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    

Oriental Chinese Antique Silver Gilt Cloisonne Box With Carved Jade TopStunning Chinese Solid Silver Gilt, Cloisonne Enamel & Jade Box C.1940Rareantique 19th C Chinese Deeply Carved Canton Wooden BoxTea Set China Export Solid Silver, Luen Hing Chrysanthemums Relief 917 GrChinese Carved Card CaseAntique Chinese Cantonese Micro Carved Pendants Pair BoxedSuper Quality Antique Silver Dragon & Phoenix BoxChinese Export Silver Ladle Serving Spoon C1890 Luen WoAntique Chinese Cantonese Carved Puzzle Box & Crucifix2 Frame Bamboo Decor Relief China Export Solid Silver Mz. Tuck Chang Lovely Antique Chinese/japanese Ornate White Metal On Copper Tea Caddy/boxVintage Oriental Black Lacquered Jewellery Box / Chest Of DrawersChinese Qianlong Canton Enamel On Copper Dragon BoxBox Chinese Export Silver Solid Silver Box With Dragon Relief 116 GrRare C1940s Chinese / Japanese Vintage Gold & Sterling Silver Pill Trinket / PotAntique Victorian Chinese Canton Bovine Bone Dressing Table Box.Stunning Antique Chinese 19th C Solid Silver Box Decorated With Birds & FlowersShell In Lotus Shape China Export Solid Silver Wn For Wing Nam Company Hong KongAntique Chinese Blue & White Miniature Porcelain Box & Cover Wanli Ming (no:2)19th Century Large Chinese Canton Card Case BoxA Rare Antique Chinese Blue & White Ming Style Qianlong Lotus Scroll Paste Box19th Century Chinese Smoking Tray Huanghuali Wood Cloisonne Lamp Brass Foo DogsChinese Insects Box At The Bottom A Hole Case Export Solid Silver Dragon Decor Superb 19thc Chinese Qing Carved Red Black Cinnabar Lacquer Figural Desk BoxAntique Victorian Chinese Canton Bovine Bone Lidded Pot Flower Design.Antique Chinese Enamel Box Flowers And AnimalsOld Chinese Pewter, Jade, Carnelian, Agate Box ...................... No ReserveSix Cups With Floral Chise China Export Solid Silver, Flower6 Chinese Foot Cup Export Solid Silver,with Stamps Antique Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer Covered Box Qing 19thc 11x15x2.5" QualityAntique Signed Chinese Blue Hinged Cloisonne Floral Trinket Box Enamel/brassFine Antique Chinese Lacquer Papier Mache Pen Box 1880Medieval Hoi An Hoard Shipwreck Salvaged Octagonal Scene Box -1450 Ad19th.c Chinese Carved Wooden Jewelry Box With Brass FittingsSuperb Early 19th Century Chinese Cloisonne Enameled Snuff BoxVintage Chinese 3 Lacquered Cinnabar Boxes 1 Larger 2 Matching SmallerLarge Hardwood Oriental Carved BoxV.fine Signed Chinese Cinnabar & Tea Green Lacquer Imperial Boy Riding Qilin BoxBeautiful! 19c Chinese Porcelain Lidded Box Butterfly Flower Marked AntiqueAntique Chinese Porcelain Cantonese Box & Cover Circa 1850s Damaged RepairedLarge Chinese Cloisonne Enamel White Jade Bi Disc Inlaid Covered Bronze Box JarChinese Box Case Export Solid Silver Flower Relief Antique Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer Box Two Color Red Black 19th Century Carved OldAntique Victorian Chinese Canton Bovine Bone Plaque.Fine Medieval Hoi An Hoard Shipwreck Salvaged Round Enamel Box -1450 AdAntique Meiji Chinese Carved Foo Dogs Rosewood BoxBox Powder Box Export Silver Solid Silver 950 Vietnam Relief Japanese Porcelain Figural Covered Box Samurai MeijiOld Handpainted Asain Porcelain Round Box With Lid And Lovely LadyFirst-class Collection Of Antique Old Wood Red Dragon And Phoenix Leather Box Antique Chinese Famille Rose Porcelain Pen Or Brush Box.Antique Chinese Export Painted Lacquer Cigarettes Cigars Case Box Signed C1920Nice Asian Chinese Jingdezhen Porcelain Armored Copper Dragon Statue Box Lovely Quality! 19th C. Chinese Porcelain Cricket Box Figures Landscape QingIncredible Vintage Chinese Oriental Painted Floral Butterfly Tea Caddy BoxCollectible China Handwork Tibet Silver Carving People Pick Apple Box Fine Antique 19th C Carved Chinese Sandalwood Box Figure Of Monks, Leaves, TreesAntique Embossed Chinese Dragon Decoration Copper Metal Large Box Fully Marked Antique Carved Lacquer Chinese White Cinnabar Box Greek Key Floral SignedVtg Chinese Export Four Tiered Stacking Cloisonne Food Jewelry Round Box Nr Grm