Empress Dowager Cixi


#ChineseExportSilver Yellow Band

Chinese Export Silver always adapted to the realities of Chinese history; it was, after all, a product of that history,as such, it has qualities that no other silver category possesses. Viewed in the overall context of China, it is an excellent indicator of prevailing historical events at any given time; events that were many and fast-moving, particularly in the latter part of the 19th century.

That a de-facto ruler of the largest nation on earth could, in 47 years, transform an effectively medieval society into a modern 20th century state is extraordinary in itself. The fact she was a semi-literate woman in a totally man’s world is exceptional. 47 years of the Empress Dowager Cixi at the helm dispensed with centuries-old customs, most steeped in ancestral superstition and confined within the boundaries set by Confucianism. Minds were prised open and this was quickly reflected in all the creative arts as well as in revolutionary changes in merchant trading. For Chinese Export Silver, it meant a move away from its former traditional centre, Canton, to Hong Kong and Shanghai as well as other treaty ports. Previous vassal states such as Vietnam, Korea, Mongolia and Formosa began to create silver that became increasingly divorced from the Chinese style.


#ChineseExportSilver Yellow Band

Looking at the picture above, it would be difficult for most people to imagine that this somewhat otherworldly woman was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing China into the modern world. For this is the Empress Dowager Cixi, born in 1835, her father an ordinary Manchu official, she entered the Imperial court in 1852 as a concubine and was elevated incrementally to the rank of Virtuous Honourable Concubine. She was not particularly well educated, being able to read but initially barely able to write and she lived her life according to traditional values; a fact that often presented her with a dilemma when she had become determined to modernise China while trying to ensure the Manchu Qing Dynasty remained intact.

For centuries, China had consistently been ahead of the West in so many ways, yet its insistence to adopt an introspective stance by almost virtually hermetically sealing its borders to foreigners did have negative effects; that, and a mindset deeply weighed down by ingrained tradition and superstition.

The Sung Dynasty [960-1279CE] is often referred to as a Chinese Renaissance, with a vast array of inventions and discoveries occurring that preceded later Western parallels that also claimed to be the first highly sophisticated technological advances, but were to have a profound effect on the Chinese people and civilisation as a whole. But as much as China was introspective, Europe was Europe-centric and the European inventions of the nautical compass [1112CE], firearms [1810CE] and the printing press [1448CE] were in existence in China long before; each other’s self-absorption creating parallel worlds that were oblivious to an egocentric world-view that placed all foreign countries equally into a single group, with China being superior and an intermediary between them and heaven. As the Celestial Empire, China had also evolved a diplomatic tradition that held great store in tributes and placed trade as being almost inconsequential that to foreign nations was perplexing in varying degrees but to which they applied themselves, resulting in varying degrees of understanding.

Portuguese Caravel Ship

A typical 16th century Portuguese “Caravel” sailing ship

The Chinese tributary system dates back to the Han Dynasty [206BCE-220CE] and was a product of a totally sino-centric concept borne out of its belief of it being superior to all others’ inferiority. China had always viewed the world in this uniquely self-obsessed way that in reality tended to create highly complex and intricate systems and procedures that foreigners were expected to follow. Fundamentally the tributary system was a self-preservation mechanism that was perfectly logical to the Chinese and somewhat baffling to non-Chinese. It aimed to successfully manage and regulate trade by first being confirmed as the “centre of the universe” by a “tribute” mission being granted an audience at court at which the ke-tou [kowtow] ritual was performed which in turn led to a proclamation of the precise period trading and foreign relations would be allowed. A series of formal exchanges of gifts that accompanied less formal, but nevertheless regulated, under-the-table exchanges was an “expectation”; an obstacle course, if you will, to test the endurance and compliance of a prospective trading partner that earned points according to Chinese rules and expectations. This was a system that was approaching being 2000 years old by the time the Portuguese arrived – a system prescribed by Confucianism and the “Mandate of Heaven”, with customs that had not really changed and would not change significantly until it collapsed in the mid 19th century. As with most Imperial court procedures, they appeared archaic and otherworldly, which is exactly what they were.

