Chinese Lacquer Inlay:Luo Dian craft

Chinese Lacquer Inlay:Luo Dian craft

Lacquer Inlay, also known as Shell Inlay, Lacquer Fill, Lacquer Embed, Embedded Shell, Lacquer Shell, Lacquer Tortoise, and Luo Dian

Lacquer inlay, a unique traditional Chinese art form, is an exquisite decorative technique. It involves using shells and marine mollusks (mainly mother-of-pearl, also known as the "night-glowing snail") ground into thin slices depicting figures, flowers, birds, geometric patterns, or text, and embedding them onto the surface of objects as per the design requirements.

The term "lacquer" refers to inlaid decoration as per the "Ci Hai" dictionary. Lacquer inlay, with its naturally beautiful appearance, creates a striking visual effect and is a widely used traditional decorative art form. It is commonly applied to lacquerware, furniture, musical instruments, screens, boxes, plates, wood carvings, and various crafts.


what is Chinese lacquer inlay

Lacquer inlay is the art of using shells and marine mollusks (primarily mother-of-pearl) to create thin slices of figures, flowers, birds, geometric patterns, or text, and embedding them onto the surface of objects. This craft originated in the Shang Dynasty and reached a considerable level of sophistication by the Tang Dynasty.

This traditional Chinese decorative art seamlessly blends artistry and craftsmanship, showcasing its unique charm and cultural heritage. Craftsmen meticulously select shells and mollusks, especially the precious mother-of-pearl, also affectionately called the "night-glowing snail." These are then finely ground and processed into thin slices, carved into lifelike figures, birds, geometric patterns, or flowing text, reflecting profound cultural connotations.

During the crafting process, these intricate slices are embedded onto the surfaces of objects as per the design requirements. Whether on furniture, lacquerware, or other crafts, lacquer inlay adds a distinctive charm and artistic value. When light shines on these inlays, their unique texture and luster make the entire piece dazzle, leaving viewers in awe.


Historical Background

The history of lacquer inlay is extensive. In the early 1980s, Chinese archaeologists discovered numerous lacquer inlaid artifacts from the Western Zhou Dynasty at the Liulihe site of the Yan State. Among these, a lacquer piece featuring a painted beast and phoenix pattern utilized the lacquer inlay technique, making it one of the earliest known lacquer inlaid artifacts worldwide.

By the Tang Dynasty, Chinese lacquer inlay had reached significant maturity, with lacquered copper mirrors being particularly noteworthy from this period.

In the Ming Dynasty, lacquerware flourished, with both thick and thin inlays coexisting. According to Cao Zhao’s "Gegu Yaolun," lacquer inlayed objects were considered treasures in the Song imperial collections.

The Qing Dynasty marked the peak of lacquer inlaid furniture, which was highly favored by the imperial court. Records show that in 1771 (the 36th year of Emperor Qianlong’s reign), the salt administrator Li Zhiying included over ten lacquer inlaid furniture pieces in his tribute to the Qing court, stored in the Old Summer Palace.


Types and Techniques


Lacquer inlay techniques are diverse, generally categorized into hard inlay, soft inlay, and carved inlay. Hard inlay uses thick shell slices, while soft inlay involves creating paper-thin slices. The most renowned is the "dot inlay" of soft inlay, produced in Yangzhou, Jiangsu. These are made into slices thinner than 0.5 millimeters and cut into various shapes, embedded into a black lacquer base, producing a mesmerizing and brilliant effect.

The inlay techniques can be further divided into thick-slice hard inlay, thin-slice hard inlay, colored inlay, and carved inlay. "Hard inlay" uses thick shell slices, while "soft inlay" involves creating paper-thin slices. When a soft inlay is backed with various colors, it produces a translucent effect called "colored inlay." The most famous is the soft inlay technique called "dot inlay," also known as "dot lacquer," originating from Yangzhou and flourishing from the Tang and Song Dynasties to the early Qing Dynasty.

