T'ou Sè Wè stained glass window


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The T’ou Sè Wè Legacy

That a Jesuit orphanage and school in Shanghai founded in the 19th century should be the cradle of modern creative art in China is extraordinary in itself, but it is firmly rooted in a significant Jesuit presence in China since the mid-17th century and the profound influence it had on the Imperial court.

The same influence was instrumental in creating many of China’s early 20th century artists; an influence that even touched Madame Chang Kai-Chek and the Belgian creator of Tintin, Hergé. Combine this with the equally extraordinary Empress Dowager Cixi who was the de-facto ruler of China and through whose influence and sheer determination of mind transformed her realm from being an ancient empire to a modern state.

This is the world the T’ou Sè Wè orphanage and school in Shanghai found itself in; the Jesuit masters embraced the new renaissance, managing to create a force that produced China’s own distinctive version of Jugendstil – the bedrock of China’s age of modern art and the vast surge of creativity we are witnessing today.

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The T’ou-Sè-Wè Jesuit orphanage and school had, until recently, become virtually forgotten, yet 125 years ago it was to have a seismic influence in introducing the Arts and Crafts movement to China and, in doing so, created a lasting legacy of its own very particular style as well as the foundation of modern Chinese creative art as we know it today. These Shanghai orphans produced work that literally wowed the world. Sadly, few people today realise the extent of the T’ou-Se-We legacy to Chinese modern arts. It not only played an extremely important role in introducing and popularising Western arts in China, but it was responsible for creating astoundingly skillful works across a wide spectrum of disciplines – woodcarving, sculpture, painting, printing, stained glasswork, embroidery and metalwork, of which silver making was but one shining star. That all this took place in a Jesuit orphanage in China in the late 19th century/early 20th century might seem incredulous, but the reality was to be the final jewel in the crown of what had been centuries of Jesuit artistic and academic influence in the Celestial Empire. 

One might think that Jesuits and the Chinese made strange bed fellows but almost from the very beginning of a Jesuit presence in China, an enigmatic synergy was present. After the establishment of a Portuguese colony at Macau in the 16th century, a number of Jesuits visited there as well as to Canton nearby along the Pearl River. Not long afterwards in 1563 a Jesuit settlement was established at Macau that was successful in terms of becoming established but had very limited effect in terms of missionary outreach due to the fact they only spoke Portuguese. It wasn’t long before the weak communication link was realised and in 1579 Michele Ruggieri arrived, soon after joined by Matteo Ricci in 1582. Both were not only determined to master the Chinese language but they had grasped the importance of understanding the culture and, in particular, Confucianism; they knew the Chinese had an ancient culture where intelligence and learning were highly valued and they understood it was based on a different, but parallel, philosophy to that of Europe.

Ruggieri returned to Europe to find further suitable Jesuit recruits to bolster Ricci’s already formulating plans and soon Ricci was joined by Adam Schall von Bell, an astronomer, and Ferdinand Verbiest, a mathematician, cartographer and astronomer. 

3 Jesuits fathers

 Verbiest remained in China for 29 years became a high mandarin at the Imperial court in Beijing and was considered a close friend of the Emperor. Von Bell was appointed by the Emperor as director of the Imperial observatory; Ricci remained in China for the rest of his life. He created a map of the world that successfully demonstrated to the Emperor the world was round, but his legacy was numerous translations of classical Western philosophical works into Chinese and he and Ruggieri began the monumental task of translating the entire Confucian canon that was carried on by successive Jesuit scholars in China until the first volume was published in Paris in 1583 and was presented to Louis XIV of France for the Sun King’s personal library at Versailles.

Confucius Sinarum Philosophus


This was to be the foundation of a continuous and active Jesuit presence in China until the late 19th century. While being able to have found almost unprecedented favour with the Imperial court, it did have its negative points, for when fortunes fell for the court, the Jesuits could find themselves vulnerable and even made scapegoats. Jesuits who died while at the court were buried in Beijing; a somewhat strange anomaly that theoretically ran counter to Chinese culture and its reverential treatment of ancestors and their burial places.

Matteo Ricci Tomb

The ensuing centuries brought many challenges to the expanding network of Jesuit centres across China and even from the Vatican itself, but none more so than in the mid-late 19th century with the 14 year Taiping Rebellion and the later so-called Boxer Rebellion by the Militia United in Righteousness [Yihetuan] who were violently opposed to foreign imperialism and particularly to Christianity.

