The design on the current tray has been carved through the layers of lacquer in contrasting colours. Although the appearance of the tray is predominantly black, because the top layer of lacquer is black, the contrasting layers can be seen in the wide, U-shaped, carved lines of the design. The U-shaped profile of the carved lines is in keeping with the description in the 1388 text known as the Gegu yao lun, The Essential Criteria of Antiquities, which states:
"Among ancient carved t'i-his (sic) wares, the most valuable is 'burnished purple', the more valuable pieces have burnished ground and show a reddish black colour. The bottom (of the incision) is like an inverted roof-tile, and (the wares) are lustrous, solid and thin" - Sir Percival David, Chinese Connoisseurship - The Ko Ku Yao Lun - The Essential Criteria of Antiquities, London, 1971, p. 144.
Carved marbled lacquer with a scrolling design similar to the current tray was made at least as early as the Song dynasty. A mirror case made of lacquer decorated in this way was excavated from a Southern Song tomb in Wujin county, Jiangsu province in 1977/8, Wenwu, 1979, No. 3, pl. 2, no. 5.
Rectangular forms are especially rare in tixi or guri lacquer, but have been found in excavations. A rectangular panel decorated with black tixi with red layers beneath, similar to the current example, was discovered in the cargo of a ship which foundered off the Sinan coast of Korea in A.D. 1323, and is illustrated in Relics Salvaged from the Seabed off Sinan: Materials III, Seoul, 1985, pl. 134.
A later (Jiajing period) rectangular tray based on the same design was included in the exhibition 2000 Years of Chinese Lacquer, Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong and the Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1993, no. 30. The change in the execution of the design from the Song/Yuan prototype to the later Ming example can clearly be observed in these two examples. Compare also an early Ming example, reputedly a gift of the Japanese royal family, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27 November 2007, lot 1786.