Digressing, Chinese Export Silver is an excellent indicator of both the Chinese mindset and the effect China had on the rest of the world as a result of that mindset at any given time in history. The Empress Dowager was born into a world where the Canton System of trade dominated, which in turn was China’s remedy for regulating foreign presence and trade in China. The reality of the system, with the benefit of hindsight, could be viewed as the most chaotic ever devised; some would even question whether the word “system” is wholly appropriate. Whereas Chinese Mandarins were highly skilled at creating a set of rules for any given situation, the Chinese merchant hierarchy, itself Khecheong tea urnhighly complex and convoluted, would by nature create a viable and logical solution to absolve themselves. The foreign merchants of the Canton System would comply, each in their own way and according to their own national logic, adding to the overall confusion but more often than not resulting in satisfactory transactions. The circumvention of the Canton System was effectively a game of Snakes & Ladders, enjoyed by the players but hated by the Mandarins and the Imperial court.

In the world of Chinese Export Silver, when the Empress Dowager was a small child it mainly took the form of high quality silver in the neo-classical style that was prevalent in Britain and America of which this circa 1840 tea urn [left] by the Canton retail silversmith Khecheong admirably shows.

At the time this urn was made, the Emperor Dao-guang [Taou-Kwang] was on the Imperial throne and China was in political turmoil. The first Opium War was about to be waged and not long afterwards was to follow the Taiping Rebellion. Trade in Canton continued, albeit sometimes under duress, while foreign merchants were tasked with executing special orders from Canton silversmiths to produce high quality items to rival those being made in London, Boston and New York but at a fraction of the cost of producing them in those cities. Foreign trade was strictly contained with an area less than half a square mile.

While China’s age of renaissance was waning, in Europe it was commencing; the Ming Dynasty closed China’s doors while European nations caught up on lost years.  By the early 16th century Portuguese ships sailed into the Chinese world; a world in whose eyes China believed it was by divine right the centrifugal force, with an Emperor who was directly mandated by heaven.

Emperor Daoguang 1843

The Emperor  Daoguang reviewing his troops at The Forbidden City 1843

This was a reign of growing discontentment of the people due to gross embezzlement by officials of already fast-depleting funds spent on trying to deal with a succession of floods and famine. The Emperor chose austerity as his own lifestyle while his officials did not know the meaning of the word, let alone the concept. By the time Dao-guang died in 1850, he left a China that was fast in decline, in chaos politically from the overly convoluted in-fighting within the court and a China that was light years behind prospering Western nations and its relatively tiny neighbour Japan; the Industrial Revolution was to pass China by.

By decree, he was succeeded by his fourth son Xianfeng [real name, Yizhu] at the age of 19. His chosen Imperial name means “universal prosperity” and this could not have been further from the reality China found itself in.  Xianfeng’s reign began with a series of rebellions within China, beginning with the Taiping Rebellion. There was also increasing pressure from outside China that culminated in the so-called Second Opium War involving the British Empire and the Second French Empire against the Qing Dynasty in 1856 that was to last four years. The war was devastating for China, resulting in a series of treaties that ceded further ports to foreign trade, made the trading of opium  legal, gave equal rights to Christians and a right to evangelise, ceded Kowloon to the British and culminated with a siege of Beijing and the burning and looting of the Summer Palace and the Old Summer Palace ordered by Lord Elgin. The Chinese were made to pay 8 million taels [equivalent to $208 million in today’s values] compensation to France and Britain.  Xianfeng and his court had fled to the Imperial Summer palace in the mountains of Hebei Province at Chengde.

