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    

Antique Chinese 18th/19thc Large Doucai Famille Rose Box Landscape Qianlong MarkSuperb Antique 19thc Hand Carved Wooden Chinese Medicine? Lidded Box.c1850-90China Qing Lady’s Jewellery Box Make Up Toiletry Mirror Case Straits Nonya Yqz19c Chinese Carved & Gilded Lacquer Chanab Offering Box Stands On Buddhist LionsFine Qing Pair Chinese Silver Covered Boxes W Double Happiness Symbol & Marked 19th C. Big Carved Bone Wood Card Case Good 19th Century Chinese White Metal / Paktong? Opium BoxSuperb Large 33 Cm Antique Chinese C1880 Lacquer Sewing / Games / Jewellery BoxV-fine Collection Chinese Vintage Cloisonne Enamel Box And BowlChinese Sandalwood / Tanxiangmu Carved Card CaseSolid Sterling Silver Hallmarked Chinese Dragon Export Vesta Case & StrikerRare C1900 Chinese Carved Cinnabar Lacquer Lidded Box In Forest Green & OchreVery Rare Superb Chinese Faux Shell Canton Export Lacquer Fan - Qing 19th C.Large 19th C Chinese Red Cinnabar Lacquer Landscape Shaped Box And CoverUnusual & Impressive Chinese 19thc Blue And White Box, Porcelain AntiquesAntique Jeweled Chinese Export Silver Filigree Enamel Box Tea CaddyBig Vintage Chinese Red Cinnabar Swan / Goose Covered Dish - BoxRare And Beautiful Famille Rose Covered Box 4 Character Hall Mark 19th C PeriodOld Chinese Carved Huanghuali Wood Jewelry BoxChinese Paktong White Copper Brass Scholar Ink Box Mountain Scene MarkedSuperb Large 29 Cm Antique Chinese C1880 Lacquer Sewing / Games / Jewellery BoxChinese Box Wood Figures,cultural Revolution Period. Antique/vintage Chinese Copper Ink Box/tin - Character Marks To Base Vintage Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer Carved Dragon Box Red Brass Enamel (7454)Vietnamese Chinese Rosewood Mother Of Pearl Box .no Zitan .no Huanghuali. A Quality Signed Antique Chinese Peking Canton Enamel Box & Cover Nice DetailAntique Chinese Lacquerware Box & M.o.p. Gaming Counters 100+Chinese Famille Rose Porcelain Stack Box With Children Playing Figurine FigureCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Copper Carved Lotus Flower Duck Jewel BoxStunning Antique Chinese Lacquer Circular Box & Cover - 6 Character MarkAsia Collectible Decorated Old Handwork Wood Painted Dragon Jewel Box & DresserVintage Chinese Pewter Tea Caddy, Engraved, 19th Century?19th C. Chinese Famille-rose Covered BoxSuperb Vintage Collection Old Handmade Delicate Cattle Bone Jade Jewelry BoxSterling Silver Compact Vintage Chinese Floral Signed 89 GramsPurple Chinese Marked Porcelain Round Box & Cover - Raised Landscape Decor 19thc Cloisonne Enamel Box 4 5/8" X 3 1/4" Floral Design Pattern Turquoise Colored Nr vintage Collection Old Handmade Exquisite Excellent Packing Wood Box vintage Collection Old Handmade Wood Red Leather Dragon Phoenix Jewelry BoxFine Old Chinese Copper Enamel Box Double Phoenix Among Peony FlowersUnique Antique Chinese Well Cast Bronze Hand Warmer Artist Signed OldAntique Chinese Carved Jade Silver Butterfly/flower Enamel Jewelry Snuff Tin BoxOld Chinese Cloisonne Enamel Box With Domed Lid Antique Chinese Gilt Copper Box Decorated Enamel Jade CoralAntique Pair Chinese Cloisonne Enamel Lidded Boxes W Good Bright Colors & DetailCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Wood Painted Dragon Jewel Box & DresserChinese Republic Ink Block & Fitted Carved Wood Case BoxAsian Chinese Vintage Collection Cattle Bone Jade Tibet Silver Double Layer BoxVintage Collection Old Handmade Exquisite Decoration Lacquer CartridgesSuperb Vintage Collection Old Handmade Red Dragon Phoenix Leather Box Collectibles Old Tibet Silver Handwork Decoration Noble Rose Flower Jewelry BoxCollection Handwork Porcelain Paint Classical Belle Auspicious Elegant Jewel BoxAntique Chinese Red Lacquer Cinnabar Carved Jade Box And CoverQing Tobacciana Southern China Brass Wood Humidor Cigar Box Jade Coin Design YqzAsian Chinese Vintage Collection Old Cloisonne Flower Jewelry BoxChina Collectible Decorate Handwork Old Miao Silver Carve Dragon Phoenix BoxAsian Chinese Vintage Collection Old Longfeng Leather Box + Abacus Asian Chinese Vintage Collection Delicate Porcelain Jewellery Box MirrorChinese Pewter Porcelain Top Box Cherry Blossom FloralAsian Chinese Old Copper Jade Hand Carved Lion Buddha Ashtray Collection