Bagan’s Legendary Lacquerware

Bagan in central Burma is not only famous for its more than 2,000 ancient temples and pagodas but also for its legendary lacquerware, which is one of Bagan’s main sources of income. For extraordinary beautiful lacquerware of highest quality both old and new, Bagan is the place to buy it because here is where it is produced in a complicated and time-consuming process that requires a very high standard of craftsmanship and artistic skills both of which are handed down from generation to generation in the many lacquerware family businesses in Bagan.

The history of lacquerware can be backtracked to the ‘Shang Dynasty’ who ruled a kingdom centred in the Huang He (Yellow River) valley in China from about 1570 B.C. to about 1045 B.C. They developed the first lacquer and the earliest examples of lacquerware are archaeological fragments from the time the ‘Shang Dynasty’ ruled China from where this art came to Burma.

Lacquer work is the process of applying a varnish to the surfaces of a material as both a decorative and protective device. Lacquer is a mixture of resins (natural and synthetic), a cellulose derivative and other materials. After the lacquer – a fast drying liquid applied to surfaces of objects to provide a stiffening, decorative and protective coating – is applied to a surface the solvents evaporate and the cellulose and resins dry and undergo a chemical reaction that leaves a hard yet flexible coating. Lacquer’s two most notable characteristics are that it creates a surface impervious to high temperatures and moisture and that it blends readily with colour pigments and/or other embellishments.

Since having reached Burma, present-day Myanmar, at some time in the 1st century A.D. through the ‘Nan-Chao Empire’, nowadays Yunnan, it has developed here into an art of refined quality and belongs to the genre of Burma traditional arts and crafts. The Burmese term for lacquerware is ‘Yung Hte’, meaning ‘The Wares of Yunnan’. Pagan/Bagan – where the art of making lacquerware is believed to have been carried to during King Anawrahta’s (1044 to 1077) conquest of Thaton in 1057 – and Prome/Pyay are today’s centres of Myanmar’s lacquerware industry. Other cities with lacquerware tradition are Mandalay, Kyauk Ka and Kyaing Tong.

The different types of Burma’s/Myanmar’s lacquerware are:

a) Kyauk Ka Ware, (plain lacquer ware), b) Yun Ware (incised lacquer ware), c) Shwe Zawa Ware (gild lacquer ware), d) Tha-Yo (relief moulded lacquer ware), e) Hmansi Ware (mosaic and guild lacquer ware), f) Man, Man Paya or Hnee Paya (dry lacquer ware).

The lacquer ware produced in times past was predominantly of extraordinarily fine quality and only one technique was applied: the dry lacquer technique. For instance, lacquerware bowls were produced around bamboo wickerwork and plaited horse hair, often even only horse hair, which to plait into long and thin strings takes lots of patients and time. The result was a degree of flexibility that allowed the pressing together of the bowl’s rim without the lacquer’s peeling off or the bowl’s breaking; such a superior quality does of course wear quite a hefty price tack. Nowadays there are two other techniques of production that prevail. Inferior lacquer ware articles have a wooden base superior articles have usually a core of bamboo wickerwork only, assuming higher durability and elasticity.

a) Kyauk Ka Ware

‘Kyauk Ka lacquerware’ comprises mainly utilitarian goods employed in the household such as trays, cups, flower vases, goblets, and betel boxes. This type of rather simple lacquer ware is black on the outside and red on the inside. No work of artistic value is needed and employed to produce this ware. Its name, Kyauk Ka, it has from the village it is originated. Kyauk Ka ware is sold at very reasonable prices.

b) Yun Ware

‘Yun lacquer ware’ articles are produced mainly for decorative and votive purposes and are objects such as furniture (for example, tables, sideboards, chairs), bowls, flower vases, wall decorations, paravents, jewel boxes, relic caskets, napkin rings, quality chopsticks and bangles. Yun ware objects are highly decorative and the artfully incised areas in the black surface depicting intricate designs of floral ornaments, animal and human figures are filled with red, orange, yellow, blue, green and white.

c) Shwezawa Ware

‘Shwezawa’ or ‘Guild lacquer ware’ comprises basically any kind of article that is meant to be highly decorative and exclusive in appearance. To the artfully with a stylus incised parts of the respective object are gold foils applied after the area in question is coated with lacquer. Because of the use of gold foil and the high degree of artistic work required to produce Shwezawa ware these articles are comparatively expensive.

d) Tha-Yo

‘Tha-Yo’ is relief moulded lacquer ware and any kind of object can be embellished with Tha-Yo. From small boxes and caskets to furniture. As the name implies, ash of animal bones (tha-yo) is mixed with paddy husk, saw dust and/or even cow dunk and lacquer and pugged into a smooth and pliable plaster, which is then rolled into strings of varying thickness These strings of plaster are then used to create reliefs by applying them to the lacquered surface of the relevant object that is to be decorated and forming them into the design chosen with a stylus. Upon completion of the relief that is now sticking firmly to the surface it is dried and coated with several layers of lacquer. In the final stage the reliefs are gilded or coloured what gives the relief design the appearance of being carved out of the material the object is made of or moulded in one piece with the article it embellishes.

