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Chinese Export Silver

Adrien von Ferscht

Adrien von Ferscht

It was H. A. Crosby Forbes who undoubtedly first made the world truly aware of the existence of Chinese Export Silver by publishing a catalogue for an exhibition of Chinese silver taken mainly from the Forbes Collection at the then China Trade Museum in Milton, Massachusetts.

 It is virtually impossible to know how much Chinese Export Silver made its way outside of China but in 1966, when the first exhibition by the China Trade Museum in America was staged, fewer than 200 pieces had actually been identified as being in existence. In 1984, when a second major exhibition was staged, some 2000 pieces were considered to exist. Although today we still cannot put an accurate estimate on the amount of Chinese Export Silver pieces that survive, we are aware that it is one of the largest and most significant groups of regional world silver known, probably numbering in the tens of thousands and most probably significantly more. Given that as a manufacturing period it spanned 155 years and during that era it is now estimated that as many as 50,000 silversmiths were actively working, the maths can only indicate a huge amount of silver items were produced.

The work Crosby Forbes published 40 years ago, co-written with John Devereux Kernan and Ruth S. Wilkins, has since been adopted as the “holy grail” reference source for all things relating to Chinese Export Silver, including silver marks, details of where they operated and the period within which they worked or traded. Kernan subsequently compiled and wrote the limited edition catalogue for The Chait Collection of Chinese Export Silver in 1985. Both were admirable and informative bodies of work, but they were based upon information that was available at the time of writing. Both contain a significant amount of assumptions that can now either be proven unfounded, corrected or adjusted.  Far more information has since been discovered and we are now aware of an extraordinary amount of Chinese Export Silver still being “out there” including important collections in museums around the world and some substantial private collections that had hitherto gone under the radar. One thing is certain though, with the publishing of Crosby Forbes’ first body of works, an awareness was established of the existence of Chinese Export Silver and a steep learning curve began and has been climbing ever since.

The original Crosby Forbes work was created under the aegis of the Museum of the American China Trade; a museum that Dr Crosby Forbes created in 1964 in what was essentially the Forbes ancestral home that was built by his shipping merchant ancestors, many being pioneers of the China Trade in relation to America. As the original name of the museum might suggest, the work was also carried out as an American-centric project; a slant which is totally understandable given his own family ties to the China Trade and to the Forbes, Russell and Perkins merchant families – all major stakeholders in the China Trade and Canton in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Although Dr Crosby Forbes spent over two decades as curator of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, none of his research and writing about Chinese Export Silver and work he carried out with Kernan and Wilkins was done within a strictly academic university framework. The fact that they all chose to exclude silver that was connected with the British trade with China at the time is slightly perplexing since it was established long before the Boston merchant families began their own connections with China and was also on a larger scale given the existing virtual monopoly of the British East India Company. So although vast quantities of silverwares did make their way to America from Canton and from the later treaty ports in China as well as Hong Kong, equally vast quantities were sent to Great Britain and, importantly, to its colonies in Canada, Australia, South Africa and to its South East Asian colonies and protectorates. We should not forget that the very catalyst that created the China Trade, the Treaty of Nanking, was between the Emperor of China and Queen Victoria – the Chinese Empire and the British Empire as they then were. Many of the later established treaty ports were territories of other European trading nations and they, too, received significant quantities of the silver, some of it incorporating regional styles of the individual countries they were destined for.

