The earliest lacquer ware in China is in fact a wooden bowl produced about 7,000 years ago, which was unearthed from ruins of the Hemudu culture in Zhejiang Province. Bits of red paint on the inside bowl are seen, which was identified as a kind of raw lacquer.
From ruins of the Liangzhu culture that existed 3,000 years ago in the same province, archeologists found a lacquered cup inlaid with jade pieces, suggesting that people living at the time were already acquainted with combined use of lacquering and jade carving to produce art works. In other words, lacquer works of the Liangzhu culture were no longer purely for practical use.
While items covered with lacquer found in China date to the Neolithic period, lacquer ware with elaborate decoration requiring labor-intensive manufacturing processes made its first appearance during the Warring States period.
Lacquer as an art form developed in China along two distinct paths—pictorial (or surface) decoration and carving of the lacquer. Rarely are the two techniques used in combination. In early times, surface decoration took the form of painting or inlay. The earliest lacquered objects were colored black or red with the addition of charcoal or cinnabar to the refined sap.
Because lacquer is such a volatile substance, only a few additional coloring agents will combine with it. During the Han period, incised decoration was also used. Several techniques gradually evolved after the tenth century: engraved gold (qiangjin), filled-in (diaotian or tianqi), and carved lacquer (diaoqi). The art of inlaying lacquer with mother-of-pearl was intensively developed during the Song period. In the sixteenth century, after a lapse of about a thousand years, the painting of lacquer was revived, but it was seldom employed on carved lacquer.