In New York City there is a room for wonder. Each year, for the past decade and more, the exhibitions held in this small room have left viewers in awe. The extraordinary quality of these shows devoted to the art of China makes a visit to China Institute worthwhile at any time of the year, but particularly during one of its exhibitions.

Founded in 1926 as an apolitical nonprofit organization, China Institute in America maintains a China House in New York City, in which is found the fabulous exhibition room. This town house is a gift of Henry R. Luce, who donated it in 1945 as a memorial to his father. Dr. Henry Winters Luce, a missionary in China. From its inception, China Institute in America has sought to promote better understanding between the American and Chinese peoples. The aim, in the words of Henry R. Luce, “is that of discovering their [Chinese] greatness, and trying to interpret the West to the East, and the East to the West.”

Biannually, the China House features an exhibition organized by a guest curator on a specific aspect of Chinese art, complete with a fully illustrated catalogue. Virtually all China House exhibitions are distinguished: the roster of guest curators reads like a Who’s Who in the world of art. No matter what the scope and ambition of a guest curator may be, the works of art are displayed in just one small room (20′ x 20′) with a single door. The walls contain glass cabinets that stand on a uniform dark base, waist high, putting all the artworks at eye-level but imposing limits on how much can be shown. Despite these cramped quarters, I have never felt that the art objects have been displayed in what the Victorians termed “organized clutter.” The best of all aspirations, it seems to me, has been followed at China House. Entrance is free, with inexpensive catalogues published on a shoestring budget, offering the finest of Chinese art in an extremely simple setting. In fact, no attempt has been made to create the least element of atmosphere; the tiny staff of China House does no more than change the background in the glass cases, usually a different color for each show. For smaller works of art, tiny cubes and raised areas are similarly covered with the same monochrome fabric as the interior of the glass cases. Perhaps small and large institutions, as well as universities, ought to send a scout to any one of the China House exhibitions and emulate them. Just as the artistry of the Old Masters has inspired many imitators, I see no reason why the brilliance achieved by the China House in managing and curating consistently first-rate shows should not be duplicated elsewhere in America.

Which brings us to The Sumptuous Basket, an exhibition of Chinese lacquer on basketry panels, shown at China House from March 30 to June 3. The idea for this show of 33 objects originated with Laurence Sickman, Director Emeritus of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas. James C. Y. Watt, Curator of Asiatic Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was the guest curator. Most of the lacquer pieces came from eminent American museums, but some came from leading American dealers in Chinese art (like Alice Boney and Richard H. Ellsworth, both of New York City), and others from the Museum for Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm. But all of the pieces gathered from these sources revealed the mastery of Chinese lacquer artists in creating beautiful basketry panels.

At the opening of The Sumptuous Basket show, I talked with James Watt, the guest curator. “Lacquer,” he told me, “is a natural plastic. It is resistant to everything.” The effects of extremes of temperature—such as those experienced in Paris and New York City apartments, for instance—are too well-known among restorers. Collectors of art tend to forget about the damage caused by hot, dry interiors in winter and by humid ones in summer. The toll on fine French furniture from the age of the three Louis to that of the two Napoleons, in just these two cities alone, has been terrible. “Lacquer does crack in extremely dry conditions,” Mr. Watt observed, “otherwise it will last forever.” Because of inadequate care, very few Coromandel screens—delightful in interiors and darlings of contemporary American decorators—have been preserved. “Most of the damages to Chinese lacquer,” Mr. Watt emphasized, “occurred within the last century, particularly within the last few decades.” Only London and the famed country houses of the English have been immune because they are, as many visitors know, notoriously unheated. In the manner of the nursery rhyme Pussy Cat, cognoscenti of Chinese lacquer head for London, still a gold mine for these works of art.

With the introduction of paper bags and now plastic ones, even the most rugged of shoppers in contemporary America rarely thinks of using baskets. The chic prefer brand names and tags—Cucci, Pucchi, Tucci—to woven baskets of any kind, including sumptuous sorts. I have discovered that besides serious connoisseurs of art, those Americans most likely to appreciate the intricacy in basket art are dentists, surgeons, and other professionals who rely on their hands. Many other Americans do not fully appreciate the kind of work on display in The Sumptuous Basket because the artistry is to be seen in decorative surfaces rather than in art objects per se.