During the Taiping Rebellion more than 20 million Chinese lost their lives. Between 1851 and 1862 there were three major attacks on the Shanghai area that had a devastating effect; in the 1861 attack some 10,000 Shanghainese were killed. By the end of the conflict, Shanghai had many destitute and homeless as well as a significant orphaned children problem. To help mitigate the disaster ravaging the city, the Catholic Diocese of Shanghai acquired Tushanwan [T’ou Se We in Shanghainese dialect], bulldozed the existing hill and began a massive construction project originally named the “Southern Orphanage”. Their aim was to build an orphanage complex capable of accommodating the 400 displaced orphans from the Qingpu Hangtang and the Dongjiadu orphanages in Shanghai. Acting on the concept of Christian charity, the Jesuit missionaries provided the orphans with clothing, food and education. The orphans were to be equipped with the skills necessary to support themselves and flourish in society and, in doing so, the orphanage quickly developed into a place where Western culture, art, thought and technology were introduced into China. In reality it became the confluence where Chinese and Western cultures could mix and integrate with each other, producing a unique T’ou Se We style. The Tushanwan Orphanage trained China’s first Western-influenced painters, sculptors, photo-mechanic professionals, printers, industrial artists and a large number of other skilled craftsmen including metalwork and silversmithing. The orphanage was thus instrumental in the creation of a modern Chinese creative culture, causing many ‘firsts’ in technological history as applied to the decorative arts.

Tou Sè Wè 1864

The founder of the workshops was the Jesuit Spanish Brother Juan Ferrer born near Valencia in 1817. His father had been a distinguished sculptor who had worked on the decoration of the Escorial Palace. He entered the Jesuit order in Naples where he was completing his artistic education and, on his request, was sent to China in 1847. With the approval of his superiors he founded a training workshop in Xujianhui [Zi-ka-wei], the domain where Jesuits in Shanghai were gathering their various works and schools, in 1852. The workshop educated outstanding Chinese sculptors and painters, working first for religious buildings and later on extending the range of its activities and extending the workshops and artisanal skills. Juan Ferrer died a premature death in 1856. 

T'ou Sè Wè Art Studio & Print Workshop

The Fine Art studio and the Print workshop in the latter part of the 19th century

Other professors and artists at the orphanage included Brother Nicolas Massa [1815-1870] who taught oil painting, Brother Lu Baidu [1836-1880], Brother Adolphe Vasseur [1828-1899], and, most notably, Brother Liu Bizhen [1845-1912], all of whom were highly skilled woodcut engravers who produced work for evangelical publications – T’ou Se We students would often colour the prints, many of them woodcuts of the Evangelicae Historiae Imagines. T’ou Se We expanded its printing into photo-engravure and in the early 1900’s, Wenming, the largest Chinese publishing house began using T’ou Se We prints in its textbooks.

Evangelicae Historiae Imagines

These paintings [below] were completed by T’ou Se We students in 1914 for a collection of arts and crafts items representing the newly formed Republic of China at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition held the following year in San Francisco. The paintings created in traditional Chinese watercolours on paper. Each subject is depicted in his usual attire surrounded by the religious, scientific, and musical objects through which they achieved their fame and are inspired by the 18th century  book “Description géographique,historique,chronologique,politique, et physique de l’empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise” that feature famous Jesuit missionaries in China. At the head of each painting is a biography written by Xia Dingyi, with one dated Minguo 3 [1914]. At the foot of each painting after the signature are the letters T.S.W. for T’ou-sé-wéi [Tushanwan].

The painting studio at the school eventually was elevated to School of Fine Art status

T'ou Sè Wè student paintings 1914


18th Century Chinese Book

It is probably the woodcarving work that was produced at T’ou Se We that is one of the more significant disciplines taught and mastered there. It was of incredible quality and intricacy and it found its way around the world, sometimes in the most obscure places.


T'ou Sè Wè 1933 Eisteddfod Chair

The ingenuity of the Jesuit fathers at T’ou Se We to have students’ work both shown and used all over the world is quite staggering. The 1933 Eisteddfod bardic chair that took students over a year to create was presented to the National Eisteddfod in Wales by a successful Welsh business living in Shanghai at the time. Dr John Robert Jones, a barrister and an avid Eisteddfod-goer also showed great interest in Chinese art and culture. He went to Shanghai in 1924, became General Secretary of the International Council in 1928, and was a leading figure in the Shanghai branches of the Royal Asiatic Society and Cymdeithas Dewi Sant. It was his idea to commission the students of T’ou-se-we to make the chair. An almost identical chair, also made at T’ou-se-we, was used in the 1926 Swansea Eisteddfod.

The chair is a testament to the ability of the Jesuits in China to knowingly connect with other faiths and cultures; the bardic chair is used at the Eisteddfod by the Archdruid and is supposedly based on ancient Celtic Druidry which is essentially pagan, although the modern equivalent of the Eisteddfod has predominantly Christian ritual.

The archway [below] was created in 1912 at the orphanage and was first used in the 1915 San Francisco exposition, was used a second time at the 1933 Chicago World Fair and then at the New York World Fair in 1939. It then went to Indiana University and eventually found its way to Sweden. It now forms the centrepiece of the T’ou Se We Museum in Shanghai.

