Newsletter Vol-3

The Lacquer Tradition in Myanmar

The lacquer tradition in Myanmar is an ancient one. The art of lacquerware, pan yun, is one of the ten traditional arts and crafts of Myanmar which are metaphorically called “flowers” (pan) and an early example of Myanmar lacquerware is provided by the lacquer tube dated to AD 1274 which was excavated at the Mingalazedi Pagoda in Bagan. The Bagan Museum also has on display a number of excavated lacquerware, including Buddha images, votive objects and household articles, which attest to the antiquity of the lacquer tradition in Myanmar.
There are differences of opinion among scholars as to when the lacquer tradition had its start in Myanmar. One school of thought considers that the Myanmar lacquer tradition was derived from China. This view, reflecting the work of such scholars as Mr. G. H. Luce, then Professor of Oriental Studies at Yangon University, who studied Myanmar history on the basis of Chinese records, contends that China had a lacquer tradition nearly 3,000 years old, that there was a long history of contacts between Myanmar and China, such as the mission of the Pyu, an early people of Myanmar, to China, and that it was through such contacts that the lacquer tradition became established in Myanmar. This Sinophile view places too much emphasis on Myanmar deriving aspects of culture from elsewhere and does not take into sufficient account the possibility of indigenous development.
A second school of thought opines that the lacquer tradition was established in Upper Myanmar during the reign of Anawrahta (AD 1044-1077). According to this school, which had among its exponents Mr. Taw Sein Ko, Superintendent of the Epigraphic Office of British Burma, and U Lu Pe Win, Director of the Archaeology Department of independent Myanmar, when Anawrahta conquered Thaton, the capital of the Mon kingdom in Lower Myanmar, in AD 1058, he brought back with him to Bagan not only Buddhist relics, scriptures and learned monks but also artists and craftsmen, including lacquer craftsmen, whom he settled at his capital. In the understanding of this school, the lacquer tradition of the Mon kingdom which was transplanted to Bagan was not native to Thaton but was acquired through its overland trade with the neighbouring kingdom of Chiangmai. This is only scholarly surmise. In a contribution to the Journal of the Burma Research Society, U Kyaw Dun has noted, “The Mons knew how to make a betel box lacquer work long ago, for they have its name in their own language.” The Mons were producing their own style of lacquerware before they started their trade with Chiangmai. Antique lacquerware have been dug up in Mon State as well as in Bagan and they are on display in the Mawlamyine Mon Museum.
A third school of thought on the origins of the lacquer tradition in Myanmar had its start in a lecture given by Mr. A. P. Morris, Provincial Art Officer of British Burma, which was subsequently published as “Lacquerware Industry of Burma,” in the April 1919 issue of the Journal of the Burma Research Society. In the view of this school the lacquer tradition began in Myanmar only in the 16th century and was due to King Bayinnaung (AD 1551-1581) taking back with him to his capital Hanthawaddy artists and artisans from Lanchang (Laos), Chiangmai and Ayuthia after his conquest of these kingdoms. The argument of the school rested on bringing together the two meanings of the word yun: one meant lacquerware, the other Laotians. Just as the English word “chinaware” meant ceramics which had originally been produced in China, so the Myanmar word yun meant that lacquerware had originally been produced in Laos.
The proponents of the view that the yun tradition had its origins in Laos had to explain why, if it was established in Myanmar only in AD 1564 when Bayinnaung conquered the Yun kingdom, a lacquer tube dated AD 1274 had been found in Bagan. U Kyaw Dun’s explanation was:
“It [the lacquer tube] is a kyup, a circular case of teak, which has been painted with thitsi and yellow ochre. It is a plain work and not a yun work. This kind of plain lacquer work must have been known to the Burmans much earlier. Daunglan, byat, kalap, kwet, ok, etc., which are plain lacquerware, have been used by the Burmans from time immemorial. We cannot say when the Burmans began to know this industry.”
U Kyaw Dun differentiates between plain lacquerware and the lacquerware called yun. Indeed there are six different types of lacquerware in Myanmar:
(1) plain lacquerware (2) incised lacquerware (3) gilt lacquerware (4) relief moulded lacquerware (5) glass mosaic and gilt lacquerware (6) dry lacquer Buddha images
Plain lacquerware (kyaukka) has a framework made of either bamboo or wood, is coated with a resin lac called thitsi from a tree native to Myanmar (Melanhorres usitata), and is painted black and red, the colours being derived from natural materials. The ware derives its name from Kyaukka village, but its production is quite widespread and it is made in Bagan, Monywa, Pyay, and Mandalay as well as in Shan, Mon and Rakhine states. Kyaukka ware is noted for its utility, durability, and lightness and is found in the houses of village folks, monasteries, nunneries and shrines. As domestic utensils they take the form of trays, goblets, cups, boxes, chests, pillows, circular tablets, betel boxes, receptacles for cooked rice and containers for pickled tea, medicine, tobacco, cigars and cheroots. As monastic utensils they take the form of flower vases, pots, fans, spittoons, containers for offertories and cases for sacred books.