Rehe Palace Chengde

The 18th century Rehe Palace Resort at Chengde, Hebei Province

Xianfeng died in 1861 at the Imperial Summer Palace, having been left a broken man as a result of his disastrous decisions and his being totally removed from reality. His 6 year old son Zaichun succeeded him, with an 8 person Regency Council to rule until Zaichun was of age to take the throne. More importantly, Cixi was made Empress Dowager, Zaichun being her birth son. The former Empress, was also made Dowager Empress Ci’an, even though she was childless; the new Emperor took the regnal name of The Tongzhi Emperor, meaning “restoring order together” which turned out to be ironically apt.

Empress Dowager Cixi & Empress Dowager Cian

Empress Dowager Ci’an [left] & Empress Dowager Cixi [right]

Despite previous animosity between Ci’an and Cixi prior to this, Cixi quickly took the initiative and hurried back to the Forbidden City in Beijing with the sole intent to stage a palace coup that would replace the 8 man Regency Council with the two Dowager Empresses and Prince Gong, the new Emperor’s uncle. This is the first time we really see Cixi’s genius of strategy at play, for not only did she manage to get Ci’an to fully cooperate, but they were to actually have a close relationship from then onwards with Cixi being the  engine powering the throne.

Albeit she was Regent, Empress Dowager Cixi was the antithesis of every ruler that had preceded her; “Make China Strong” [zi-qiang] through institutional and social reform and adopting the modern world instead of allowing Confucianism to rule the mind was her mantra. Not only was she a woman in a patriarchy, but such an agenda was tantamount to being sacrilege in the minds of the court with its ancient ways; such was the challenge Cixi set herself – and China.

China now enters a transition period and this is reflected in Chinese Export Silver. The hitherto predominant neo-classicism almost disappears overnight and there’s a swing to applying what are essentially traditional Chinese decorative motifs to silver items that are not particularly Chinese in concept but that have been created in the “Chinese style”. This goblet [below] is by the Canton retail silversmith Cutshing and carries an inscription with the date 1863, which puts it two years into the new de facto reign of Cixi.

Cutshing gobletThe inscription is very telling of the times:

Presented to Dr J R Carmichael

by his patients & friends on his departure from

Canton to Chefoo

February 1863

Chefoo [Zhifou], Shandong Province in 1861 became an international trading port for Great Britain and 16 other trading nations. From being a backwater historic town, it suddenly became yet another focal point for international trade, the reason why Dr Carmichael was relocating from Canton, the original treaty port in China. This otherwise seemingly insignificant goblet is indicative of quite meteoric changes happening in China in the early 1860’s related to foreign trade and trading rights and indicative of the nibbling into China’s coastline by foreign powers.

Despite the fact that the international community chose to conveniently disregard the integrity of China as a sovereign state, the original five treaty ports and how they were thriving since their creation presented Cixi with a blueprint. She was cognizant of what had happened in the first twenty years of Hong Kong being ceded to the British. She knew that China had to open it’s doors to foreign trade, understanding thatSir Robert Hart China could benefit from the excise revenues, being well aware that in just two months, the port of Shanghai had collected over 800,000 taels [almost $21 million in today’s values] in import duty alone. She also knew that implementing an effective customs regime and the collection of taxes could not be trusted to just anyone from the Chinese court if she wanted the proceeds to remain intact – for centuries the traditional system of the “squeeze” [skimming off the top] was invoked at all stages of any transaction, including tax  collecting. Cixi took the unprecedented step of confirming an Irishman, Sir Robert Hart, as Inspector General of Chinese Maritime Custom Service.

Hart was to transform the antiquated and corruption-riven Chinese Customs into a slick revenue-delivering machine that allowed China to fully pay off the indemnities it owed France and Great Britain from the Treaty of Tientsin. It was a tremendously courageous move to have taken and Cixi remained resolute despite the animosity it caused within the Chinese civil service. Hart remained in office until 1866 and on relinquishing his position he handed Cixi his advice for the next step of her reforms, which included the introduction of countrywide telegraphic system, railroad systems and modern mining methods; all situations presenting the more traditional Chinese with the dilemma of disrupting the geomancy [feng shui] and the ancestral burial sites. Hart had estimated the Chinese coal fields to be probably twenty times greater than the entire continent of Europe.

