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Special Exhibitions at The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Red and Black (Chinese Lacquer, 13th–16th Century) September 7, 2011–June 10, 2012
Lacquer, made from the resin of a family of trees (Rhus verniciflua) native to East Asia, is an amazing material. When tapped from the tree, it is white or light gray and has a consistency similar to that of molasses. When exposed to oxygen and humidity, lacquer polymerizes, or hardens, into a natural plastic that is resistant to water, certain acids, and heat, rendering it an ideal protective covering for objects made of wood and, occasionally, metal.
Produced largely in the south, lacquer has been used in China since at least the sixth century B.C. on serving vessels, boxes, and other containers. When mixed with pigments, particularly red (cinnabar) and black (carbon), lacquer is also used for painting. Historical records indicate that Chinese lacquer was imported into the area near present-day Samarkand as early as the twelfth century, and it is documented in Japanese collections as early as the fourteenth. Lacquers served as diplomatic gifts and luxurious trade goods, and they have been an integral part of the Japanese tea ceremony for centuries.