Chinese Export Silver really should be regarded as a self-contained and definitive period of silver manufacturing and although it may appear as somewhat of a contradiction of the very term “Chinese Export Silver”, it is more appropriate it be used as an umbrella term under which all silver produced in China during this period belongs. Unlike the silver itself, the term “Chinese Export Silver” is a relatively modern innovation, the reality being it does not adequately suit as a categorisation heading; it was never silver that was made exclusively for export outside of China – it simply seems that way for Western observers of it because Chinese silver from the late 18th and early 19th centuries that physically came to Western countries was predominantly neo-classical clones of English, Scottish, Irish and American “Georgian” silver. If a collective term was being sought, then probably “China Trade Silver” would be more appropriate and accurate given the silver in question evolved as a direct result of the China Trade period [1757-1842] and has direct connections to the shipping of the product of those individual trades that comprised the collective China Trade. However, even this term would have theoretical flaws since the production and continued evolvement of the silver continued after the China Trade period and well into the Republic Era; the Second Sino-Japanese War, the eventual Japanese occupation of areas of China and Hong Kong being the last pieces of the jigsaw that brought an end to high quality decorative silver production in China, with 1940 being the generally accepted cut-off date.

Chinese Export Silver as a phenomenon came to influence, in varying degrees, all Chinese silver whether or not it was originally destined for export or made for the home market. Silver that may have been made ostensibly for the “home market” could easily have found its way outside of China, especially given the significant foreign resident communities in many of the treaty ports and vice versa with regard to Chinese Export Silver made for overseas. Likewise, the ascendant Chinese middle class that aspired to all things Western, would have found Chinese Export Silver an ideal option given its fusion of the West and China. The re-emergence of yet another Western fashion for “chinoiserie” in the late 19th century and again in the 1920’s for all things Chinese added fuel to the fire as it were.

It is because of this inextricable link with the China Trade, the understanding of Chinese Export Silver as a definitive silver category will likely be different for Westerners and for the Chinese, since both will probably always have a different perspective of the China Trade and the resulting interaction of different foreign nations with China.

Without Crosby Forbes’ works, my own research would probably never have happened, but as life has moved on since the 1960’s, so has the availability of and access to information. It was the realisation not only of the size of Chinese Export Silver as a silver category, but the importance of it as masterfully created works of art and the incredibly rich and convoluted history that is attached to it that caused the University of Glasgow to allow me to carry out the research. My work, therefore, has never been about making a point of correcting Crosby Forbes, Kernan or Wilkins, but it was more a case of building upon and enhancing those bodies of work – it has always been about embracing it and moving it forward into the world today, using it as a nucleus to reshape, assimilating the new-found information. Kernan himself openly acknowledged the fact that others would further the field of research and hoped it would happen, recognising this was the natural direction for all academic study.

I have always been of the opinion that Chinese Export Silver is an excellent indicator of the history of China during the times it was created in. As such, one cannot adequately research it in isolation of the complex history of the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries in China. That history is made all the more convoluted because of the relentless succession of foreign influences and pressures that were brought to bear on China’s shoulders and the integrity of its territory and borders. There are further complications that come into play because of the difference between the culture of China and that of Western countries which between themselves also differ somewhat; in no stretch of the imagination can it be said the culture of Russia and Germany are the same as that of America.

Given the Chinese were always systems and documentation averse, identifying Chinese silver marks is challenging, to say the least. This is obviously exacerbated by the language and cultural barriers one has to be prepared to overcome, which in turn is challenged by the Chinese love of “artistic license” and, I suspect, sense of humour.Such records of retail silversmiths that may have existed were either destroyed as a result of there Sino-Chinese wars and consequent territorial occupation or of the Cultural Revolution.Unlike other silver marking systems, Chinese silver marks convey little information other than the name of the retail silversmith [even that can remain an enigma if the mark is a set of initials with no paper trail that leads one to an actual entity], probably the name of the artisan silversmith and often a numeric value of silver purity or an allusion to it being “sterling”.

The majority of the silver marks that appear in this edition are the marks of the retail silversmith; such was the prevailing manufacturing hierarchy and the means whereby most foreign merchants and agents acquired or ordered silver items. It is therefore more correct to refer to the marks as “silver marks”; calling them “hallmarks” would imply there was an assay system in China, which is not the case. In most instances they were not the “maker’s marks” per se. Occasionally they are referred to as the “shop mark”. Many of the names that collectors may be more familiar with, Wang Hing, Tuck Chang, Cutshing etc., were all retail silversmith shops. Even making sense of retail silversmiths’ marks can be challenging, given additional branch outlets were established, usually as new generations of the operating family came of age. In the absence of any requirement for uniformity of silver marks in China during this time, some marks may also contain a secondary mark in Chinese characters. This is the mark of the artisan who worked the item or the name of the person who was operating the bench at which it was made. Some of these artisans were itinerant inasmuch as they worked on a freelance basis, their marks appearing alongside those of several different retail silversmiths.

