The Chinese first used the sap of the lacquer tree as a protective and decorative coating material no later than the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770–221 b.c.). Over the next two millennia, this medium found special favor among members of the court, and the industry thrived in response to the high demand. By the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the output of lacquerwares was enormous, with the principal production centers being the imperial workshop in Beijing and the commercial workshops in Suzhou, in the lower Yangtse River region.
This imposing vase is a product of that remarkable tradition, and the intricate craftsmanship, grand scale, and quality of the materials employed point strongly toward its production in an imperial workshop. Mineral pigments give the lacquer its colors, both vibrant and muted. The striking red of this vase was obtained by the addition of pulverized cinnabar ore (mercuric sulfide) to the liquid lacquer resin. Numerous thin coats of this mixture were applied to the wood base, each coat being allowed to harden for approximately thirty-six hours before the next was applied. Once the desired thickness had been achieved, usually half an inch, as here, the design was carved into the lacquer. The ensuing relief decoration displays a highly desirable three-dimensional perspective.
The traditional design of this vase, and specifically, the use of isolated registers illustrating daily life amid landscape and village scenes, is commonly found in Qing-dynasty ceramics. The figural vignettes are set in four large, quatrifoliate sections on the body and two on the neck. Adhering to convention, the spaces between are filled with a dense, stylized floral ground and bordered by elaborate bands of meander pattern.