Shway Yoe: Burmese Lacquer-Ware.

The Living Age 1964, 11.2.1882

From St. James's Gazette.

For a long time it was assumed that Japanese and Chinese lacquered goods were simply papier-mâché. A popular fancy for the ware has brought to the knowledge of all who care for the information that it is really wood of different kinds painted over with the juice of the urushi-tree. Should fashion ever inspire a similar enthusiasm for Burmese productions of the same kind, it is probable that it may be supposed that these also are composed of solid wood, and people will wonder at the extreme thinness and flexibility of the finer specimens. But it is only the coarsest ware which is thus produced. All the better boxes and cups are made of a woven basket-work of slips of bamboo. The varnish used on them is, like the Japanese lacquer, the sap obtained from the stem of a tree, and has nothing whatever to do with the insect-produced lac, such as English varnishers employ in solution with alcohol. I am not botanist enough to know whether the urushi (Rhus vernicifera), the Japanese tree, is identical with the Burman thit-see (Melanorrhæa usitissima), or even whether it is of the same genus or order. Thit-see (literally tree-oil) is dark in color from the moment it is gathered, whereas the urushi sap is described as being light yellow when first extracted, and only turning black after considerable exposure to the air. The urushi has been cultivated by royal order for hundreds of years in Japan; but in Burma no one troubles himself much about national manufactures, and the thit-see bin grows wild in the jungle; and not even near Nyoung 0o, where nearly every household in the town is occupied in the trade, not even there do I remember seeing a regular plantation of the trees. Nevertheless it is plentiful enough, and affords a magnificent spectacle when it is in flower — a huge forest tree covered so thickly with creamy-white blossoms that the leaves cannot be seen. The flowers have a fragrant scent not unlike that of apples. and the needy and practical Burman often makes a very acceptable curry of the buds. In full-grown trees the average height to the first branch is thirty feet, and the ordinary girth, six feet from the ground, is nine feet. Charcoal-burners have a predilection for the wood which would not meet with approval in Japan; and it is much used for anchors and tool-helves, being very close and fine-grained. It is too heavy to float, when green, but dried it is not particularly weighty. The sap may be collected at all times, except when the fruit is on the trees, from Pyatho to Taboung — the first three months of the English year. Then it is thin, and does not produce such a brilliant polish. The collection is simple enough. Incisions are made in the stem, and the sap trickles into bamboos placed to catch it; when it is to be kept any time there must be a depth of two or three inches of water on the top, otherwise it would dry up and become solid. The water, however, does not improve it. The best varnish — thit-see a-young tin — is that which has been just drawn from the tree; second quality contains twentyfive per cent. of water, and inferior as much as fifty.

The articles made are chiefly drinking-cups and betel-boxes, consisting of a cylindrical inner case, in which are fitted two or three trays for holding the lime, betelvine leaves, cutch, nuts, and other ingredients for betel-chewing, the whole covered by an outer lid reaching to the bottom of the inner case. Ordinary kohn-itt betel-boxes are three or four inches high and two and a half to three in diameter. Articles of the same shape are made of all sizes up to a couple of feet or more in height, these last being used for holding clothes and women's working materials. The bee-itt, ladies' toilet-boxes, are often the most delicate and carefully worked. The actresses always carry splendid specimens about with them to contain their combs, oils, scent, the white lead and thana'kha for the complexion, and a few tresses of false hair. Other articles are the pyramidal tamin-sa oht, used for carrying food to the monasteries and the pagodas, fashioned somewhat in the style of the sacred spires of five or seven roofs, and of all sizes, from eighteen inches to the huge things, the height of a man, which the king sends under the royal umbrellas to the Arrakan Pagoda in Mandalay. Byat, platters of all sizes, up to the gigantic article as big as a small table used for dishing up the family dinner, are always made of wood, like the Japan ware. The Burmans do not think much of them, and they are therefore almost always quite plain — either black or red. There is no inferiority to the Japanese in capacity for making fantastic designs; and the future may see great developments in this branch of the art.

The process of manufacture is as follows. Little basket-like boxes of the required size and shape are woven of fine bamboo wicker-work, upon round pieces of wood prepared and firmly fixed for the purpose. The bamboos used, which are usually split and cleaned by the women and children, are of different kinds, that called myin wah being the most highly esteemed. Similarly the yet, or woven basket-work, is of different degrees of excellence, the kyoung lehn yet being the finest. Some of the Shan and the better work men at Nyoung Oo are celebrated for the delicacy of their work. On this is then evenly applied with the hand (so that the slightest particle of sand or dirt may be at once detected) a coat of the pure wood-oil. This is then put away to dry — not in the sun, which is apt to pucker and blister it, but in a cool, airy place. Some careful workmen have often an underground room prepared specially for the purpose. After three day s it is quite dry, and is then liberally and evenly covered over with a paste called thahyoh. This is made in a variety of ways; the commonest being a mixture of finely sifted teak sawdust, thit-see, and rice-water. But instead of the sawdust, or often mixed with it, finely ground bone-ash, or paddy-husk burnt and strained through a cloth, is kneaded in. In the coarse common articles for everyday use, tempered clay and some other materials are often used: but this, being thicker and less puttylike, is apt to scale and come off in flakes, especially if at all roughly used. This thahyuh is allowed to dry quite hard, and the box is then fastened to a rude lathe, which is turned with one hand while the other is employed in polishing the box. This smoothing-down is effected with sifted ashes, or sometimes with a piece of silicious bamboo, which is as good as fine sand paper. When this is done the box is ready for a fresh coat, which almost invariably consists of a mixture of finely powdered bone-ashes and thit-see. This, after drying, is polished in the same way as before. We have now a box of a brilliant glossy black, in itself very pretty, and fit for use anywhere. But this is only the end of the first stage: none but the byat and common wooden platters are left in this state.

