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Art Through Time: A Global View

Converging Cultures Art: Traveling Coffer

» Ou family of Wenzhou, Zhehian Province, China

Traveling Coffer

Traveling Coffer
Artist / Origin: Ou family of Wenzhou, Zhehian Province, China
Region: East Asia
Date: Southern Song or Yuan Dynasty, ca. 1250
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Lacquer over leather, bamboo, wood, metal mounts
Medium: Other
Dimensions: H: 17 ¼ in. (43.8 cm.), W: 28 ¾ in. (72.1 cm.), D: 15 in. (38.1 cm).
Location: Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Basically rectangular in form with gentle curves and swells near the bottom, this lacquered coffer, or trunk, produced in China around 1250 would have been used by a traveler or merchant to hold and protect fragile wares during transport.

The overlapping lid of the coffer is reinforced with corner plates and attached at the back with metal hinges. Flat loops on the front and back were used to secure the coffer with straps or cords. This trunk was not simply utilitarian, however. Every visible surface of the piece received ornamentation.

The surfaces of the coffer have been decorated using innovative Chinese lacquer techniques introduced during the Southern Song period. These techniques, known as qiangjin (“engraved gold”) and qiangcai (“engraved color”), involved covering the body of an object with black lacquer, incising it with designs, and finally, filling those designs with gold leaf or additional colored lacquers. In this piece, decoration includes the application of red, yellow, green, white, and gold, and floral motifs and medallions depicting real and mythical animals.

During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), Chinese society prospered as new technologies advanced the handicrafts industries, the earliest paper currency appeared, and goods and services were exchanged in rural, town, and urban markets. International maritime trade flourished with Southeast Asia, Korea, Japan, India, the Middle East, Sicily, and parts of Africa. As a result, artists, such as the Ou family—who made this particular coffer—would have been exposed to diverse artistic influences. Although much of this coffer’s decoration was achieved using Chinese lacquer techniques, aspects of its design and fabrication clearly indicate familiarity with non-Chinese sources. In particular, patterns on the lid and sides are similar to Islamic decorative motifs of the period.

Expert Perspective:
Ladan Akbarnia, Associate Curator of Islamic Art, Brooklyn Museum

“In the case of our traveling coffer, you have an object that was produced in China, but may have been produced either by a Muslim craftsman or by someone who was imitating a type of composition that wasn’t originally Chinese. This coffer is interesting because it contains many elements of both Chinese culture and of Islamic culture. It was produced in China; it has an inscription that tells us that. We have the name of the person who created it. But the name, within the Chinese language, appears to be a foreign name. So it’s possible that a Muslim craftsman could have produced the actual piece. It has motifs that are typically Chinese motifs that are associated with—have auspicious meanings often associated with—weddings. And this makes it possible that the actual trunk, or the coffer, was produced as a wedding trunk.

In addition to having these motifs that are typically Chinese, the actual composition of the panel, the lid panel and also the side panels on this piece are very similar to the types of compositions that we find in Islamic book bindings even though they date a little bit later. So, it shows a real combination of two different cultures.”

Additional Resources

Bao, Yuheng, Ben Liao and Letitia Lane. Renaissance in China: The Culture and Art of the Song Dynasty. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007.

Clunas, Craig. Art in China (Oxford History of Art). Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997 and 2009.

Collections. Brooklyn Museum Web site. http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/collections.

Shih-Chang, Hu. Chinese Lacquer (Arts of the East). Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland, 1998.

Sullivan, Michael. The Arts of China, 5th ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.

Watson, William. The Arts of China: 900–1600. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2