chinese Porcelain Kangxi Style Box, 19th Century, DragonFine Collectable Old Bone Hand Painting Flower Ornament Decorative Snuff BoxB424: Chinese Wooden Ware Accessory Case With Tray Made From Popular KarakiVery Rare Chinese Qing Dynasty Rosewood Jewellery Box Casket Ta185kAntique Chinese Wood/lacquer BoxAntique Chinese Red Lacquer Gilt Leather Storage Travel Suit Case Form Box 4Rare Collectable Old Sandalwood Hand Carved Dragon Ornament Buddha Incense BoxAntique Chinese Brass Copper Scholars Ink Stone Box Signed Writing + SealStunning 19th Century Chinese Export Silver Box By Cumshing Collectable Bamboo Handwork Carved Ornament Usable Toothpick Box / Tea Caddy19th-20th C. Chinese CloisonnA Chinese Qing 19th Century Export Black And Gold Lacquer Box And CoverFine Collectable Old Bone Handwork Carved Ornament Decorative Statue Snuff BoxGreat 19th C Chinese Porcelain Famille Rose Box + A GiftFaux Ivory Chinese Carved Plate Tray Signed19th Century,original,chinese Faux Ivory Vanity Box.monogrammed BoxVery Old-chinese Cinnabar Carved Box-dragon MotivChina Old Handwork Wood Usable Compass With Box Painted Dragon Phoenix Bx42d0819th Century Chinese Bronze Box. NrCollectibles Old Decorated Handwork Miao Silver Carving Jewelry Box19th-20th C. Pair Chinese Famille-rose Seal Paste BoxesExquisite Ancient China Carved Oxhorn(butterfly)cricket Cage Boxes-nice CollectFine Chinese Collectable Old Bone Handwork Carved Ornament Decorative Cage BoxPerfect Chinese Porcelain Famille Rose Butterfly Peach Box, 19th Century  Antique Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer Box Qing 5x7x2.5" Super Condition Well CarvedChina Handwork Old Copper Snuff Tobacco Box Armored Dragon Kirin Phoenix Bx43e05Fine Chinese Collectable Old Bone Hand Carved Turtle Ornament Statue Snuff BoxAsian Collection Of Old Wooden Powder Box, Classic Jewelry Box.Vintage Chinese Japanese Enamel Porcelain Covered Box Tea Caddy 3 Antique Chinese Ling Dai Mi Ware Foochow Lacquer Dragon Chasing Pearl VasesAntique Chinese Porcelain Box BowlPapier Mache Lacquered Chinese Box & 30 Mother Of Pearl Gaming Counters,tokensOld Handwork Copper Tibet Buddhist Scriptures Box Inlay God Turquoise Ot42c36