As to the steep learning curve, my own research continues and I am conscious that it has probably reached the point where much of the surface digging is coming to a natural end. It does not end there, though; this latest edition of my catalogue of silver marks has details of 300 silversmiths, mistakes will still be made, errors will still be discovered further down the line as fresh information is discovered; such is the nature of learning curves. What I do feel, though, is a far greater understanding of Chinese Export Silver developing that bodes well, for it too will grow and eventually place Chinese Export Silver where it rightly belongs as a significant and important world silver category. The curve still has a way to climb and my research is entering a new phase, one where I have no doubt that the real meat on the bone will be discovered; a Chinese Odyssey! The more I get deeper into this subject area, the more it seems that so much more is yet to be discovered. Researching Chinese Export Silver can be likened to fracking; the deeper you drill, the more likely you are to hit a major find!

My research has also caused me to believe quite strongly that because of the focus having been historically mainly on the Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong makers, silversmiths in other regional cities and towns have tended to be overlooked; a fact that has been our loss as well as a loss to their own individual reputations. Not all the silversmiths found themselves in Canton, Shanghai or Hong Kong, some of the finest stayed in Jiujang and Tientsin, in fact some of the more obscure makers who were not mentioned by Crosby Forbes were in Shanghai; the so-called “Nine Factories” or the “Shanghai Alliance”, many of whom were operating back in the 18th century and some even earlier. A 17th century coffee pot sits proudly in Queen Victoria’s Osborne House on the Isle of Wight in the UK and is now part of The Royal Collection. This pot was almost certainly made by one of the old established Shanghai or Tientsin makers, or even one of the Peking makers, given the Imperial court were there and a coffee pot in The Royal Collection is likely to have been a tribute between two rulers. Some really superb makers manufactured in relatively obscure places such as Chengdu. Peking makers were comparatively few but gradually we are becoming aware of more makers who were based there; some could have even operated exclusively within the Imperial City. Peking, in the 18th and 19th centuries, under the Manchu Qing Dynasty was very much an other wordly city compared to the southern cities. The Manchu capital was highly traditional and almost set in aspic. The exclusion of many of these makers is probably due in part to the America-centric nature of Crosby Forbes’ and Kernan’s works. I also believe more of the work from these makers probably came to Great Britain than might have gone to America; we know that some of these makers feature in major European collections of Chinese Export Silver including the Royal Collection, as well as the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and other European royal collections. The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths has a substantial collection of early Chinese Export Silver in its collection at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London; a similar collection exists at Yale University Art Museum in New Haven, Connecticut.

For a nation that had been almost totally introspective to the point of being hermetically sealed off for hundreds of years, it never ceases to amaze me how inextricably linked the phenomenon that is Chinese Export Silver is to Great Britain and America, in particular the latter’s Eastern Seaboard. It is true, the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 opened up trade with the West and The China Trade era came into its own, but beyond the relatively confined designated foreign areas of Canton and other treaty ports, Westerners could not and did not infiltrate China proper. The relative opening up of trade to foreign trading nations the treaty afforded in many ways destroyed the unique fusion of Chinese and Western styles in silverwares. This resulted in a creeping trend to a more commercial version. Anyone viewing the Pearl River flowing past Old Canton and Shameen Island they would not have seen much river, for hundreds of cargoes boats and ships vied for the chance to berth in order to unload and load precious cargoes, such was the new freneticism of the post-treaty China Trade. Equally, Hong Kong and Shanghai vied with each other after the dismantling of the Canton System to be modern international trading hubs.