The ground-color of almost all the cups and boxes is red; but some of the black wood-oil is required to rise through it and define the pattern. This is effected in a most ingenious way. The black box is put on the lathe again and turned round, while the lines and spots, and the form of the black pattern generally, is sketched on with a sold, or split style, charged with thit-see. The drawer has no guide but his eye. There is no preliminary mapping out, yet a practised hand will never make a mistake and spoil a box. The fresh thit-see thus put on stands up above the general level of the surface. The whole box is now covered with red paint; and when this is dry the box is put on the lathe again, and the operator turns it round and rubs it steadily with ashes. By this means the red paint is removed where the lines of Chitsee rise above the general surface, and the black pattern stands out clearly on the red ground. A quaint chequer-work is also always produced, where the slightly projecting edges of the bamboo wicker-work raise the black wood-oil through the vermilion layer. Still, however, we are not finished. No box is complete without three colors: and this last shade is applied in an equally simple and effective way. The desired pattern is incised with a graving-tool called a kouk — often nothing more elaborate than a pin firmly tied to a piece of stick. Then the whole box is coated over with the new color, and this is in its turn polished off on the lathe till nothing remains but the lines of the engraved pattern. If another color is required, a similar process is gone through.

When the design is complete a clear varnish of another vegetable oil, called shan-shee, with a little thit-see in it, is applied, and, if necessary, a high polish is effected by rubbing with the powdered petrified wood found so useful in imparting a gloss to the alabaster images. The patterns are none of them very intricate, and are handed down as heirlooms from father to son, so that the same family will have all its ware made on a few clearly defined models, and there is no fear of "spoiling a set." The invention does not as yet soar beyond scroll-work and line-figures of infinite variety; but should a foreign demand spring up there would be no lack of skill to meet it; just as the Rangoon tattooers have taken to copying pictures out of the Graphic on English sailors' breasts. The supreme test of excellence in the manufacture is when the sides will bend in till they touch without cracking the varnish or breaking the wicker-work. Connoisseurs can discriminate between Shan, Nynung Oo, and the ware of other places by the shadow thrown on the inside (which is varnished plain red or black) when the cup or box is held at an angle of forty-five. Three colors only are used besides the black ground. work; but variety is produced by varying their intensity of shade. They are red, green, and yellow. Red is prepared from finely ground vermilion mixed with shanshee. The Nyoung Oo people prefer a vermilion called kinthapadee yuè, prepared by themselves, to that procured from China and used elsewhere. The home-made stuff seems to be much brighter in tint. Maya-nee — red ochre — is used only with the coarsest work. For yellow, yellow orpiment is ground down and washed several times until a pure, impalpable powder remains. This is mixed with a pellucid gum, and when required for use worked up with shansee. Green is obtained by adding finely ground indigo to the yellow orpiment until the required tint is obtained. Red and yellow are, however, always the predominating colors.

The thit-see is turned to a variety of other uses besides the manufacture of lacquer-work. Applied to wood, or to marble and clay images, it enables them readily to take on gilding. It is used to varnish all the umbrellas in the country, and makes them as impervious to rain as if they were made of wood, while it protects the palmleaf against the rays of the sun, which otherwise would burn it as brittle as an egg-shell. All the racing and war boats in the country are painted with it, and the best caulking in the world could not make them more watertight. Finally, boiled down thick it furnishes the material for delineating the square, heavy characters of the sacred Kamma-Wah-Sah, the ritual for admission to the Sacred Order.

The oil is usually put in the sun for a short time before being used, and is at first of a light-brown color, soon darkening into a brilliant black. It seems to be of a particularly mordant character, and raises huge blisters on the hands of some people, leaving marks of the ashy-white color suggestive of leprosy. Hence strangers suspected of being afflicted with the terrible malady always declare they are thit-see workers; and many people avoid these latter, in case they might find they had been holding communication with an outcast. A lotion composed of tine teak-wood sawdust, mixed with a little water, is used as a cure for the blains. Many of the workmen periodically swallow small doses of the wood-oil, under the impression that it acts as a preventive. The capriciousness with which the varnish acts, leaving some men quite unharmed and punishing others severely, has given rise to a proverb in Nyoung Oo —

Thit-see is a witness *
To a burgher's fitness:
If bad he's marked an outcast,
If good not lung can doubt last.

- Shway Yoe.

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