Lacquer Thread Sculpture
LACQUER thread sculpture is a traditional folk handicraft of Fujian Province. It is especially popular in Xiamen and Quanzhou of this southeast coastal province.
The delicate and demanding craft derived from decorations on Buddhist statues and evolved into an independent art form some 300 years ago. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the prevalence of Buddhism stimulated the craftsmanship for religious statues, which were lavishly decorated with colorful painting of varied kinds. During the Song (960-1279) and the Yuan dynasties (1279-1368), sculptors began to use lacquer threads to outline patterns on the clothing and headwear of the figures they created, giving their works a tri-dimensional aspect. The technique was also widely applied to the modeling of native gods 芒鈧€?Mazu and Baosheng Dadi, the divine doctor. Both are found in shrines all over Fujian.
It was not until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that lacquer thread sculpture came into its heyday. The making required months of hard work, and up-scale products were often coated with pure gold. These artworks were especially valuable and so were well-received among the upper class as symbols of wealth and high social status. Lacquer thread sculpting thrived in Fujian and soon made its way to the rest of the country. The Fujian people"s merchant tradition and tendency to seek their fortunes abroad also helped to spread the craft"s popularity beyond China.
Making a lacquer thread sculpture involves two major procedures 芒鈧€?carving the figurine and then decorating it with lacquer threads. Most craftsmen are skillful in only one of them, so have to team up with others. However, the Cai family in Xiamen is proficient in the entire process and has produced a number of masters in the field.
The Cai family has been dedicated to this for 13 generations and is recognized for its leadership in the craft. The family brought the skill to new heights in each respective age. Cai Wenpei, Cai Shuikuang and Cai Shidong were the most prominent of the 11th, 12th and 13th generation of heirs. In Xiamen, a museum established by the Cais showcases the history, production process and classic artworks of lacquer thread sculpture.
Fujian is rich in camphorwood, a lustrous wood of even texture and a prime material for carving. The carved body is polished several times since lacquer threads must be attached on a very clean surface. Artisans first apply a mixture of fine soil and gelatin over its surface to fill in any small cracks in the wood. Second, they wrap the figure in cotton or silk and lacquer it. This protects the wood from rot and deformation. The cloth used must be cut into strips so that uneven surfaces can be closely sealed. The silt and gelatin mixture is applied again before the body is finally finished with sand paper. The smoother the surface is, the brighter the lacquer decorations will be.
The next step is to make the lacquer threads. Raw materials include brick powder, lacquer and tung oil. The Cais always use old bricks that have become brittle and loose from hundreds of years of erosion. After soaking them in water for several days, the bricks are ground into fine powder. Mixed with the sap of lacquer trees and boiled tung oil, an adhesive and elastic dough forms, and is then rolled into threads. The length and thickness of a thread depends on a craftsman"s style. The most delicate is as thin as a hair.
The artisan then picks up a piece of thread and twines it on a chopstick. With a chopstick on one hand and a small brush pen on the other, the artisan carefully uncoils the lacquer thread to the desired location on the figure, pressing and adjusting it gently with the brush pen in the process. A sharp bamboo blade on the other side of the pen is used to cut the thread. The lacquer thread seems to have magic power in an artisan"s hands and slowly transforms into a dragon, phoenix, or peony on the figurine"s garments.
Now comes the color and gold foil. Craftsmen use bright colors like red, yellow and green to block in the spaces circled by lacquer threads. Almost all lacquer thread sculptures are finally finessed with an application of gold foil, a centuries-old tradition rooted in Buddhist sculpture. Tung oil is applied to the lacquer threads first and pure gold foils are adhered to them. The final works are dazzling and gorgeous.
Each sculpture is a genuine handmade artwork, and integrates the techniques of sculpting, painting and embroidery. In recent decades, artists have gone beyond the habitual restriction to religious subjects. The Cai family has always been innovative; they not only created a variety of sculptures based on history and folklore, but also crafted elegant vases, wall hangings and plates, to name a few more adventurous applications of the art.
Cai Shuikuang is known for his feat of introducing the technique of bodiless (hollow) lacquerware into lacquer thread sculpture. Born in 1939, he learnt the basic craft from his father then went on to ardently explore ways to better it. He makes the inner body with clay or wood and then pastes several layers of silk or linen on it with lacquer. After the mould is dry, Cai removes the solid inner body, leaving the shaped silk or linen husk as a base for a lacquer thread sculpture. These creations are much lighter, but just as solid as those made with conventional methods.
Working together with his son Cai Shidong, 13th generation heir of the family business, Cai Shuikuang has made a line of lifelike sculptures that have received high praise at home and abroad. Works by the father and son have won UNESCO"s Award of Excellence for Handicrafts.