Tou Se We Fu Dog detailing on arch

Magnificent carved Fu Dogs form the base of each of the four columns to the archway. It is hard to imagine how students so young could produce work so intricate and of such superb quality.

T'ou Sè Wè Expo Arch

The stained glass workshops at T’ou Se We not only achieved fame for their work and very specific style, but the windows that were created probably demonstrate the “Arts and Crafts” movement as Westerners might expect to find it. While early work was almost exclusively for ecclesiastical use, the studio combined its skills with the woodwork studio to produce some exceptional pieces of Arts and Crafts furniture incorporating glazed panels.

The triptych glass panel in the header image for this article miraculously escaped destruction in the Cultural Revolution. It was commissioned from T’ou Se We for the Ruijin Hotel in Shanghai and also demonstrates how the stained glass and metalwork workshops interacted.

T'ou Sè Wè metal workshop & Stained Glass Studio

In December 2012, a rare example of T’ou Se We silver work appeared in auction in America. The 4-piece tea and coffee set and matching tray weighing some 4200gm is thought to be dated circa 1915 around the time of the exposition. It is known that silver was displayed at the Chinese pavilion at the expo.

The style is noticeably different from what one might expect from Chinese Export Silver being produced in Shanghai at the time, but it is quite similar to a generic style of silver produced in America, so it could well have been specifically made for the market the expo would expect to visit.

T'ou Sè Wè Chinese Export Silver

 One of the most famous students of the fine art studio was the painter and sculptor Zhang Chong Ren and he unwittingly created probably the most bizarre link between Shanghai and the West.

After Zhang had completed his training at T’ou-Sè Wè it later led him to study art in Brussels, where he met Hergé [Georges Remi], the creator of the comic book character Tintin. Based in Shanghai, the Tintin adventure, The Blue Lotus , was created in close collaboration with Zhang Chong Ren who is immortalised in the figure of the Chinese boy Zhang.

Tintin The Blue Lotus

Tintin Blue Lotus

Pictured below is Zhang Chong Ren as a boyish 24 year old taken in Brussels with Georges Remi in 1935. It was there he studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts and in 1934 he was introduced to Hergé by Father Gosset who in turn had been contacted by Hergé as he was planning a Tintin storyline in China and wanted it to be factually correct.

Zhang and Hergé found themselves to be very much on the same wavelength and Zheng not only drew all the Chinese ideograms that appeared in the original black and white edition, but became the model for Hergé’s character Tchang.

Hervé & Zhang Chong Ren

An early artwork [right] by Zhang based on his own Zhang Chong Ren self portrait c1936interpretation of his transition from Zhang to Tchang.

Bearing in mind this was executed over 30 years before Andy Warhol created his famous celebrity series, it is both quite uncanny and very much before its time.

Zhang Chong Ren

Much later, the ex-T’ou Se We master was asked to sculpt an official bust of French President Mitterand.

Madame Chiang Kai-Chek



Hergé’s sympathetic, yet realistic, portrayal of China and the Chinese in the story caused a political storm. The Japanese protested, since the storyline includes the sabotaging of a railway in China that was based on a real incident in 1931 at Mukden in Manchuria which had been occupied by the Japanese after ousting the incumbent Russians. The railway was the South Manchuria Railway.

The local warlord was also called Zhang!


Later, Madame Chiang Kai-Chek invited Hergé to visit China as she was also a painter and enjoyed the visuality of The Blue Lotus as well as the irony of the train incident.

Madame Chiang Kai-Chek drawing

Madame Chiang created work in the traditional Chinese style under her full official name.

She died at the age of 105 in New York, where she lived. At the age of 103 she staged an exhibition of her art. To this day, none of her art is for sale, as she decreed.

She was often referred to as the Last Empress; a title she appreciated since she likened herself to the Empress Dowager Cixi in many ways – both were politicians, both were strong women in a male world who had the art of manipulating heads of state around the world and both were artists.

It is also well-documented that the American painter Katherine Carl had a considerable influence at the T’ou Se We painting school. In 1903 Katherine spent nine months at the Forbidden City in Beijing where she had initially gone for a single sitting that Empress Dowager Cixi had granted her for the portrait of herself she had commissioned; Cixi felt immediately at ease with Katherine. The portrait was eventually finished on a date that had been declared optimally auspicious. The finished picture was a compromise of the traditional official portrait style of the Imperial court and Katherine’s own style that was loosely bordering on impressionism

Empress Dowager Cixi

Katherine Carl painting

A split personality of styles was not unusual for acknowledged artists who had gone through the T’ou SeWe art school. The well-known and highly prolific artist Xu Beihong had two definitive style that stood poles apart. He was best known for his semi-traditional horse paintings, but his portraits were wonderfully atmospheric, used a very particular palette and almost always redolent of the age they were painted in.

Xu Beihong paintings

Dong Lu Our Lady of China

The method employed much of the time at T’ou Se We to inculcate students with mastering technique was simply to copy. The painting above is known as the “Dong Lu Our Lady of China” and is said to have been used as one of the most used paintings for students to copy. The painting is particularly special since the setting and the robes are based on an official painting of Empress Dowager Cixi herself. The concept of an “Our Lady of China” is an incongruous one. When the Boxer Rebellion finally came to an end, the pastor of Dong Lu, an impoverished missionary settlement near Beijing, managed to “secure” a portrait of the Empress Dowager. He then commissioned an artist to use the actual painting, retaining the background and the Imperial robes. The resulting picture was hung above the altar at Dong Lu.  The painting was then adopted as the official image by the Shanghai Synod of Bishops and the church, altar and painting became a shrine. Pope Pius XI approved the shrine as an official Marian shrine. The painting became known as “Our Lady Queen of China”.

The original portrait almost certainly came to be in the possession of the pastor when the Boxers were overpowered and the foreign troops entered the Forbidden City, when some looting took place, albeit relatively minimal. An inventory was carried out when Cixi eventually was able to return to her palace from exile and we know a good number of paintings were missing, as well as porcelain, jade, gold and silver ingots.

T’ou Se We, like many great institutions in China, came to an end with the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, but its legacy is only now beginning to be appreciated; a legacy that was a catalyst for dramatic changes in how the creative mind could think out of the traditional box. Although much of the creativity that issued from T’ou Se We still had a discernible traditional Chinese basis, to go beyond the traditional was, in Chinese terms, a huge step for man. T’ou Se We and the Jesuit masters opened the door so the students could see and understand there were many other creative worlds possible. The huge amount of creativity pouring out of China today can trace its roots back to the brake’s being taken off the hitherto constrained creative mind at T’ou Se We. 

No better demonstration of this is the work of Liu Haisu. He entered the Jesuit orphanage school at the age of 14 to study landscape painting. He was greatly influenced by Cezanne, van Gogh and Millet and in 1912, along with Wu Shiguang and Zhangyunguang, he opened the Shanghai Academy of Chinese Painting, the first school of fine arts in modern China.

His multitude of works have a traditional Chinese landscape base that are transformed by colour and an impressionistic flexibility that strictly traditional Chinese painting would not have allowed. 

Creativity, according to Confucianism, creates order of logic and aesthetics in an immanental world. This is the legacy of T’ou Sè Wè.

This article is based on Adrien von Ferscht’s most recent research findings and supersedes a previously published article on T’ou Se We he wrote in early 2013

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Adrien von Ferscht at University of Glasgow



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Adrien von Ferscht at WorthPoint

Asia Scotland Institute

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Evangelica Historiae Imagines, Society of Jesus, Antwerp, 1593

Confucius sinarum philosophus, sive, Scientia Sinensis Latine exposita, Apud Danielem Horthemels, 1687 [Boston College University Libraries]

Jesuits at the Court of Peking, Charles Wilfred Allen, Hong Kong, 1935

Biblica Sinica, Henri Cordier, Paris, 1904

Christian Influence upon the Idealogy of the Taiping Rebellion 1851-1864, Eugene Powers Boardman, New York, 1964

Xu Beihong’s Stories are Endless, LianHe ZaoBao

Madame Chiang Kai-Shek – China’s Eternal First Lady, Laura Tyson-Li, New York, 2007

The Last Empress – Madame Chang Kai-Shek and the Birth of Modern China, Hannah Pakula, 2009

The Empress Dowager Cixi – The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, Jung Chang, London, 2014


Shanghai Daily; Liu Haisu Art Museum, Shanghai; Shanghai Xinhong Cultural Development Co.Ltd; Musée Hergé, Belgium; The Hergé Foundation/Moulinsart, Brussels; The Jesuit Collection, Boston College USA; The People’s Collection, Wales; Shanghai Library; New York Times Archive; Our Lady of China Project: The Cardinal Kung Foundation; Singapore Art Museum; Christie’s, New York; Heritage Auctions, Dallas: Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington DC; Wellesley College Library Archives; Kaminski Auctions

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

  1. ARNAUD Pinatel says:

    Dear Adrien,
    I have recently found a very good book showing the carved wooden work of the orphans of Tou Se We (It is in Chinese and French) as an exhibition took place recently in Lyon in France. I know that you focus more on Chinese Export Silver but I thought that you could be interested. the reference is the following : ISBN 978-2-84990-373-5
    I copied below a link.
    I also miss a lot your articles on Chinese silver and hope that you will re-start to post them again… even if I have seen that you are more and more busy. Thank you. Kind regards. arnaud

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