Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Pre-Columbian Lacquer of West Mexico

The Pre-Columbian Lacquer of West Mexico
by Celia Heil
Evidence of Lacquer Technology Diffusion


Lacquer, known in Mexico as Maque, in China as Ch'í-Ch'í and in Japan as Urushi, was a technology well-known in Michoacán, on the west coast of Mexico, at the time of the Spanish invasion. The process of lacquering was practiced for several centuries by pre-Columbian Amerindians in what today are the States of Chiapas, Guerrero, and Michoacán, and perhaps as far north as Sinaloa. The pre-Columbian Maque technology is mentioned in the Mendocino Codex, by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún in his Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España, [General History of the Matters of New Spain] and also by Fray Mendieta in his Crónicas de Nueva España [Chronicles of New Spain].

China is regarded as the original home of lacquer. The Chinese recognized the protective qualities of the sap at least three thousand years ago (Casals, 1961:7). From China it was introduced to Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, and India, (Abrams 1984:19; Garner, 1969:16), and it seems, also to west Mexico. The earliest known example of Chinese lacquer dates from the Shang Dynasty, ca. 1523-1028 BC, when the middle kingdoms of China began using lacquer on household utensils, furniture, art objects, and to preserve historic records carved on bones and bamboo (Abrams, 1984:20).

The oldest fragments of lacquered objects found in Japan so far, occur before the Jomon period, ca. 6th to 3rd centuries B.C. Archaeological excavations have produced artifacts and fragments of lacquered objects dating from the Yayoi period ca. 250 BC-250 AD (von Ragué, 1967:4-5). In Japan lacquer producing trees became as important as the Mulberry for silkworms and paper making, and tea producing plants (Hayashi, 1983:360). Formal lacquer production in Japan can be defined to occur during the Kofun period, ca. 3th to 6th century (von Ragué, 1967:5; Casals, 1961:8). With the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century lacquer became the medium to religious decoration.

Uruapan in Michoacán is considered the cradle of maque together with other centers in Chiapas and Guerrero. Maque art flourished there long before European contact. How did the Michoacán people come to know this art? Did they develop it? Was it introduced from Asia? If so, when and how? Maque in Michoacán probably dates from between the 8th and 12th centuries, when a wave of cultural innovations appeared in Michoacán, along with metallurgy and a new ceramic style.

Perhaps it was introduced earlier by the Buddhist monk, Hui Sheng, who in 458 A.D. led a group of monks from the kingdom of Jibin, today called Cachemira, on a voyage to the land of Fusang or Fusangguo, as recorded in the Chinese encyclopedia and other historical documents. Fusang is the Japanese word for a tree and describes the saguaro cactus plant native to Mexico, and guo means "country" or "land." Hui Shen returned to China 41 years later, in 499, and reported his findings to the Xiao kingdom of the Qi state. It was recorded as his personal testimony during the Liang dynasty between 520 and 528 (Vargas, 1990:13-14).

In 1920, the Secretary of the Chinese Legation in Mexico and the artist Gerardo Murillo, better known as Dr. Atl, were convinced that about the year 600 AD, the Chinese reached the west coast of Mexico to where now are the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Michoacán, Jalisco, and Nayarit. Dr. Atl published an article titled "The Chinese were the discoverers of our nation" in the newspaper Excelsior, on May 22, 1921. He speculated that merchants introduced the lacquer technology (de Paul León, 1922:56; Zuno,1952:145).

There is a story in Nayarit of a pre-Columbian Asian ship that arrived on their coast and was cordially received by the chief of the Coras. Archaeology in Nayarit has produced artistic tripod ceramic funerary urns in tombs known as tumbas de Tiro y cámara (shaft and chamber tombs); dated ca. 1000 to 200 BC.

The culture known as Ancient Coras (400-900 AD) practiced terraced agriculture, and between 900 to 1200 metallurgy was introduced (Encyclopedia de Mexico, Vol.9:671-672). Indeed, a multitude of evidence indicates that a vast network of Pacific rim merchants traded along the coast of the American continent from Peru to Alaska (Murra, 1991). (Fig.1,2)

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1 comments:

Jason said...

I am really happy that you have made such a commitment to this blog. I am a graduate student in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. My dissertation work will be on Asians in the US Mexico borderlands. I would really like to know more about your interest in Mexicos Chinese. The posts you have thus far are all very interesting and useful for me. I have accumulated a large bibliography of resources on Mexico's Chinese - mostly american scholars though; i'd be happy to share these.
I'll be going down to Mexicali in a month or so to do some pre-dissertation research. Do you have any contactos buenos en el otro lado?
Anyways, here's my email if your interested in exchanging so materials.
chinotronic@gmail.com

Best wishes,
J

p.s. if you are still trying to hand off this site. I'd be interested in taking it on. it might be a good place to post my findings about Mexicali et al.

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