Light Your Way

Ginger Jar Lamps: Integrating and Enjoying Asian Lamp Design

Ginger jar lamps provide beautiful Asian painting and a unique style of shade for sculpting your light objects.


The origin of ginger jar lamps is ultimately a very practical one. Why build an entire lamp base, when a ginger jar will serve just as well? The style originally arose from simply reusing materials. Had this been all there was to the quality of these lamps, they would simply have disappeared once less expensive techniques for producing lamp bases became available.

However, these lamps continued as a style not so much because they were inexpensive but because they were beautiful. Now, these lamps are not even made of ginger jars at all. Instead, the modern lamp is crafted in the shape of a ginger jar, but is made of harder ceramics. Over time, lamp makers realized that the ginger jar shape was perfect for creating a lamp that featured beautiful paintings on their sides.

Painting Styles

Ginger Jar Lamps

The most common style has blue painting on a white background. This model available at Amazon.

The bases of ginger jar lamps will almost always include some sort of painting or calligraphy in an Asian style, in a number of different styles and colors. The most common color is blue, but they come in virtually every color. Nonetheless, most of the paintings are monochrome, meaning that the painting will be, for example, blue on a white background. Of course, there are exceptions in any case.

Abstract Painting

One of the most common types of painting on ginger jar lamps is abstract painting. Rather than depict any particular object, they will depict either some abstract shape or some repeating shape, such as foliage or flowers circling the lamp. Note that these styles will not draw as much attention as a lamp with a definite subject. People have a tendency to look closely at definite images and only cursorily look at something with an abstract object.

Some abstract lamps will include Chinese calligraphic characters on them. For example, a lamp might have the two characters “长寿”, meaning “long life”. These calligraphic symbols will often be surrounded by traditional Chinese decorations, providing an object that is both abstract and meaningful. If you are not Asian, don’t forget to ask a friend for the meaning of the symbols when you get a chance. There’s no point in having a talking piece if you don’t know what it means.

Object Painting

Double Happiness Lamp

Often, Kanji characters appear on lamp bases. This lamp has two characters signifying “happiness”. This model is available at Amazon.

Another common (though more recent) type of ginger jar lamp is one that has a picture of a particular object or theme, usually a traditional theme in Oriental art. These images will usually be monochrome, with the image in one color and the background in white or black. The style will borrow from the some of the most common tropes of Oriental art. For instance, some of the most popular objects are dragons, fish, individual flowers and pagodas (The use of pagodas here is especially interesting, as I will discuss in the next section). Though the traditional objects prevail, artists on these lamps feel quite free to exercise their imaginations when it comes to their subjects.

Object-painted lamps are quite often hand-painted, as well. This means that they come in a wide range of quality. While they can be purchased online, be careful when purchasing them. If you are buying one of several hand-painted lamps, they may be of uneven quality and only the best one will be photographed and shown online. Instead, make sure you are purchasing the actual hand-painted lamp that you are looking at.

Pierced Lamps

Finally, some lamps are not painted at all. Instead, the jar is pierced so that it has an abstract pattern across the base, usually looking either lace or wicker. By using negative space, many of these lamps will have an object on them that is not pierced, such as having evenly spaced holes across the base except for a spot shaped exactly like a tree. These negative-space objects are often not immediately appearance, providing your guests with a sense of surprise when their eyes finally catch the shape of the object.

Pierced ginger jar lamps can reflect light a little bit oddly, because the surface is specular, meaning that it has a mirror-like surface, but it is also uneven. This means that you may see some light patterns on your walls that are the shape of the pattern. If you wish to prevent this, you can do so by either purchasing one that is not white or by moving the lamp further away from the wall.

Ginger Jar Lamp Shades

The lamp shades of ginger jar lamp shades are almost always the same shape. They mimic the geometric patterns of the roof of a pagoda (this is the reason that having a pagoda painted on one of these lamps is a little amusing). The shade is almost always made of silk or a cream or white color. This combination of having a geometrically-shaped roof and a translucent shade provide ginger jar lamps with some important lighting properties.

First, the translucent shade provides the lamp with an overall softening effect. Light that passes through this shade will produce virtually no shadows and will spread in every direction around your room. Fortunately, this will be offset by the undiffused light that comes from the top and bottom of the lamps, providing you with a mix of light quality. In addition, the light that escapes will pick up the color of your silk, so be careful using colored lampshades unless you want to change the color of your room’s light.

Bird Ginger Jar

An ornate base and a simple, translucent shade is a common combination. This model is available at Amazon.

Second, the large square opening at the top of the shade provides some challenges in placing the lamp. Unless you put the lamp such that one shade is parallel with the wall, the lamp will produce an oddly asymmetrical shape on your wall that is unattractive. Therefore, if you are purchasing a ginger jar lamp, you will need to check periodically that it has not moved in such a way that it is no longer parallel (Compare this to a lamp with a circular lamp shade where this is unnecessary).

The light object cast on your wall above the ginger jar lamp will also have its own unique quality. A standard round lamp shade will cast a cone of light above itself on your wall. The light from the lamp will be stronger, more like a path of light going up the side of the wall. As a result, these lights will provide complementary light objects for rooms that include a lot of contemporary, geometric design while a round lamp might find itself out of place.

Putting It All Together

Ginger jar lamps can bring a touch of Asian style to your home lighting design.

  • They are painted in a number of different styles, from the abstract to the particular, and can even have pierced sides.
  • Their shades are silk, providing soft light that picks up the color of the shade.
  • The light objects they cast on your wall will be more geometrical and linear than with a curved lamp.

With this in mind, you will find them easy to integrate and enjoy.


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