In "dot inlay," shell slices thinner than 0.5 millimeters are cut into dots, threads, and various shapes, embedded one by one into a black lacquer base, creating a dazzling and magnificent effect under light. In ancient Chinese furniture, the materials mainly came from freshwater and saltwater sources, such as shells, marine mollusks, mother-of-pearl, and other types like abalone and tridacna shells. The older these shells, the better the effect due to their intricate structure, strong texture, and vibrant colors.



Lacquer inlay is widely used in lacquerware, furniture, musical instruments, screens, boxes, plates, wood carvings, and various crafts. In Chinese antique furniture, inlay materials mainly came from freshwater and saltwater sources like shells and marine mollusks. The older these shells, the better their effect due to their intricate structure, strong texture, and vibrant colors.

Lacquer inlay is often applied to precious hardwood furniture such as rosewood, huanghuali, and red sandalwood, with red sandalwood being the most common. In Suzhou-style furniture, lacquer inlay is rarely used alone, often mixed with other inlays like jade, ivory, colored stones, and coral, known as "Hundred Treasure Inlay." This technique, created by Zhou Zhu from Yangzhou, combines carving, engraving, and inlaying to create intricate designs like landscapes, figures, buildings, flowers, and animals, resembling exquisite embroidery.

In contrast, Cantonese-style furniture places great emphasis on lacquer inlay, from small stools to large beds and cabinets, often fully inlaid to create a magnificent and elegant appearance, embodying folk charm. Lacquer inlay thus became a distinctive feature of Cantonese furniture.

Besides furniture, lacquer inlay is renowned in lacquerware, especially in Yangzhou. During the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties, Yangzhou lacquerware masters like Jiang Qianli became famous, known for their "cups and plates everywhere by Jiang Qianli, scrolls in every household by Zha Shizhi." Dot inlay lacquerware, mostly cups, plates, boxes, and small items, holds high artistic value. Additionally, lacquer inlay is used in various crafts like pendants, hat ornaments, buttons, beads, earrings, bracelets, ring faces, and beads, with materials like mother-of-pearl, abalone, and tridacna shells.


Feng Shui Significance

Lacquer inlay holds specific symbolic meanings and practical functions in Feng Shui:

  1. Symbolizing Prosperity and Fortune:Lacquer inlay symbolizes prosperity and fortune, stemming from the ancient association of shells with precious jewels and valuable items, making them auspicious symbols. As a decorative element, lacquer inlay can attract wealth and enhance the user's fortune.
  1. Balancing and Harmonizing Energy:Lacquer inlay can balance energy, making spaces more harmonious. In modern Feng Shui, lacquer inlay is often placed in offices and homes to improve energy stability, helping residents or users maintain a calm mindset, promoting harmony in career and life.
  1. Enhancing Aesthetic Appeal and Uniqueness: Lacquer inlay, with its natural texture and luster, adds beauty to artworks. Its versatility allows for unique, personalized art pieces that enhance the quality of living spaces, positively influencing the mood and fortune of residents.

Thus, lacquer inlay plays a crucial role in Feng Shui, symbolizing and enhancing prosperity, balancing energy, and adding aesthetic value. However, its use as a Feng Shui element should follow certain guidelines to maximize its benefits.


Other Information

Though lacquer inlay has some medicinal value, its primary use is as a decorative craft. In traditional Chinese medicine, lacquer inlay is believed to help treat rheumatic arthritis, gout, and gastritis, but this is not its main application.

Lacquer inlay, while having some medicinal properties, is primarily valued for its decorative appeal and artistic value. Despite its auxiliary medicinal effects in traditional Chinese medicine, its true popularity lies in its unique charm and craftsmanship. Through meticulous techniques, lacquer inlay creates intricate designs that enhance the beauty of furniture and crafts, offering an aesthetic experience and artistic appreciation. Thus, while lacquer inlay has some medicinal benefits, its real significance is in its artistic and decorative contributions to everyday life, providing visual delight and cultural enrichment.







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  2. Red Wood Furniture Decorative Craft - "Lacquer Inlay" Inlay Craft, 2021-03-26 20:12
  3. World Shell Cooking Methods, Baidu Library
  4. The Beauty of Lacquer Inlay, 2022-06-20 10:47
  5. Lacquer Inlay: Wonderful Brushstrokes, Ningbo Evening News, accessed May 17, 2015


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