Bodiless lacquer ware created by Shen Shaoan

During the      Qianlong regime in the Qing Dynasty, there was an ordinary lacquerer named Shen Shaoan running a shop by the Shuangpao Bridge. He was engaged mainly in lacquer painting but also in making small commodities like lacquer ware, lacquer bowl, memorial wood tablet, etc. As his business was slack, Shen Shaoan often went to those imposing dwellings and spacious courtyards of officials and officers or Taoist temples and Buddhist temples to do lacquer painting work. Once when he was working in an ancient temple, he found the wood of the horizontal inscribed board of the temple at the entrance had already rotten but the body inside mounted with lacquered linen was still intact. Shen Shaoan was a man careful enough to get some inspiration from it. He first molded figurines, flowers, birds or utensils with clay and then coated them with lacquered linen or silk fabric layer by layer. When the fabrics coated with lacquer on the mold were parched, he drilled a hole at the bottom of the mold and then immersed it into water to dissolve the clay body. The last step of this workmanship was to polish the hardened fabric shell and to coat it with different colors of lacquer. Thus the bodiless lacquer ware was made. Shen Shaoan became the earliest artisan to make bodiless lacquer ware in Fuzhou. It has found favor in everybody’s eyes for its advantages, hollow in body, light in weight, artistic in looking and durable in use. From then on, the bodiless lacqureware of Fuzhou, together with the cloisonné enamel of Beijing and the ceramics of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi, are called “the three treasured objects of the traditional arts and crats of China.”


The book of Changes completed in the Zhou Dynasty already raised a statement to the effect that a large number of articles beneficial to national welfare and the people’s livelihood were created by sages, expressing the viewpoint that all articles were created by sages and all workmanships were for the purpose of use. The You Xue Qiong Lin (an enlightened reading material widely circulating among the people at the turn of the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty) explained the beauty of utensils, skills and arts and crafts like this, “It seems that unusual skills are unbeneficial to people while handicrafts are helpful to practical purposes.” The idea at its core is also to lay emphasis on practical purposes and used.


The legends about folk arts and crafts are also obviously affected by the idea that the perfection of utensils is not the ultimate end and that only when a utensil serves the purpose of use can it be said to have attained the realm of a lofty state. Of course, it is also related to the form of passing on and carrying on the ancient arts and crafts of China. The traditional way of passing on skills in China was basically the form of training an apprentice by his master. However, due to the conservative ideas of handicraft trade, masters would often hold back some crafts with higher technique so as to ensure the continuance of their own means of livelihood. Therefore, the legends about crafts and arts were always lifted up to the height of trade worship. So far as learners concerned, their psychology was not only learning from their masters and believing what their master taught them. They also had a prostrating psychology of begging for skills, supplicating for patronage and praying for good luck. Those heroes or heroines in the legend making creation or improvement in some workmanship were often adored as the founder of the trade.


The ideas of practical use and technology for all handicrafts can be said as two wings full of tensile force and the essence of the traditional culture of China as well. The handicraft culture in the legends, as an important component part of the traditional culture of China, embodies lively the ideas of practical use for people’s everyday use, these ideas have produced a wide and far-reaching effect on the traditional viewpoint of the Chinese people.