Still, the tradition of lacquering baskets is very much alive in Burma. Elsewhere—in China and in places where Chinese have settled in recent years—their manual talents have attracted them to assembly-line work, while smaller numbers have prospered as professional artists. Fads in America and the West can have crippling effects upon Asian craftsmen, though. With rising demand for any craft, the number of craftsmen swells. Sadly, decline in these crafts is rapid when there is little or no demand. Consequently, when Chinese Coromandel screens of at least a century old are auctioned in New York City, they often command as much as $30,000 each. The highest price on record is a quarter of a million dollars for a 17th-century Coromandel screen. Yet, the average contemporary Coromandel screen can be had in Hong Kong for less than $10,000. But the antique and the contemporary Coromandel screens are essentially similar—normally nine feet high, 20 inches wide, and consist of 12 decorated panels. Aesthetes and philistines alike agree that a Coromandel screen transforms any interior.

Of the 33 works of lacquer basketry recently shown at China House, James Watt singled out a late-16th-century Ming example as his favorite. “It is such a rich piece,” he explained, “reflecting material prosperity in an area which was particularly prosperous.” The piece Mr. Watt found so satisfying was a rectangular tray with painted decoration and mother-of-pearl inlay. It was no longer than an average arm, elbow to palm, and no wider. The enchantment of this Ming tray owed to its tremendous range of colors, all exceedingly subtle, modest but timeless in their beauty. Augmented with mother-of-pearl, these colors had the effect upon my eyes that Borges fiction has upon my mind. Contemplating this work inspired a feeling of elevation and pride in human creativity, an assurance that for all the darkness created by some men, there are others who can please many by the excellence of their art. What this Ming tray depicted was a natural setting in which two gentlemen (on the inside of the tray) dressed in black and red are seated at a red lacquer table, eating and drinking. It is the sort of setting, simple yet so inspiring in its tranquillity, about which writers like Somerset Maugham and our own James Michener could have written a fine account. Once, inspired by a Coromandel screen, Maugham did in fact write about it, and one of the finest books on Ukiyo-e, Japanese Prints: From the Early Masters to the Modern, is by Mr. Michener.

Lacquer basketry in China had Neolithic origins, although most of the pieces shown at China House date from the late Ming (1368-1644)”and the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. These cherished possessions of today once served as containers of grain and satisfied quotidian needs of the Chinese. Four basic techniques—all very old—may be seen in Chinese basketweaving: twill, twill and wrap, twine, and checker. Twill was the most commonly used of the four.

Bamboo, because of its abundance and its wide use, has always seemed to me a most democratic medium, unlike, say, bronze. Chinese made remarkable use of both bronze and bamboo, but baskets remained central to Chinese material culture. And in their zeal for keeping records, the Chinese naturally scrutinized their basketry. Published in the early 17th century, Sancai tuhui, Illustrated Encyclopaedia of the Three Realms (Heaven, Earth, and Man), covers all phases of Chinese basketry chronologically, complete with illustrations. According to Mr. Watt, the guest curator, use of lacquer on basketry began in earnest only in the Eastern Han period (25-220 A.D.). But some accomplished lacquer basketry comes from the kingdom of Chu, in South China, during the Warring States era (475-221 B.C.). Later, lacquer basketry flourished in the Jiangnan region at the time of the Southern Song (1127-1279) and along the southeastern coastal provinces of China under the late Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Mr. Watt also pointed out that during the Ming dynasty, Chinese artists first developed a lacquerware “in which exposed basketry panels woven of very fine bamboo strips were part of the decorated surface of lacquered articles constructed out of bamboo or partly of wood.” It is this type of lacquerwork, from which the 33 examples were selected for exhibition at China House, that Mr. Watt discusses at length in his catalogue (The Sumptuous Basket, $15 plus $2 for postage from China Institute in America, 125 East 65th Street, New York, NY 10021, (212) 744-8181).

Outside of Chinese art, it is unusual to find objects of daily use that are so artistically enjoyable. An aunt whom I love once had a myna bird. As a child, I was asked to catch crickets for the bird to eat. I abhorred the task, partly because we had no containers to feed the insects live to our myna bird. I learned from reading Mr. Watt’s catalogue that in 13th-century China, cricket cages of silver basketry were used in the region of modern Hangzhou, a provincial capital of Zhejiang. And so in a room for wonder I was reminded of a myna bird. The recollection was perhaps insignificant, but the beauty of China’s art is meant to revive and enrich the memories of everyday life.