Incised lacquerware (yun) is made of the same materials as plain lacquerware but the technique is more advanced. The bamboo strips are fine, and they are woven or coiled into the desired shape. The design and decoration is sophisticated and exquisite. With a fine pointed bamboo, wooden or metal stylus, decorative designs or motifs are incised on the surface of the ware and the incised areas filled with pigment. The colours used are red, yellow, orange, blue, green, white and black. The artist has a free hand in expressing his concept and makes use of such motifs as lotus, orchid, natural and mythical animals, demons and devas. Symbols representing the planets and zodiac signs are among the artist’s favourites. Scenes and episodes from the Jatakas, well-known folktales, fables, pagoda legends and nat (spirit) stories are depicted in panels. Space is left on the ware for inscribing the artist’s name and the date or for any letter the buyer may wish to have inscribed. Yun ware is meant mostly for ornamental, decorative, ceremonial and votive purposes and take the form of folding screens, folding tables, napkin rings, bangles, flower pots, decorative plaques, manuscript chests and plates for inscribing scriptures as well as a variety of souvenir pieces.
Gilt lacquerware (shwezawa) is prepared by first having designs or figures incised on the ware which has been coated several times with black or red lacquer. Gold foil is then applied to the incised designs, the result being extremely regal and beautiful. In the days of the Myanmar kings shwezawa was limited exclusively to royal and religious use. Some old temples and monasteries in Shan State have their walls and ceilings covered with panels of shwezawa. Today shwezawa has become very costly because of the ever-soaring price of gold and silver foil is also used to produce ngwezawa ware.
Relief moulded lacquerware (tha-yoe) owes its name tha-yoe, meaning “animal bone”, to the fine sticky plaster made out of the ash of animal bone, paddy husk and sawdust of teakwood, with cowdung powder sometimes added. This pliable plaster mixed with lacquer is rolled into long threads of the required thickness. Then, by means of a bamboo, wooden or metal stylus the threads are stuck on the smoothened lacquer–coated surface of the ware to form a relief design which has been sketched out. An experienced craftsman can create any design or figure freehand. When the tha-yoe dries and is stuck firmly on the surface, several coats of lacquer are applied. After colouring or gilding the tha-yoe ware looks like a finely-carved piece. The main centres of this craft are Mandalay, Kyaukka and Legya in the Shan State.
Glass mosaic and gilt lacquerware (hmansi shwecha). In making this type of lacquerware, pieces of mirror or coloured glass are cut into different geometrical shapes. They are then inlaid on the surface of tha-yoe or plain lacquerware using a special lacquer as an adhesive. The whole surface is then gilded after which it is washed with water so that the gold foil on the glass pieces are cleaned off while those on the tha-yoe or incised areas remain. Hmansi shwecha is much more costly than shwezawa not only because of the expense of the gold and glass but also because of the skill and labour involved in the production. Many fine pieces of this type of lacquerware are found as couches, chests, caskets, betel boxes, containers for cooked rice and covers of folding paper and palm-leaf manuscripts.
Dry lacquer Buddha images (man phaya or hnee phaya) are lacquered wickerwork images of the Buddha. They take their name from man, meaning covering with a pasty substance, and hnee, meaning bamboo strip. First, well-kneaded clay is shaped into a rough form of the image. Then, a plaster of straw ash and water is smeared over the clay image. A piece of cloth, usually a monk’s robe or a scarf or turban of an elder of the family is soaked in lacquer and wound over the smeared clay image. Tha-yoe plaster is then applied to a thickness of half an inch or more. The details of the image are carved out with an iron implement called thanlet. When the image has dried and is hardened the clay is removed by washing and the mould is cut open to remove the clay from the less accessible areas The openings are sealed with lacquer and the image is further coated with lacquer and a plaster of straw ash. When the coat has hardened the finishing touches are applied – smoothening, rewashing, polishing and varnishing. Any preferred decoration or ornamentation can be added, such as painting, gilding, or glass mosaic and gilding. Since the images are made of bamboo and cloth and are hollow, they are very light.
The largest man Buddha image in a seated posture is at Salei town to the south of Bagan. It is 18 feet high, measures 14 feet 6 inches from knee to knee, and is 11 inches thick. It belongs to the Konbaung period and was salvaged from the Ayeyarwady river in 1888 when it was found afloat in a flood. Another image, found in the dhammasala (religious hall) in Taunggyi in Shan State, is now enshrined in a sumptuous temple on a hillock near Kalaw. The former image is now totally gilt so that it looks like a bronze image, but it has a peephole in the back through which the original frame can be seen. The latter image still retains its original character and four men can easily lift it up.
Despite its antiquity, the Myanmar lacquer tradition today remains a living tradition because of the encouragement of the Government and the promotion of private entrepreneurs.


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Last Modified : 10 Feb 2011 (NWA)

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