e) Hmansi Ware

‘Hmansi lacquerware’ is actually a combination of ‘Shwezawa’ and ‘Tha-Yo’ complemented by glass, mirror, marble and/or mother-of-pearl mosaics. This kind of lacquer ware is used predominantly for articles that serve decorative and votive purposes and for the embellishment of furniture. It is not appropriate for utilitarian goods as reliefs, on the one hand, are of high decorative value but do, on the other hand, limit the employment of the objects for more practical use. Into the lacquered and tha-yo embellished surface of the object variably sized pieces of differently coloured glass, mirror marble and/or mother-of-pearl are lied using as adhesive a special lacquer. In the next stage gold foil is applied to the entire surface and afterwards removed from the materials used for the mosaic surfaces by simply washing it away with water. However, to the lacquered parts of the surface the gold foil remains stuck. Since both material and artistic craftsmanship employed are expensive and the finished products are of highly decorative value, Hmansi lacquerware pieces are quite costly.

f) Man Paya

This term refers to ‘Dry lacquerware’ and is used in Burma/Myanmar for this kind of (Man Paya) lacquerware because votive articles for pagodas – mainly Buddha images – are dry lacquerware. The name has little to do with the technique in which the article is produced but as said is derived from these articles votive purpose. To apply lacquer to a surface of wood, wickerwork, etc. is called ‘Man’ and ‘Paya’ means pagoda. Subsequently ‘Man Paya’ is lacquer wickerwork for a pagoda. Since the framework of Buddha statues, which is made of bamboo wickerwork – is called ‘Hnee’, this kind of lacquerware is also called ‘Hnee Paya’. But, as stated previously, the proper name is dry lacquerware. To make dry lacquerware is a months-long process – involving twelve or more stages of production – that requires high-quality materials, cool, airy and dust free drying chambers as well as a high standard of artistic craftsmanship. The end result is an extraordinarily fine, high-quality lacquerware product.

The entire production process as outlined in the following starts with the collection of lacquer. True lacquer is made from the purified and dehydrated sap of ‘Rhus vernicifera’, a species of sumac tree found in Southeast Asia. This is the material in which traditional lacquer work is usually done in Asian countries. Shellac, traditionally used in European and American lacquer work and ware is produced from the secretion of the scale insect ‘Laccifer lacca’.

In the first step, raw lacquer is in exactly the same way in which latex is tapped from rubber trees taken from the ‘Thitsi’ tree (Melanorrhoea usitatissima) a tree that is growing wild as well as in manmade plantations (cultivated) in the Shan state. The sticky, grey-coloured extract turns hard and black when getting in contact with oxygen (air).

Next, light bamboo wickerwork combined with horse hair or wickerwork exclusively of horse hair is made. The latter being of highest quality and most expensive, whereas the former is of lower quality (because of the cheaper and less good as well as much easier to handle material) and, subsequently, available at lower prices.

Upon completion, the core material/basic article is properly coated with a layer of a concoction of lacquer and clay. The object is then stored in an airy, dry and dust free drying chamber for three to four days to gradually dry and harden.

In the following production stage the object is coated with a mixture of Thitsi lacquer and ash. Other supporting materials are e.g. paddy-husk, teak wood saw dust or cow dung. The fineness of these supporting materials determines the quality standard of the final product as far as the material part is concerned. The object’s surface is polished smooth after being dry and the process of coating and polishing is repeated several times until even the slightest irregularity is eliminated.

Now the article is black on its outside and inside and the decision on whether it will be embellished by way of engraving, gilding, painting, applying reliefs, mosaics or a combination of two or more of the different forms of decoration is made.

Cheaper but nevertheless very beautiful articles are artfully painted. The value and attractiveness and, subsequently, the price of lacquerware increases with the materials used as well as number of techniques applied and the degree of artistic craftsmanship in which these are executed.

More expensive articles are engraved, painted and polished – the colours usually used being gold, yellow, red, blue and green – or embellished with gilded or coloured reliefs, painted and particularly polished. Some do additionally have inlays of pieces of mirror, glass of different colours, marble and mother-of-pearl.

The production of multi-technique and multi-colour dry lacquerware articles takes between six and twelve months, occasionally even longer. The art and craft of lacquerware making is predominantly hereditary, i.e. is handed down from generation to generation. It is a family and home business even when done on a larger scale in so-called lacquerware factories. But there are also special centres such as the ‘Institute of lacquer ware making’ in Bagan. Here the knowledge and skills required for the art of making lacquerware are conveyed to new generations who will perpetuate this wonderful art and craft.