The transformation of Shanghai to a treaty port had a similar impact to the already established silver making tradition in the city. As with Canton, Shanghai had a core element of silversmiths, some of whom  dated back to the 18th century, since silver making was very much a traditional dynastic family artisan trade; the oldest known silversmith being Lao Qing Yun. What was particularly interesting was to see how some of the established makers were themselves in a transition, creating silver for the traditional “home market” as well as for the burgeoning export trade. These makers, many of whom were retail silversmiths, were slowly joined by new names as the resident international community in Shanghai and the export trades grew.

Bao Cheng Yue Ji

This superb and rare cup and saucer [above] is particularly interesting since it is clearly inspired by Tang silver from almost 1200 years previous, as the illustration of a tang silver gilt cup, circa 700CE] [below] shows. It is difficult to accurately date this piece, but circa 1870-80 is probably right and it was made for the Shanghai retail silversmith Bao Cheng, one of a core group of silversmiths operating there known as “the nine factories”, but what makes it even more interesting is shown in the silver mark which tells us this is Bao Cheng Yue Ji, a branch of the established Bao Cheng dynasty. An expansion of a retail silversmith demonstrates that Shanghai was sufficiently booming to warrant it.

There are those that make comparison between the Empress Dowager and Queen Victoria, yet it is hardly a worthy comparison other thanTang silver cup the two were obviously women leaders in a man’s world. Victoria, unlike Cixi, had a government that made the decisions; Victoria was the figurehead of a government on an unstoppable empire-building spree, while Cixi was both figurehead and strategist endeavouring to stop Victoria’s government from destroying the integrity of China as a nation state and an empire in its own right. Britain was not alone in her global expansion aspirations; Germany, Japan, Russia, France and  the United States were all clamouring at the same door.

It is also important to remember that at this point in time, there were several countries bordering on China that were effectively vassal states; Vietnam, Korea, Siam [Thailand], Tibet, Burma, Formosa [Taiwan], Bhutan and Nepal etc. Foreign powers tended to see these territories as easy-pickings and Cixi had to make decisions that were often hard to swallow, often to simply allow these states to become detached and in doing so allow foreign powers to have a presence on China’s borders; Keeping the integrity of China-proper intact was the priority.

In silver making terms, there was a majority presence of Chinese silversmiths in many of these countries, which in itself creates a dilemma for us today to determine whether the silver created by them was Chinese or, say, Vietnamese. Silver created in Mongolia at this time would as likely to be considered as much Chinese as Mongolian, if created by a Chinese silversmith operating a workshop there; a dilemma that is further complicated by the fact that many of these “Chinese” makers remained after these states became colonies of either Western powers or Japan.

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 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 commercial 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 it was simply exotic. 

Wang Hing trophyHong Kong’s new-found prosperity coincided with a general upsurge in wealth and the growth of the middle classes in Europe and America and, somewhat perversely, the awareness overseas of what was happening in China 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 that all those nibbling at China’s coastline were hoping to  replicate.

Although this presentation trophy [left] is dated slightly later at 1891, it is nevertheless typical of items appearing in Hong Kong from 1860’s onwards.

Decorated with prolific traditional Chinese scenes and dreams that have been imposed upon a trophy in the neo-classical high Victorian style and bears the engraved legend:

Racquet Handicap Hong Kong 1891

     Won by

      E.H.Grafton [Scratch]

The exuberant Chinese style applied to a very Western object is yet again reflecting the various phenomena that were happening on the ground in China and Hong Kong as history was unfolding.

The momentum of expansion in Hong Kong was markedly different from mainland China treaty ports. Hong Kong, by definition, had sovereignty over its own destiny, whereas the treaty ports were enclaves within the confines of a total Chinese authority, albeit a “new order” of things. The expansion of both Hong Kong and Shanghai as international trading centres had a detrimental effect on Canton. Not only were Chinese merchants relocating to Hong Kong, in particular, but the previously strong bonds that had existed between Chinese merchants, the old Hong merchant hierarchy and the British merchants [the vast majority of whom were actually Scottish] also transferred to the island; these being additionally bolstered by the Indian Jewish [Mizrachi]mercantile clans moving their families. operations and investments there.Wang Hing goblet

Yet this Wang Hing trophy goblet [left] clearly shows there is still a semi-colonial lifestyle intact at Canton in 1889. The inscription on the cup reads:

Wang Hing inscription detail


In 1874, Cixi’s son died of smallpox. Earlier the same year, the Emperor had dismissed the two regents Prince Gong and Prince Chun over their objection to his plan to rebuild the Old Summer Palace at a time when the empire was near bankruptcy. Both Empress Dowagers had intervened and he was forced to reinstate them. Although he died childless, it was generally believed his Empress was pregnant, but Cixi, realising this was a crucial time for China to survive, she declared her nephew Prince Zaitien,  the three year old son of Prince Chun, Emperor; Cixi and Ci’an were the sole Regents in a non-written pact that would allow Cixi to be de-facto ruler and, both bizarrely and strategically, Cixi adopted the new Emperor. Cixi’s daughter-in-law died a few months later; a new era of ruling China was born under the new Emperor’s regnal name Guangxu. Even more bizarrely, Guangzu was encouraged to address Cixi as “Papa dearest”, which he continued to do until her passing over 30 years hence.

Emperor Guangzu

The Three Year Old Emperor Guangzu

History has generally not been particularly kind to Cixi, having been vilified by many historians as having been self-centred and a wanton spendthrift, some of which could be construed as being true if taken out of context. The same could be said for her counterpart Queen Victoria who, in the height of the dire poverty of the mid 19th century built Osborne House and Balmoral Castle as private residencies, but finding a historian that actually says that is rare. Unlike Victoria, Cixi was single-handedly fighting for the very existence and integrity of China as a nation, while Victoria [or her government] was expanding hers at the expense of others.

Cixi was to effectively rule for the next 15 years, but from the start she knew that time was of the essence if she was to optimally accelerate her vision for China’s modernisation. She turned to Li Hongzhang who had already distinguished himself by demonstrating several times he was a world-class statesman and diplomat and, most importantly, one who was respected not only by the West but by neighbouring Japan and Russia. Cixi’s choice of Li was to put China on the international stage for the first time, not as a puppet but as a highly respected diplomat who meant business. For his life’s work, Queen Victoria conferred Li with a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order; an award that was heartfelt rather than driven by some cunning sycophantic strategy. 

Cixi’s first diplomatic move was to appoint Guo Songtao as her minister to London, his main task being to learn how the British were so successful at governing. Guo was soon to report back that not only were the British “courteous” but he intimated that China’s 2000 year old Imperial system was not as desirable as the British parliamentary monarchical system. As it transpired, Guo was not entirely a satisfactory choice but his initial observation were something Cixi embraced wholeheartedly.

Li Hongzhang & Otto von Bismarck

Li Hongzhang with Otto von Bismarck in Friedrichsruh, the Bismarck Manor House in the Sachenswald Forest, Northern Germany, 1896

Also in 1875, Robert Hart, Cixi requested of Robert Hart to draw up a manifesto for a wholesale expansion of foreign trade and the industrialisation of China. Her mantra “Make China Strong” was given a second addition “Make the Chinese Rich” and she was adamant the latter could only be attained by creating Western-style industrial projects. This was from a woman who had never left China to the point of rarely leaving the confines of the Forbidden City and whose life was until now governed by the archaic court protocols that were brought to Beijing in the 17th century at the onset of the Manchu Dynasty.

All this should be taken within the context of China never previously having acknowledged a need for a Ministry of Foreign Affairs since, as a concept, foreign affairs was anathema to a nation that believed it was mandated by heaven.

The revolutionary changes came fast and furious from Cixi’s mind and spewed out into her court where officials who were totally unused to such radicalism were badgered into first understanding her plans and edicts and then pressed upon to implement them effectively; the sheer volume was staggering.

In 1875 a programme of modern coal mining was begun and the domino effect of this was the introduction of electricity. No government that had so recently come so close to bankruptcy could contemplate funding such ambitious schemes on a scale a land mass the size of  China demanded, so Cixi encouraged entrepreneurs to invest and even allowed them to issue shares to raise capital. This, in turn, began to generate a new phenomenon in China – a middle class.

Empress Cixi The extraordinary sight of wives of the American legation in Beijing with the Empress Dowager Cixi, Sarah Conger, wife of the American minister to China holding Cixi’s hand. Previously, women not of the Imperial family  or their consorts were forbidden to enter the Forbidden City, let alone foreign women!

It was as if China had been shaken vigorously by the shoulders and it had woken up after centuries of virtual hibernation. The focus of the modern world now centred on China, creating their own trade and maritime initiatives, not all of the latter necessarily with peaceful intent.

The tazza [below] was created by Wang Hing & Company, probably from their now prospering Hong Kong base. Once again a somewhat theatrical and fanciful notion of “the oriental” has been applied to an object that is as far from Chinese culture as one could get, yet Wang Hing, which was known for strictly controlling design and quality, still took the trouble to adhere to the allegorical symbolism of the decorative motifs employed. The object carries the following inscription:

Foley C.P. Vereker R N 

from his Shipmates

H.M.S. Rambler 1885

Wang Hing Tazza

The ship HMS Rambler was launched in 1880 at John Elder & Co., shipbuilders in Glasgow. The ship was ostensibly a survey vessel but was fitted out as a fully rigged gun vessel and in 1885 joined the China Station which was then based at Hong Kong but would eventually relocate to Weihaiwei on the China mainland. HMS rambler was typical of a vast convergence of maritime activity that all the “interested” foreign nations brought to the waters around China, in the form of both naval and merchant shipping al all sizes. This, in turn, generated a vast upturn in the economies of all the participating countries including Hong Kong and China itself.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, the fact that Cixi had just 15 years to totally change a nation that accounted for one quarter of the population of the world at the time would be unthinkable for any nation to contemplate today. Even had it been relatively plain sailing, the task she chose borders on the incomprehensible, but plain sailing is not what Cixi was presented with. She encountered fierce opposition from within the court, yet she remained resolute and pragmatic. If that was not enough, she was beset with full scale rebellions, the most challenging, apart from a humiliating Japanese invasion, being the so-called Boxer rebellion. Faced with the dilemma of foreign armies on Chinese territory fighting the same enemy and safeguarding the integrity of China’s borders and its sovereignty of the people and landmass within them caused her to choose to be seen to side with the Boxers rebels by giving them legal status; her decision based on the premise that it was the lesser of two evils and one she could deal with once the foreign powers were defeated. It was a bold choice given the Boxers were intent on overthrowing the Manchu Dynasty and her plan did not develop as she had planned; the final Battle of Peking – the 55 day siege of the international legation in Beijing ended in defeat for the Boxers and the combined international forces going on the rampage in the city causing widespread damage. 

The eventual peace agreement between the Eight-Nation Alliance and Cixi’s representatives were to cost China over $4 billion [in today’s values] plus interest over 39 years as indemnity payments. Cixi, who had fled the Imperial City at the last minute dressed as a peasant women and on a wooden box cart returned to Beijing both broken and fire up with renewed energy to escalate the transformation of China. She knew she was an old woman, the Emperor had to be seen to be ruling, yet she was very much the back seat driver sat firmly at the front – technically, she had retired.

For the various foreign nations now trading from China from their various international enclaves that were governed each according to their respective national laws, the start of the 20th century was as if an invisible brake had been release. Living in unprecedented luxury that they could only have dreamt of in their home countries, the merchants and entrepreneurs had the sole focus of making as much moneys they could as quickly as possible. 

Shanghai entered a new phase of its history which transformed it to the London, New York and Chicago of the East with the added licentiousness of Berlin. Many Chinese merchants became wealthy or wealthier; many chose to live in the international sectors too and adopted 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.

Hung Chong basketDecadence was borne out of prosperity, which in turn generated more decadence and even more prosperity; a pattern that was repeated in major world cities. 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 “Jazz Age”. The swing-handle reticulated basket by the Shanghai retail silversmith Hung Chong demonstrates this new fusion of the Chinese style and a more modern styled object, while retaining the quality. This basket could not be European or American; it is Chinese of sorts, but a Chinese style not seen before.

CJ Co Cocktail Set

If one object could encapsulate this early 20th century decadence, the cocktail shaker does it admirably. This 14-piece cocktail set carries the mark of C.J. Co. [aka China Jewelry Company], one of the many new retail silversmiths servicing the affluent Shanghainese. The glasses are particularly interesting since they appear to be torn between traditional Chinese motifs in their reticulated silver conical cups, but they also have glass liners that appear to be forerunners of the dry Martini glasses we are familiar with today. Martini & Rossi first began marketing their 50/50 mix of Old Tom Gin and vermouth mix as far back as 1863, but the dry Martini as a cocktail has a conflicting origin. In 1911, the bartender at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York claims to have invented it, however the town of Martinez in San Francisco Bay claims to have been serving the “Martinez” as early as 1849; the drink was then gentrified into a “Martini”, complete with olive in the main gold-rush city of San Francisco [population 25,000] – both seem to be plausible cocktail tales.

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 was becoming 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 quickly filtered through to the worker-levels and Canton was plagued by literally hundreds of unions, one superseding the other in rapid succession and almost always exploiting the actual workers who were pouring into Canton in great numbers. The exploitation fuelled wealth; the exploiters invested the wealth into a massive replanting of the city that included the development of the Bund as we know it today as well as a city-wide rickshaw system – unionised, of course. Canton, for the first 11 years of the 20th century was the incubator from which would emerge not only the first republic, but also successive leaders, almost all of whom had studied in the West and many at Christian Methodist and Wesleyan institutions.

Chinese Women playing snooker

The three cities did have one phenomenon in common, the relative emancipation of Chinese women – or at least the more affluent ones. Interestingly, nearby Yokohama in Japan was evolving in a similar way and was generally easily accessible to south Chinese cities.

Again, with the benefit of hindsight, with all the vision and drive Cixi possessed, she seemed to fail in factoring into her main equation for the modernisation of China that by almost certain default, such an initiative would not only engender teething troubles, but it would also engender revolutionary extremists simply by dint of fact peoples’ minds were opening to a whole new world. As far as history shows, she gave no signs of recognising this and it could well be due to the fact she had never ever seen the Western world; she could only envision it from what she was told and from the very few Westerners she came into contact with.

Style and extreme wealth, however, became ubiquitous of early 20th century Shanghai and Hong Kong, each developing its own recognisable versions of this strange melange of colonialism and the nouveau riche. 1905 Hong Kong and Shanghai were far advanced of the development of Canton, which had begun to fall prey to the pressures of political unrest. Cixi had never ever seen these three cities!

Des Veoux Road

Des Veoux Road, Hong Kong, 1904 and the new tram system

The Bund Shanghai The Bund, Shanghai and The British Club [left]

The combined cosmopolitan Shanghai and Hong Kong clientele influenced theHung Chong Inkwell Chinese retail silversmiths to create what were “cutting edge” designs of the day, such as this “Arts & Crafts” influenced inkwell by Shanghai-based Hung Chong & Company or the Art Nouveau inspired picture frame by Wang Hing & Co.

Wang Hing picture frame

Again, with the benefit of hindsight, with all the vision and drive Cixi possessed, she seemed to fail in factoring into her main equation for the modernisation of China that by almost certain default, such an initiative would not only engender teething troubles, but it would also engender revolutionary extremists simply by dint of fact peoples’ minds were opening to a whole new world. As far as history shows, she gave no signs of recognising this and it could well be due to the fact she had never ever seen the Western world; she could only envision it from what she was told and from the very few Westerners she came into contact with.

Style and extreme wealth, however, became ubiquitous of early 20th century Shanghai and Hong Kong, each developing its own recognisable versions of this strange melange of colonialism and the nouveau riche. 1905 Hong Kong and Shanghai were already far advanced of the development of Canton, which had begun to fall prey to the pressures of political unrest.

Quite what the Empress Dowager would have made of this can never be known, and certainly it was not part of her original master plan or vision. Just as Cixi had found it logical to form an alliance with the Boxers, perhaps she would have seen a logic in doing the same with the triads. It may even have worked, had she been in the driving seat. Certainly there are modern-day equivalents in the world today that have had varying degrees of effectiveness. One thing is a given though, dramatic social changes will always manifest themselves in the ever-evolving style of the day; silver items are a perfect thermometer to gauge social history retrospectively. Given the years of Cixi’s reign in China and the years leading to the formation of the Republic and the two decades afterwards are so packed with tumultuous events that fast-tracked Chinese society into a world that even Cixi probably could not have imagined, Chinese Export Silver of that period speaks volumes. Cixi’s legacy was the releasing of the centuries-old brakes on creativity in all its forms and a China that was on the road to modernity, albeit a rocky one.

Cixi's Funeral

Cixi left China in style, as she had lived it. Her funeral demonstrated a level of popularity with the people that even she would have been surprised at.

A lasting image of that style is surely her hands – incredibly long finger extensions in exquisite filigree silver and gold encrusted with jewels, her neck always cascading with pearls.

Empress Dowager Cixi


#ChineseExportSilver Yellow Band

Adrien von Ferscht at University of Glasgow


Encyclopaedia Brittanica

Vanity Fair, 27 December 1894 edition

Empress Dowager Cixi, Jung Chang, 2014
The Much Maligned Empress Dowager: A Revisionist Study of the Empress Dowager Tz’u-Hsi (1835–1908), Sue Fawn Chung, 1979
Dragon Lady: the Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China , Keith Laidler, 2003
Memoirs of Li Hung Chang, William Francis Mannix, 1913
Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period (1644–1912), Arthur William Hummel, 1943
Li Hung-Chang and China’s Early Modernisation, Samuel C Chu & Kwang-Ching Liu, 1994
The War of the Dragon Lady; John Wilcox, 2012
Chinese Anti-Foreignism & the Boxer Rebellion, L.R. Marchant, 1970


Artfact; Palace Museum, Beijing; Danny Cheng, Hong Kong; Editorial Department of the Palace Museum, Beijing;;  Library of Congress Geography & Map Division, Washington DC; Alain Truong @ CanalBlog; Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore; | Yantai; Shanghai Museum; Shanghai Library

Danny Cheng, Hong Kong for translations
The People’s Republic of China

Unless specified, all images are from the image archive of Adrien von Ferscht or his associated publications and/or research papers



Chinese Export Silver Band


Worthpoint logo

Asia Scotland Institute

Chinese Export Silver Band

Chinese Export Silver Makers Marks New 4 Edition

Chinese Export Silver Collectors' Guide

#ChineseExportSilver Yellow Band

Leave A Comment

© 2012-2024 chinese export silver All Rights Reserved -- Copyright notice by Blog Copyright