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For Chinese artisans, boxes have always been more than mere utilitarian objects. Over the centuries, special decorative techniques were developed in order to make them extraordinarily special, while the amount of decorative detailing lavished upon boxes is often excessive relative to the size of the object or the purpose it was made for.

Cultures vary around the world vary greatly, but one thing all cultures have in common is a fascination of the box. To determine, though, how far back the history of the box goes is nigh impossible

The Ark of the Covenant

Was it the Ark of the Covenant that inspired this global fascination – the Mayans, the ancient Egyptians? We shall never know. While many objects served as ample fodder for Chinese silversmiths to act out their creative fantasies, nothing did it better than a box,  often the smaller being the better. I should add that silversmiths from all over the world have placed the box high up on their preferred object list, but it was the Chinese silversmiths that added humour and their love of allegory into the creative mix.

Tang Dynasty Silver Gilt Box

This late 7th century Tang Dynasty silver gilt box from Shaanxi Province takes the form of a six lobed flower decorated with a finely hammered surface upon which repoussé, ring punched and chased decorative motifs are applied, embellished by mercury gilding. It is hard to fathom this box is 1300 years old, yet it amply demonstrates the silver-making tradition China has. The box is displaying traditional motifs that all have allegorical meaning – a sign that a definitive Chinese style was forming.

Tang Dynasty 9th century Lobed Silver Box

This slightly later early 9th century Tang lobed box uses the same decorative techniques and unusually depicts two flying parrots, a bird that has no relevance to Chinese culture as we know it today. Yet the decorative and creative skills are clearly firmly established.

Chinese Export Silver Filigree Boxes

We fast-forward to the mid-18th century the a pair of ornately decorated octagonal filigree silver boxes that came into the possession of Catherine the Great to be used as glove boxes. They are decorated with garlands and branches of flowers and foliage, partially parcel gilded and partially enamelled with blues and greens. The lids are enhanced with a branch of pomegranates and the lid handles have broken pomegranates showing their seeds – a traditional Chinese symbol to invoke many male offspring. The boxes are fully lined in silk.

Chinese Export Silver filigree detailing

The quality of workmanship of both the silver filigree and the applied parcel gilded and enamelled flowers is astonishing; while Chinese filigree work is not unusual, to have created it using cloud and wave motifs in such minute detail and to create fruits with the degree of detailing we have come to expect from Chinese ivory carving is bewildering – as is the thought of Catherine the Great requiring them to store gloves in!

Chinese Export Silver Filigree Box Lid detailing

We now move on to the mid-19th century and you’d be mistaken if you think this is an ornate baroque casket of some kind. It is, in fact, a table-top snuff box! It was made by Khecheong of Canton with highly elaborate trailing vine tendrils, “C” scrolling and leaves on a matted ground, the corners of the bombé base applied with large scrolled acanthus leaf and berry brackets and each side with floral garlands, also applied with a regimental badge and vacant cartouche. The lid is slightly domed and applied with a large finial modelled as a standing lion. The interior has been parcel gilded and the box is raised upon four scroll and hoof feet inset with their own integral casters.

Chinese Export Silver Khecheong Box

It is an astounding piece of master silversmithing and we should not be surprised to know it was sold at auction in June, 2013 at Bonhams, London for £20,000. The regimental badge the box carries is that of the 59th [2nd Nottinghamshire] Regiment of Foot of the British Army, formed in 1755 and in 1849 sailed to China to become part of the force that imposed the terms following the First Opium War. The regiment stayed and was used again in 1858 to occupy the city of Canton in the 2nd Opium War.

Chinese Export Silver Cutshing Snuff BoxContinuing on the regimental theme, this rather fine gentleman’s snuff box [above] is slightly schizophrenic in as much as it appears to be torn between neo classicism and the traditional Chinese. The lid is decorated with a high relief Chinese battle scene depicting horsemen amongst trailing chrysanthemums set within a raised foliate border – all in contrast to the reeded sides with central bands of engraved engine-turning. The box is by the retail silversmith Cutshing of New China Street, Canton and was made circa 1830 – an early and rather fine example of Cutshing Chinese Export Silver.

Chinese Export Silver Luen Wo Box

This is a quite remarkable cigarette box made circa 1900 by Luen Wo of Shanghai. The applied high relief tiger head orchids are simply spectacular; set against a finely planished ground, they appear to grow out of the box with their phenomenal degree of detailing in each petal and leaf. Even the manner in which the leaves extend beyond the rolled ridge lid line on each side is a stroke of genius.

Chinese Export Silver Luen Wo Box Lid Detail

To the Western eye, at first glance this box would seem to depict irises, but although a Chinese flower, they are not traditionally used as an allegorical floral motif unless, strangely enough, they are partnered with orchids; then they become a symbol of friendship. It was the Japanese that made the iris a popular decorative motif.

The tiger-head orchid is very similar to the iris, with ragged petals and almost identical leaves. A native to Yunnan, it was prized for its delicate fragrance and was always associated with elegance. As a result, irises are particularly associated with women, love, beauty and fertility. Because of their association with refinement, the word “orchid” or lánxin [literally “orchid heart”] was used as an adjective to describe items of refinement. A tastefully decorated room was ‘an orchid room” [lánfang]. 

Was this box made for an elegant and refined woman? We shall never know. What is interesting is that the irises and the entire box have the hint of the “Arts and Crafts Movement” about them, which perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at given Shanghai at the time this box was made was a stylish cosmopolitan city that rivalled Berlin and Paris.

Chinese Export Silver Wu Hua Box

Allegory is at the heart of almost all Chinese decorative style. This tiny box, measuring just 8cm in length, is both stunning and packed with subtle meaning. Made circa 1895 by the Beijing silversmith Wu Hua, it takes the overall form of a peach fruit surmounted by a bat, with the sides having a banded meander border top and bottom framing a garland of lotus flowers.

Chinese Export Silver Wu Hua Box Lid Detail

Chinese Export Silver Wu Hua Box side detail








To understand what is a veritable hand grenade of allegory, we must deconstruct it motif by motif.

Peaches are the ubiquitous symbol of longevity and immortality in traditional Chinese art; as such, it is considered one of the most important symbols.

According to Daoist lore, the peaches of immortality grew in the garden of the goddess Xi Wángmŭ, also known as the Queen Mother of the West. At her birthday celebrations that occurred every 3000 years, she is believed to distribute her special peaches to her heavenly guests and in doing so grants them eternal youth and immortality

The combination of bars and peaches is actually one of the most widely used allegorical combinations in Chinese art. In the context of this box, the meaning to be conveyed is “May both blessings and longevity be complete in your life”.

The meander border is not related whatsoever to the Greek key design; it is a totally Chinese motif in this context and it also denotes longevity and immortality. The lotus flower garland, again in the context of this box, represents longevity – it also has strong Buddhist associations. The lotus rises undefiled and in all its glory from impure muddy waters, implying it stands as a model to try to live a life of integrity and purity in what is otherwise a mundane world.

Natural fragrances and perfumes are very much an integral part of Chinese culture; