Meta-Museum – THE DEFINITIVE CHINESE STYLE 明确的中国式……a “chicken and egg” 1200 year evolution

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When one is so deeply immersed in research, it is so easy to be blind to the obvious. This week, while meeting with a colleague, Dr Minna Törmä, our discussion suddenly brought on a reality check. Chinese Export Silver did not appear from nowhere. It was the product of a 1200 year evolution. But more importantly, the Chinese style also evolved, as did the motifs that we now regard as pure Chinese. Yet we find the motifs and the acquired artisanal expertise manifesting itself in ceramics, porcelain, lacquerware, silk, painting and silver. Which came first will probably remain a chicken and egg conundrum. To fully appreciate Chinese Export Silver, this evolution needs to be understood.

Running through the somewhat closed and introspective nation that was ancient China was ironically an open highway – The Silk Road. Extending some 6500 kilometres, the Silk Road gets its name from the lucrative China silk trade along it that began during the Han dynasty 206BC-220AD. Trade in silk was a significant factor in the development of the civilisations of what we now recognise as China, Persia, Europe and Arabia. Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other goods were traded as well as various technologies, religions and philosophies. The bubonic plague also travelled the same road. We must now take the same route to go on a silver journey of discovery, albeit a rather swift one!

Silk Route


In antiquity, the main traders were the Indian and Bactrian traders and then from the 5th century AD Sogdian traders to be followed by Arab and Sassanian traders. The Silk Road pops up in various documents through history: The Old Testament Book of Esther describes accounts of dispatches being sent along the route from Susa [in modern day Iran] to the kingdom of Kush, what we’d know as Nubia, in 485BC. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for black people is “kushim” – people from Kush. It’s a word still used today in modern Hebrew. The biblical Hebrew for Persia is “Shushan”. Susa was the capital of Elam, residence of King Darius.

But the Silk Road proper came into its own during the 1st century BC – a super highway of trade that linked the West with India and what we recognise today as Chinese culture is in reality a virtual primordial soup of various other cultures that rubbed off and left it’s collective marks on China – the largest and most important single landmass along the route.

While there is undoubtedly some Indian influences throughout Chinese history, the cultures that made the largest contribution to sowing the first seeds and then cultivating what was to become a Chinese style, lie to the west and north west of China. Silver objects are an excellent indicator of how outside influences manifested themselves within China. It could not have happened without the Silk Road.

During the Han Dynasty, it was the central Asian Sogdians who had turned their energies to trade – a principal city being Marakanda, or Samarkand as we’d know it today. Apart from being traders, Sogdians had developed carpet weaving, glass making and wood carving. They were described by the Chinese as born merchants, learning their commercial skills at an early age. They dominated trade along the Silk Route from the 2nd century BC until the 10th century AD. Trade goods they brought to China included grapes, alfalfa, glass containers, Roman wool cloth, Baltic amber, Mediterranean coral, brass and, most importantly Sassanian silverware. Equally importantly they played a role in the cultural philosophical movements, among them Buddhism. The Sogdians were noted for their tolerance of different religious beliefs.

So let’s look at how silver indicates how these influences began to manifest.

While it is apparent that Chinese metalsmiths were influenced by other cultures with regards to shapes and forms, decoration often “borrowed” motifs and developed them to the point where they no longer appeared as alien.  Once the decorative motifs had evolved and were embedded as “pure Sinoesque” we see the same designs transmuted to other materials such as porcelain and lacquerwork. As silver was still seen as being a luxury, it is probably for this reason that other materials became a blank canvas to further the development of motif designs.

Tang lidded box

Here we see Tang dynasty silverwork at its best: it is hard to realise this was made 1200 years ago. This glorious silver-gilt box is in the shape of a segmented melon and is topped by an allegorical figure of a “sonshu” or treeshrew [a squirrel-like animal] holding “putao” [a bunch of grapes] – a visual pun implying a wish for ceaseless generations of sons and grandsons. The melon, as with all gourds, is associated with fertility. In context with grapes on a vine, as in this piece, it is all the more auspicious since it enhances the formulaic expression of “many” as in wishing for “many offspring”. This use of allegory is the basis of the Chinese style – everything, including the shape, has a meaning. The gilding was actually achieved by using leaf gilding rather than mercury gilding.

 Staying in the Tang dynasty, we can now make the first cross reference between the 7th century and the 19th century.

Tang & Cutshing goblets

One the left, we have a 7th century Tang silver stemmed cup, finely decorated with a symmetrical foliate motif against a delicately punched background, while on the right we have a 1850 Chinese Export Silver goblet by the Canton based maker Cutshing – clearly demonstrating how little the foliate decoration and the form of the cup changed in 1000 years. This symmetrical foliate design  is a derivative of a Greek/Roman palmette and manifests in English architecture and decoration as acanthus.

It is highly likely the “eclectic” aesthetics of designs that emanate from the Tang period can be put down to the the fact that Chang’an, the capital, became an extremely wealthy and cosmopolitan city, inhabited by Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians and Nestorians. This multi-culturalism was reflected in the objects artisans created and indicative of how such an introspective nation could at the same time be tolerant to other beliefs and cultures. This introspection acted like a blotting paper, absorbing the best of everywhere and moulding it to something uniquely Chinese.

The Sung dynasty was a period of massive transformation; a Chinese “age of enlightenment” in so many respects, in particular it was a period where the population doubled in size in the 10th and 11th centuries to 100 million, mainly due to the adoption of early-ripening rice from southeast and southern Asia that not only made China self-sufficient, but it allowed for food surpluses. This was an age of invention and expansion of the arts. So much of what we take for granted in the 21st century emanated from the Sung era. When we take a close look at the amount of inventions and discoveries made by the Chinese during this period, we cannot fail to see many things we might have previously thought came from Europe.

Sung Tableware

Here we see a magnificent group of silver gilt Sung tableware. Their forms are purely Chinese compared with silver from the Tang period, particular the early Tang dynasty. The forms these items take can be seen so often in tableware of the Song period, not only in silver but in lacquerware and porcelain.

This is particularly a time we see bamboo portrayed. Bamboo hadSung silver dish already become popular in painting and it quickly influenced the decorative arts. As with most Chinese decorative design motifs, there is a significant meaning to this tableware.  Bamboo is endowed with many noble qualities of human beings by Chinese culture. It stands hard and solid, symbolising a man’s faithfulness and firmness. It is hollow inside and that represents modesty in human personality and it remains green during winter, standing for bravery in face of danger and difficulty. Bamboo’s joint, which is pronounced the same as integrity in Chinese, naturally becomes an emblem of integrity.

The silver dish we see [right] depicts a scene from Su Shi’s odes the Chibi Fu [Red Cliff]. The shape of the dish and the legend are purely Chinese

Sung silver & painting comparablesand it’s this rather elastic influence of one art form on another that demonstrates the transition that’s happening during the Sung era.

This detailing of the same dish shown on the left could easily be a silk painting as the right hand picture silk scrollwork of the same time features the very same chibi fu ode.

It was this blurring of borders that planted the seed that became what we would now perceive as “Chinese” art. Su Shi’s free-flowing mind seems to have set the trend that followed through the various dynasties to the present day. This Sung plate, however, could easily have also been a 19th century Chinese Export Silver plate.

 Chibi Fu mixed media

 It is hard to grasp there is almost 800 years between them, yet the silversmiths were using exactly the same technique, the silver is of the same quality and a traditional tale is being depicted in both. Certainly, the way the silver has been worked by the silversmith has been used for over a thousand years and the technique has been applied to many traditional Chinese motifs and legends.

Porcelain is an art of early Chinese invention and occupies an esteemed place in the world. Sung Dynasty is regarded as the classic period of Chinese porcelain production due to its beauty, elegance and equilibrium. During this period kilns began to specialise in one type of ware and sent their ware to Court as tribute. As with every other mediums the Song worked with, artisans had really mastered and understood the materials they were working with. As with porcelain, the same can be said of silver and it is clearly evident in how skilled artisans had become in a relatively short period of time when we are able to see the work today.

While we have already seen how borders were becoming blurred as the Song artisans developed their work and sought inspiration from other media, it is an equally blurred and puzzling conundrum whether metalware influenced the development of porcelain or vice versa .

Sung silver & celadon bowl

Although this bowl [left] doesn’t solve the problem, this is probably one of the first instances of porcelain being combined with silver in a purely Chinese form. This is a celadon Sung segmented six-lobed bowl with a silver mounting – six lobes signifying the lotus flower.

And here [below] we have a segmented six-lobed Song silver shallow bowl of virtually the same period. Six petal flower-shaped porcelain and green glazed stoneware are very common during the Song era.

Sung silver lobed bowls

Confucius was enamoured with the lotus flower as it grows in muddy water yet emerges pure and unblemished. Confucius said “Be a lotus”, meaning no matter how ugly, evil and sinful people around you may be, strive not to allow yourself to be tainted. The lotus flower in Chinese art signifies enlightenment; the lotus plant as purity.

The supremely simple and elegant Sung dynasty silver bowl [below middle] takes the form of an open chrysanthemum flower, comprising 24 lobed petals; what appears to be a simple design is actually executed in particularly thick gauge silver. The fact it is under-decorated demonstrates how Sung silversmiths had already developed a strong aesthetic sense; the first time “less is more” became an acceptable reality. While on the right we have a Northern Sung “quingbai” porcelain lobed dish. The Sung often likened the colour of quingbai to the highly prized jade stone. On the left we have a Sung chrysanthemum lacquer plate. There’s no mistaking the cross-over of design and skills between parallel materials

Sung chrysanthemum mixed media

Here on the left [below] we have a Sung dynasty silver stemmed bowl in particularly thick gauge silver, while on the right we have a Song dynasty Qingbai stemmed bowl that makes simplicity such an exquisite form; astonishing to think this was created 1000 years ago. It is also extraordinary how the qingbai bowl is so evocative of the 21st century work created by Edmund de Waal.

Sung silver & quinbai stemmed bowls

Having hauled you at break-neck speed through 1200 years of Chinese history, we are able to clearly see not only how the Chinese style evolved through the assimilation of outside aesthetic influences and skills but also how the boundaries between the different media of porcelain, silver, lacquer, silk and painting were blurred to the extent one can deliberate forever which came first; the chicken or the egg.

Wang Hing 8 lobed bowl

Chicken & EggAdrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow, Scottish Centre for China Research

 Special thanks to Dr Minna Törmä for the reality check! 

Cutshing goblet image: S&J Stodel

Chibi fu images: J J Lally & Co, New York

Header image: “Illustration to the Later Prose-Poem to the Red Cliff – Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

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