From the early days of the China Trade, the British and American merchants were the more dominant foreign traders; the former had slightly different agendas than the latter, who in the main consisted of entrepreneurial established Massachusetts Bay merchant families. It was these very men who quickly understood the lie of the land and that silver in Canton was of high quality, the workmanship of equally high quality but the cost was but a fraction of that in Boston or New York. So it was that within 20 years of the signing of the treaty, high quality silver items were flowing back to Boston on clippers and from the silver makers in Canton in highly significant quantities. Much of that silver during this early period of what was to be 155 years of Chinese Export Silver was probably bespoke special commissions rather than speculative items.Chinese Export Silver did not happen overnight; it is important to recognise this. China had already a 1200 year history of silver making. China also had a unique love affair with silver, basing its entire monetary system and economy on it. However, world trade with China in the 18th and 19th centuries and the eventual British plot [the “Opium Wars”] to counteract the vicious trade imbalance trading with China caused, were the catalysts for an amazing outpouring of high quality silver items we now know as Chinese Export Silver. 

The highly complex structure of the Chinese Export Silver trade as an integral part of that trade is generally convoluted and completely alien to silver manufacturing and trading structures prevalent in the West at that time. This, in turn, makes understanding Chinese Export Silver makers’ marks challenging which in turn is exacerbated by the absence of any regulation or assay system. This is explained in further detail as the introductory section of “The Silver Marks” section of this catalogue.

Chinese Export Silver did not happen overnight; it is important to recognise this. China had already a 1200 year history of silver making. China also had a unique love affair with silver, basing its entire monetary system and economy on it. However, world trade with China in the 18th and 19th centuries and the eventual British plot [the “Opium Wars”] to counteract the vicious trade imbalance trading with China caused, were the catalysts for an amazing outpouring of high quality silver items we now know as Chinese Export Silver.

Chinese Export Silver always adapted to the realities and events of Chinese history; it was, after all, a product of that history. No other important silver category has been created as a direct result of political history, national protectionism and prolonged outside pressure from over-eager colonialist nations in both the West and the East.

China also has a long history of an extraordinary ability to master craft skills from other cultures and to convert those skills into creating sophisticated items in a recognisable Chinese style; a quite remarkable aptitude to have a deep-rooted understanding of raw materials that seems to come naturally. It is also this osmotic ability that created what we now recognise as the Chinese Style. Modern day China is a testament to this by mastering materials and technologies it hitherto historically lacked; it is almost as if the Chinese have an extra gene the rest of the world lacks. What we now know as the China Style is, in reality, an evolved, controlled assimilation from cultures outside of China engendered by the Silk Route.

The vast majority of these export silver pieces were created between 1757 and 1940 and in both Crosby Forbes’ and Kernan’s works, it was apportioned to three distinct periods of manufacture. This was perfectly logical, but since the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 served as the catalyst to allow Chinese Export Silver to evolve into a more definitive phenomenon and Chinese silver making existed prior to 1757, it would be far more accurate to add an additional period of 1685-1757. In the 17th and early 18th centuries Chinese silversmiths were already creating quite extraordinary pieces that had been either commissioned by royal households across Europe or items were being commissioned to be presented to them by wealthy families and politicians. The Royal Collection in the UK and the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg contain some highly important pieces made by Chinese master silversmiths in the late 17th and 18th centuries. 

