Saratech Inc Blog: Process Automation in Ancient China Saratech Inc Blog: Process Automation in Ancient China

Process Automation in Ancient China

Of all the fine arts perfected by the ancient Chinese, one of the oldest and most beautiful expressions can be found in Chinese carved lacquer – something that I have personally collected for many years. Lacquer has been produced in ancient China for several thousand years. The design, material preparation and manufacturing process of ancient Chinese carved lacquer was highly organized – often involving the work of hundreds of skilled people and several years of time just to make a single high quality piece of art.
Lacquer is a natural resin from the Toxicodendron Vernicifluum tree (say that quickly 5 times in a row!)  native to southern China. Lacquer hardens to form a remarkable substance that is durable and impervious to water and alcohol. It can actually survive being buried or submerged under the sea for thousands of years without being significantly degraded.
Natural lacquer is dark brown, and special pigments must be added to give it a vibrant color. Carbon for black, Cinnabar (Mercury Sulfide) for a vermillion color, Ochre (hydrated iron oxide) mineral produces a bright yellow color, etc. The ancient lacquer supply chain involved many dozens of people who mined and ground the minerals, tapped the lacquer trees, collected the raw sap, boiled, filtered and refined the product, and transported refined and colored lacquer to large workshops.
Because each piece of carved lacquer was handmade, each piece was unique – no two pieces were ever exactly the same. Typical pieces include boxes, bowls, trays and vases. Each object conformed to fairly standard styles. For instance boxes are usually square, rectangular, cylindrical or peach (heart) shaped. FYI, the peach is a propitious symbol of longevity, so often peach-shaped boxes were used for special birthday gifts.
Long before any piece was created, an elaborate design was painted on paper that would serve to be a detailed blueprint for the carved article. Design motifs were often copied from ancient Tang and Song Dynasty woodblock prints – usually with some modifications and customizations. No doubt a good CAD system would have greatly simplified their lives!
All pieces of carved lacquer were constructed on either wood or metal cores. Wood cores were often hand carved from seasoned wood that could withstand temperature and humidity changes. Metal cores were typically made from bronze. The bare cores were covered with a thick “papier mache” type of composite filler, which was cured and then wrapped in machine woven linen cloth. The cloth provided a smooth solid surface to which the lacquer would easily adhere.
Lacquer was applied to the object by brush one coat at a time. Many coats were applied. A workman would apply a lacquer coat, and let it cure for a day or two in a humid wood closet on the bank of a river. Then the lacquer surface was hand sanded smooth, and the next coat of lacquer was applied. This paint, cure, and sand process was repeated hundreds of times. The resulting layer by layer application of lacquer provided a very hard and thick surface that could be intricately carved.
All carving was done by hand with simple knife tools. The artist simply eyeballed the design on paper and reproduced it on the surface. (Special note - today, modern Chinese carved lacquer pieces are often carved by programmable CNC machines, but back in the day all work was done by hand.)
Carving was very much a group effort. Simple carving (plain objects like trees and rocks) were usually done by junior carvers, and the detailed carving (complex figures like people or dragons) were assigned to highly skilled master carvers. It could take a master carver a lifetime to perfect his skills. A larger piece of carved lacquer might have been handled by a dozen carvers - each specializing in some type of object or design motif. As a consequence, Chinese carved lacquer pieces were expensive even when made, and have greatly increased in value through the years.
Carving styles were officially dictated by a set of rigid rules that were established by the Chinese royal court, and strictly followed by all workshops - whether Imperial court operated or private. No variance from official styles were allowed. And FIVE TOE DRAGONS were never authorized, as this motif was reserved only for Imperial workshops making pieces personally for the Emperor. Breaking this rule would swiftly cost an artisan his life!
Since carved lacquer is either monochrome, or simple 2-3 color polychrome, surface texturing and shading was depicted by repeating geometric patterns called “diaper” patterns. There were official patterns for the traditional Chinese elements of land, air and water – and all these geometric patterns were universally adhered to by Imperial decree and tradition.  Many patterns originated in the Tang Dynasty and were copied from woven cloth designs of the period. Each Dynasty in China established some small personalizations to these patterns, and the minor changes in dynasty styles can be used to help date art objects.
In summary, the ancient Chinese developed some pretty darn sophisticated design, supply chain and manufacturing technology. It’s hard to imagine what they might think of the sophisticated capabilities of today’s PLM systems like Siemens Teamcenter! With today’s CAD, CAM and Supply Chain Management tools, one could easily automate the design and manufacturing process of sophisticated carved lacquer objects. Factories today could, and actually do consistently machine produce similar Imperial quality pieces with very little human effort. But in the present, as in the past, there is no substitute for human creativity and an artistic eye when designing utilitarian objects of beauty!

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