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655. Shizi

China, Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), 15th century
Ø: 20.5 cm

Provenance: Private Collection, UK
Spink & Son Ltd, London (label)

A red lacquered round dish, carved all over, on a circular foot. The five-lobed central panel, has a scene of a Buddhist Lion frolicking amongst beribboned Treasures. The background is filled with a diaper pattern, each lozenge filled with a flower shape. The rim has the same background and more auspicious antiquities.The underside of the rim is carved with a xiangcao (fragrant grass) scroll. The base is coated with a black lacquer, with irregular cracks. It is possible that this dish was made for the Japanese market, where carved lacquer objects were highly prized as part of the equipment for the tea ceremony.

The Buddhist Lion (shizhi) is considered an auspicious animal in China. As a motif, they gradually made an interesting metamorphosis, from scary guardians to being portrayed as amusing and playful creatures. The Hundred Treasures (baibao), is a decorative motif actually meaning many treasures. The pattern usually comprises a number items from all or some of the following: Seven treasures of Buddhism, Eight Precious Things, Eight symbols of Daoist Immortals, Four Treasures of the Scholar, archaic bronzes, musical instruments, plants, fruits and flowers. As a pattern it has no real significance, although the individual items can have a meaning. On this dish objects include a scroll (culture), a coin (wealth), lozenges and rhino horn (victory).

Lacquer is produced from the resin of a lac tree (rhus verniciflua), commonly found in central and southern China. This amazing material, hardens when exposed to oxygen and becomes a natural plastic, that is resistant to water and can withstand heat and certain acids. It is naturally clear, but pigments give it the desired colour. The typical red lacquer was made using cinnabar, a mineral that appears near volcanoes or hot springs. Rich in mercury it produces the deep red tint. The production of a lacquered object, is a fascinating and time consuming process. In the case of carved lacquer, multiple layers (often thirty or thirty-five, but can be up to two hundred) are applied onto a wooden substructure. Each layer would have to dry before a new one was applied, resulting in a process which could take almost half a year to prepare – some larger pieces could take years.

A comparable dishes of the same shape and period, but with varying decoration, are in the Baoyizhai Collection of Chinese Lacquer, Hong Kong and The Mike healy Collection, Honolulu. The Avery Brundage Collection, San Francisco also has an earlier comparable dish (nr. B69M1).

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