Given my research is now well into its third year, it seemed more correct to reappraise the manufacturing periods because of the significant amount of new or adjusted information that has been amassed in that time. I have chosen to call the initial period “The Formative China Trade Period”; a significant Chinese export trade certainly existed prior to the 19th century up until the Canton System was introduced. Foreign merchants, in particular the British and Americans, not only were allowed to have a Chinese mainland base in the China Trade period, but they formed lucrative working partnerships with the Chinese Hong merchants, often based on a silent and somewhat enigmatic gentleman’s agreement; partnerships that were extremely complex and driven by the freneticism on the ground in China and an insatiable desire to make money. The second period has been reassessed to be the time span between the start of the Canton System and the signing of the Treaty of Nanking after the so-called First Opium War. A third period represents the time after the Treaty, the forming of Hong Kong as a British colony, encapsulates the later Treaty of Tientsin, various rebellions and periods of unrest, the decline of the clipper sailing ships as a result of the steamer ships and the de-facto reign of Empress Dowager Cixi and her sweeping reforms. The last period is one where the silver produced most reflected the changes that China was going through, the rise of the Chinese middle class, the affluence of Hong Kong and Shanghai, the introduction of Western-style department stores to China by returning émigré Chinese entrepreneurs and the fall of the Qing Dynasty to the relatively short-lived Republic [37 years]. Although the Republican Era came to an end in 1949, the year 1940 is a more fitting concluding date for Chinese Export Silver for various reasons, but mainly because of the outbreak of World War II. The decade preceding saw a confusing plethora of collusion between various regional warlords and foreign powers including some with Japan that led up to Japanese invasions and occupations of significant areas of China as a result of the Second Sino-Japanese War [euphemistically known in Japan as "The China Incident"] as well as Hong Kong itself in 1942. While there was considerable political unrest in China between 1912 and 1940, production of Chinese Export Silver did continue, albeit in varying degrees of diminishment depending on location, yet true to form much of the Chinese Export Silver produced during those years reflected the events of history that were rapidly unfolding. Some of the treaty ports or concession areas certainly produced silver wares specifically for the dominant colonial power; Tsingtau [Qingdao], for example, produced silver for the German market and silver was produced in Kwantung [Guandong] for Russia and Japan.

The four periods also act as a useful sub-conscious filing system, since each individual period contains silver with singularly distinctive attributes:

1685-1757 “The Formative China Trade Period”

1757-1842 “The Early China Trade Period”

1842-1895 “The Late China Trade Period”

1895-1940 “The Post China Trade & Republic Period”

The art of silversmithing has almost a 2000 year history in China; 1200 years sees the production of highly sophisticated wares that draw influences from empires and cultures that existed along the Silk Route. Until the latter part of the 17th century, for several hundred years, the work was mainly destined for the Imperial Court and upper echelons of society, while more latterly [18th century], increasingly for European royalty and aristocratic families as well as Eastern potentates and Indian maharajahs.

With the escalation of trading with China by the West as a result of an ever-growing need for luxury items only China could provide, it was the Imperial insistence on the use of silver Trade Dollars as means of payment that created even more vast reserves of silver for the Chinese treasury than had already been amassed.

Until around 1750, China’s demand for silver served as the engine for world trade! In 1793, China’s silver reserve was equivalent in today’s values of £29.5 billion [$49.3 billion].

Probably unlike any other nation in history, silver was highly prized by the succession of Chinese dynasties. Silver was the bedrock of almost 1200 years of trade with the outside world; a volume of trade that reached phenomenal levels, even by today’s standards. A trade that made previously sleepy European countries prosperous – Spain, for example.  Equally it caused some to verge on bankruptcy as a result of the imbalance of trade it created and cities were built where cities hadn’t previously existed – Lima in Peru, for instance.

The level of craftsmanship that produced Chinese Export Silver was not something that occurred overnight. The craftsmanship was as deeply embedded as silver was in the psyche of the Chinese, skill being something the Chinese have always valued highly. It was a sophisticated system of small workshops that would be akin to miniature production lines that formed the “back rooms” of some of the most superb silver items. Each workshop was operated by highly skilled artisans, some of whom were itinerant and worked for several workshops, each having an input into the finished item. The skills were more often than not passed down from generation to generation through families – another typical Chinese trait.

