A quick look at some beautiful antique shanxi painted furniture in unrestored form

During a recent buying excursion, I stumbled across these beautiful lacquered / painted armoires, from Shanxi province in Northern China.  While not nearly as prized by Chinese buyers, who often prefer hardwoods like Hua li or Hong mu, the status of Shanxi painted furniture has nevertheless risen significantly over the years for its beauty and stunning colors and is a favorite of the noted Chinese collector Co La Ma.

Patina on Shanxi painted furniture

Particularly interesting, is this close-up section of a door panel. Notice the change in color and patina which has occurred over the years? Once covered by a brass plate which was removed/lost within the last twenty or thirty years, (possibly during the great leap forward), the left side (where the colors are beautiful and subtle) has survived the years, protected by the brass or iron plate that would have originally been there. The colors on the right are faded and muted by comparison. The effect of daily life, pollution, coal dust and years of rough handling and exposure to the elements is clearly visible.

And yet, it remains beautiful. Known as “Bu Wen Qi” or “Da Qi,” the process used in this style of Chinese lacquering is both complex and unique. The first step would have involved covering the raw wood construction with a base layer of hemp, horsehair, straw or other fabric depending on the period in which it was made.  This allows for the wood frame construction to shift to some degree without damaging the rigid upper layer of hardened lacquer.  On older pieces this sometimes still visible in damaged areas and can be a good indicator of age.

The second step is the application of an even layer of gesso known as “ni zi, ” consisting of plaster mixed with pigs blood (which must be applied within a set period of time lest it spoil). This provides the base material and smooths any impurities or flaws in the wood, straw or fabric below. The third step is multiple coats of natural resin based lacquer, with vibrant red or “ink black” being the two most commonly used colors. Each coat of lacquer must be dried, and carefully wet sanded by hand with a very fine abrasive paper before receiving the next coat. The process is then repeated several times with even the most common pieces receiving at least five to seven coats, until the surface becomes smooth, glassy and mirror like. Finally in the forth step, an artist carefully hand paints motifs ranging from flowers and vases to city scenes to people.

Restoration of such pieces requires a extremely skilled craftsman in order to avoid further damage to the piece and to restore it to its former beauty.

Related Books & Reading

Lacquer: An International History and Illustrated SurveyLacquer: An International History and Illustrated SurveyExamines the development of the artistic use of lacquer finishes on furniture, boxes, bowls, musical instruments, and other items
Russian Lacquer, Legends and Fairy Tales Volumes 1 & 2Russian Lacquer, Legends and Fairy Tales Volumes 1 & 2Written by Lucy Maxym, an authority on Russian Lacquer, the books contain a conprehensive discussion of the techniques of the art as well as a history... Read More >

4 Comment

  1. Justin Liu says:

    Really nice blog. I’m glad I subscribed. How would you go about restoring something in this condition? Would you use a solvent to soften the lacquer and flatten it into place? Otherwise how do you get ride of the rolling and cracking in the front panel.

  2. Roger says:

    The rolling and cracking in the lacquer occurs naturally over many years and can’t really be repaired. Actually it’s pretty hard to replicate so generally these are left “as is” as they are a good indicator of age. There are some workshops who can do it (generally in the south of china) but its difficult and even then, there is quite a difference between the fakes and the naturally occurring ones. Plus there are many connoisseurs of this type of cracking – its actually quite pretty. But the rest of the piece still must be carefully restored. The joinery and frame must be tightened, smaller damaged areas repaired, the missing hardware replaced and the finish very, very, very carefully cleaned using water and a very fine sandpaper.

  3. […] the antiques world with James from UK based Shimu Chinese Furniture (who by the way also a fan of Shanxi painted furniture and has a very nicely developing blog on Chinese antiques here worth a look).  Of course the […]

  4. […] were two vast warehouses specialising in the beautiful painted furniture of Shanxi province (see Roger Schwendemann’s blog for a very good article on these pieces), and it is quite possible that the cabinet shown here […]

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