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Cheng He

Current research

Understanding Lacquer in Early Modern Britain 1500-1700

(supervised by Professor Anne Gerritsen)

What is lacquer? There is no historical research specially targeted at answering this question on a conceptual level yet, partly because the answer already lays concisely in dictionaries: the term lacquer refers either to a resinous varnish, commonly used as a protective coating to objects, or to the objects whose surface is applied with this material. Existing scholarship is based on this unquestioned assumption that lacquer is a specific material for specific use in early modern period. However, the formation of the concept of lacquer did not take place in an instantaneous or linear manner. Whether it is appropriate to study the cultural value of lacquer while imposing the modern conception of this material into the past, has yet to be discussed.

My research project tries to reveal the continuity, ambiguity and non-lineality of the development of understanding of lacquer in early modern Britain. By looking at lacquer’s material paths (i.e. ways in which lacquer was possibly processed for different applications in art, medicine and science), I will demonstrate that ‘lacquer’ could refer to multiple things and was assigned with different cultural meanings, which was associated with the context of its use or ways of understanding. Based on this, it is also worth considering how to connect with the material past of lacquer in museums, one of the major places where our experience and understanding of early modern lacquer takes shape.

Research interest

  • Early modern material culture and art history in global context
  • Technical art history
  • History of knowledge
  • Museum studies


  • 2019 - current: PhD in progress, University of Warwick
  • 2018 - 2019: MA Global & Comparative History, University of Warwick
  • 2017 - 2018: MA History of Art, University of Warwick
  • 2013 - 2017: BA History, University of Macau

Conferences and seminars 

  • July 2023 'Glossy Varnish or Medicine? Floating Definitions of Lacquer in the Sixteenth-Century Exchange Between Europe and Asia', at Material Cultures and Iconography in Flux: Naples, Lisbon and Asia Through the Sixteenth Century and Beyond, School of Arts and Humanities of the University of Lisbon.
  • June 2023 'Lacquer and Varnished Surface of Musical Instruments in Early Modern Europe', at MEMS Festival, The Centre for Medieval & Early Modern Studies, University of Kent.
  • June 2022 ‘Multisensory Experience of Understanding Lacquer in Early Modern England’, at Early Modern Sensory Experiences, University of Oxford.
  • April 2022 ‘The Use of Lacquer as Medicine: Its Sensory Features and Medical Virtues in Early Modern England’, at Seminar Series of Medieval and Early Modern Student Association, Durham University.
  • February 2022 ‘Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World’, a conference funded by Humanities Research Centre, University of Warwick, co-organise with Camilo Uribe Botta.
  • March 2021 ‘Understanding the Fragrance of Lacquer in Early Modern Europe’, at The Eighth Annual Wollesen Memorial Graduate Symposium: Matrix of Mobility: Networks of Objects and Exchange, University of Toronto.
  • September 2020 ‘Lacquer to Drink and Eat: An Art Material as Medicine in Early Modern England’, at Material and Visual Culture Seminar Series: Material Culture and the Body, University of Edinburgh.
  • May 2019 ‘The Formation of Lacquer in Early Modern Europe’, at Department of History Postgraduate Conference, University of Warwick.

  • May 2018 ‘The Design and Display of Sixteenth-Century Venetian Maiolica’, at Coventry University-University of Warwick, Second Joint Visual Arts-History of Art Post-Graduate Research Symposium, Coventry University.


Book chapters/conference papers

  • ‘Seeing, Touching, and Drinking Ink: Exploring the Culture of Collecting Ink-Cake in Late-Ming China (1550-1644)’, in Writing Artifacts, edited by Cydney Alexis and Hannah J. Rule (In preparation)
  • ‘Glossy Varnish or Medicine? Floating Definitions of Lacquer in the Sixteenth-Century Exchange Between Europe and Asia’, in Material Cultures and Iconography in Flux: Asian Objects in Naples and Lisbon Through the Sixteenth Century and Beyond, edited by Iside Carbone and Elisabetta Colla (Taylor & Francis, in preparation)
  • ‘Understanding the Fragrance of Lacquer in Early Modern Europe’, The Wollesen: University of Toronto Art Journal 9:1 (2021), pp. 68-76.

Blog entries



  • 2022 Teaching assistant of the Module ‘Mongols, Ming and Manchu: China, 1500-1800’, University of Warwick
  • 2020 Guest lecturer in one session of MA course: The Visual and Material Culture of Exchange in Asia and Europe, 1500-1800, co-teach with Prof. Anne Gerritsen, Leiden University.

Academic awards

  • 2023 The Royal Society - Lisa Jardine Grant
  • 2022 Great Britain-China Educational Trust - Chinese Students Award
  • 2021 - 2022 Warwick Humanities Research Centre - Doctoral Fellowship
  • 2016 - 2017 Wu’s Group Academic Prize
  • 2015 - 2016 Rector’s Honour List; Nam Kwong Education Scholarship; ICBC Macau Scholarship
  • 2013 - 2016 Dean’s Honour List in six semesters
  • 2014 - 2015 Henry Fok Foundation Scholarship
  • 2013 - 2014 Nam Kwong Education Scholarship