Chinese Export Silver was a product that spanned three centuries. The preceding 17th and early 18th centuries saw Chinese silversmiths creating exceptional pieces for royal households and aristocracy throughout Europe, India and Arabia as well as to a select number of wealthy American merchant families, mostly on the eastern seaboard. The Tang and Sung dynasties saw equally extraordinary silver being created, mainly for the Imperial court and Chinese nobility. The Ming dynasty saw an expansion in trade with Europe and Japan that was totally fuelled by silver, seeing levels reached that were extraordinary then as they would be now.

The amount of silver pouring into the Ming treasury was in the region of $190 billion in today’s values. The Ming dynasty was responsible for over 30% of the entire world’s GDP.

While China, under the Ming Dynasty, was virtually inundated with silver, we see a decline in the amount of important silver objects being produced, but it was the Qing Dynasty that brought the centuries of Chinese silver making to a new level of refinement and the phenomenon we know today as Chinese Export Silver.

In the 19th century, it was the high quality and relatively low price that caused Chinese Export Silver to become so sought after. History has a habit of always repeating itself in China; yet another constant! China’s many centuries’ love affair of silver culminated in the work that was constantly astounding to look at and constantly astounding in quality. It was almost as if the last roaring flames from the dragon’s mouth were finally abruptly extinguished in the late 1940’s and the end of the short-lived Republic Period. For 60 years the Communist government forbade private ownership of precious metals. That ban has now been lifted and investment in silver is now encouraged; equally, privately owned businesses had either been amalgamated into large state-owned and entities or disbanded altogether.

Sixty years on we see the flames rekindled. Silver was the sleeping princess for all those years and it has suddenly woken with China’s focus, once more, on silver, but a focus with a huge difference; China’s dominance in the high-tech manufacturing industries requires vast amounts of silver. China is the world’s largest buyer of silver, yet again. While its usage is purely industrial, one can only hope the revived need for silver will, at some stage, breathe life back into latent silversmithing skills and fine silver objects will yet again appear and astound us. If China can produce world-class polished diamonds and dominate the market with skills that were never historically Chinese, it can produce world-class silver objects again using skills it possessed for over a thousand years.

Silver, highly skilled artisans and almost fortress-like protectionism remained a constant until the Cultural Revolution. Apart from silver, there are so many parallels in the powerhouse we know as China today. It can only be a question of time before fine Chinese silver begins to flow again.

Chinese Export Silver Style

What is probably one of the most revealing characteristics of Chinese Export silver is its weight, most pieces being as much as one third heavier than comparable Western pieces. This is mainly due to the discrepancies between the vast amount of silver in China compared to Western trading countries; quantities in China were so vast that unlike Western silver making cultures, weight was almost  irrelevant.

From the mid-17th century, more than 9 billion Troy ounces, or 290 thousand tonnes, of silver was absorbed by China from European countries in exchange for Chinese goods!

Early Chinese Export Silver invariably took the form of copies of British or American neo-classical Georgian styles. This gradually evolved into incorporating overtly Chinese motifs to apply to these classic forms. The evolving process never lost momentum and by the latter part of the 19th century, the style had evolved into an extravaganza of Chinese motifs that, in the true high Victorian manner, completely covered silver items to the point where plain polished surfaces were virtually banished. 

In Hong Kong, where the population was heading for 250,000 that had sprung from a virtually insignificant fishing village of a few thousand only 40 years previous, many of the merchant-based companies that had previously been active in Canton and the East India trade along with numerous entrepreneurial newcomers were thriving at an unprecedented rate. The combination of prosperity and a large international community attracted a significant number of the Canton silversmiths to the island; this was reflected in a more catholic style of silver that found a synergy between Chinese decorative motifs on objects that were more suited to a Western lifestyle. Some might call it a fantasy version of the Chinese style, since silversmiths and their silver were still ingrained with the traditional allegorical meanings of these motifs that, in the main, went over the heads of most buyers; to a Westerner this was simply exotic, not to mention à la mode.

