Chinese Han lacquer cup

China, AD 4

This lacquer cup was excavated in North Korea, where China had several commanderies (districts under the administration of a military commander or governors) during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).

The cup is a shallow oval, with handles (ears) on the long sides protected by gilt bronze mounts. It is painted with angular bird motifs resembling patterns on inlaid bronzes.

To date, the earliest lacquer found in China was made around 7000 BC. Excavations have unearthed lacquer vessels with sophisticated inlays from the Shang period (about 1500-1050 BC) and high quality lacquers were produced in large quantities in the Warring States period (475-221 BC). By the Han dynasty, the lacquer industry was organised under government control and using early processes of mass production.

This cup is evidence of this.The inscription neatly engraved around the side states that the cup was made for the emperor in AD 4 at the Western Factory workshop in Shu (now Sichuan Province). It goes on to name the craftsmen responsible for each step of the manufacturing process: making the wooden core, lacquering, top-coat lacquering, gilding the ear handles, painting, final polishing. It also names the inspectors, supervisors and deputies at the workshop. Lacquer requires many coats, with drying time between each, so specialization and assembly line production was very suitable.

Imperial China


Imperial Chinese history is marked by the rise and fall of many dynasties.

Imperial China world culture

Han dynasty


Chinese Han
lacquer cup

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Object details

Eastern Han dynasty

Height: 6 cm
Width: 17.6 cm
Depth: 12 cm


Asia OA 1955.10-24.1

Room 33: Asia


    Gift of P.T. Brooke Sewell


    J. Rawson, and A. Farrer, The British Museum Book of Chinese Art (London, The British Museum Press, 2007)

    J. Rawson (ed.), The British Museum book of Chinese Art (London, The British Museum Press, 1992)

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    L.A. Barbieri, Artisans in Early Imperial China (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2007)

    G. Hardy, and A. Kinney, The Establishment of the Han Empire and Imperial China (London, Greenwood Press, 2005)

    M.E. Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. (Boston, Harvard University Press, 2007)

    C. Michaelson, ‘Mass Production and the Development of the Lacquer Industry during the Han Dynasty’, Orientations, 23 (11) (1992)

    W. Scheidel, Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009)