Hong Kong’s new-found prosperity coincided with a general upsurge in wealth in the colony and the growth of the middle classes in Europe and America and, somewhat perversely, increase in awareness overseas of what was happening in China in terms of foreign military presence created a Victorian renaissance of the Chinese style and all things “chinoiserie”. Retail silversmiths such as Wang Hing & Company literally did a roaring trade in creating trophies for the many clubs and institutions that were being founded in Hong Kong, in fact the island was becoming the epitome of a colonial city., mirroring those in the Raj, but based on more substantial wealth. These trophy and commemorative items themselves tell a story of an era of Hong Kong’s history that have long gone, as have many of the institutions that awarded them.

By the time the 20th century dawned, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and the later Art Deco styles were incorporated into items, in particular pieces manufactured in Shanghai and Hong Kong where the by now substantial international communities had become indigenous and an equally substantial affluent Chinese middle class had adopted Western lifestyles. 

In the early 20th century the various foreign nations trading from China from their various international enclaves that were each governed according to their respective national laws, caused a meteoric rise in affluence. Living in unprecedented luxury that they could only have been dreamt of in their home countries, the merchants and entrepreneurs had the sole focus of making as much money as they could as quickly as possible, living in a surreal world of mansions, servants and endless parties and entertaining.

Shanghai entered a new phase of its history which transformed it to the London, New York and Buenos Airies of the East with the added licentiousness of Berlin and Paris. Many Chinese merchants became wealthy or wealthier; many choosing to live in the international sectors too and to adopt totally Western lifestyles, including the decadence that had almost become an unofficial trademark of the city. This new “Chinese Jazz Age” was very much reflected in the Chinese Export Silver that flowed out of Shanghai, not to forget the Westernisation of traditional Chinese dress becoming the fashion statement in every large city in the West epitomised by Madame Chiang, wife of Chiang Kai-Shek, who was well on the way to becoming an international style icon.

Decadence was borne out of prosperity, which in turn generated more decadence and even more prosperity; a pattern that was being repeated in many of the major world cities of the time. This caused a noticeable increase in the amount of silver being produced for both the indigenous home markets and those overseas. Equally, there was a palpable change in the style of silver being produced as well as new objects that were themselves products of the age. If one object could encapsulate this early 20th century decadence, the cocktail shaker does it admirably; Chinese Export Silver rose to that challenge.

Shanghai and Hong Kong at the beginning of the 20th century were parallel cities, both expanding rapidly and both major international trading ports generating vast wealth. Equally, the city that had been the forerunner of both, Canton, while losing its position and raison d’être as an international trading city had become the city of revolutionaries. Canton was very much a city in transition, yet it was doing so in an atmosphere of turmoil brought about by a succession of men returning from sojourns in America and Britain, many of them returning as newly converted Christians and most of them with revolutionary ideas for a dynastic-free state steeped in left-wing communist, Bolshevik or socialist ideals.This turmoil caused the gradual transfer of the remaining silver making in Canton to Shanghai and Hong Kong

There are, however, “grey areas” of both style and places of manufacturing that are associated with Chinese Export Silver. There were a number of countries bordering on China many of which were effectively vassal states; Vietnam, Korea, Siam [Thailand], Tibet, Burma, Formosa [Taiwan], Bhutan and Nepal etc. Straits Chinese silver [sometimes referred to as Peranakan Silver], technically a silver category in its own right and in many instances may also be referred to as being “Chinese”, had among its manufacturing ranks silversmiths who, confusingly for us, straddled both Straits and Chinese Export Silver categories. Straits silver is a complicated silver category inasmuch as it had three distinct manufacturing periods over the 100 years it was produced [1835-1935], with some of the silversmiths who were based in China proper as well as in the Straits effectively creating “export Silver” – some destined exclusively for the Straits and some for export to the West.

Straits Chinese, silver unlike its Chinese counterpart, never attempted to ape Western styles; it was often incorporated with Chinese-influences merged with decorative motifs that were particularly of Straits’ regional origins and on forms and styles that were definitively Straits in terms of traditional cultural provenance. One of the most prominent contrasts between Straits and Chinese Export Silver is the former has specific traditional objects that have a useful place in daily cultural and ceremonial life, albeit decorative, while the latter is primarily made for decorative purposes. True Straits Silver is highly unlikely to include the use of traditional Chinese allegorical animal figures or architectural references; decorative motifs tend to follow those of traditional brocades and embroideries. Straits Chinese Silver also tends to be of a significantly thinner gauge than that employed in Chinese Export Silver. More confusing for us today is substantial evidence of silver being made in Straits territories by Chinese silversmiths that are obviously designed for the Hong Kong and mainland China markets. Such silver usually has recognisable characteristics of Straits’ silver making techniques that have subtle differences with those of Chinese silversmiths operating in China or Hong Kong.

As with Chinese Export Silver,Straits Chinese silver often carries Chinese chop marks and it is because of this that items often appear in Western auction houses or on sellers’ websites incorrectly identified as Chinese Export Silver, with perhaps a degree of licence or optimism on the part of the seller factored in since Chinese Export Silver generally achieves higher values than Straits Chinese silver at auction.

Just as it is not straightforward to define what is Straits Chinese silver, it is not plain-sailing to define “Straits Chinese”. The considerable Chinese population is mainly the result of indentured rubber plantation workers from the 19th and early 20th centuries, although some Chinese artisans are also known to have settled and were sought after for their skills which had evolved from a different cultural base.

The British Straits Settlements consisted of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, with Labuan being added in 1906. Macau was a Portuguese colony. Formosa [now called Taiwan] was a Dutch colony. Customs, rituals, cultures, religious beliefs and decorative motifs varied across the regions, often finding themselves intermixed, yet often incorporated into decorative motifs. Equally, some Chinese silversmiths who had a manufacturing base in mainland China are known to have operated in many of the vassal states that bordered on China up to the late 19th century.

It is mainly due to the ascendant buoyancy of values of Chinese Export Silver as an antique silver category that it is often seen by the more opportunistic sellers as a bandwagon to climb aboard and take a convenient ride upon. Even 19th century English silver decorated “in the Chinese style” has been known to have been somewhat annoyingly described as “Chinese Export Silver”, while Japanese silver, some of which is quite similar to Chinese Export Silver, is also not infrequently catalogued as being “Chinese Export Silver”, mainly because of sellers’ inability to distinguish between Chinese and Japanese character marks. That said, many traditional decorative motifs are shared in both Chinese and Japanese cultures. While generally there are subtle discernible differences between how these motifs manifest themselves in silver wares; the difference generally being related to the mode of execution by the silversmith. It is generally believed, however, that Chinese silversmiths living and operating in territories in China under Japanese control either by treaty agreement or agreed lease, created silver specifically for the lucrative Japanese market. Dalian, for example, was a town that had a silver making tradition.

Lastly, it is becoming increasingly more common to see silver that is made in China bearing the silver marks “SILVER” and “CHINA”. Such silver often features in auction houses as well as online and is frequently described as being “late 19th century”. Even with all the wishful thinking in the world, in the majority of cases this is simply incorrect; such silver items were generally produced in China after the 1949 Cultural Revolution and are more likely to be as recent as the 21st century. Some of these items aim to mimic elaborate filigree and enamel wares that were prevalent in China in the late 18th century/early 19th century and although the workmanship is also intricate, they are nevertheless new. 

Silver and silver making, as with any creative art, should command respect; it is not and can never be a convenient carousel to take a ride on and jump off at a whim.

Chinese Export Silver Band

 

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One comment on “The definitive global information hub for Chinese Export Silver | 全球权威的信息枢纽,为中国进出口银 | 全球權威的信息樞紐,為中國進出口銀 ACCESSED BY OVER 20,000 PEOPLE WORLDWIDE EVERY WEEK

  1. Adrien von Ferscht, THE expert in the field of Chinese Export Silver, never ceases to educate and amaze with his knowledge and continuing research into China’s enormous silver trade. Sit back and relax with some green tea and read about one of the most fascinating areas of silver history.

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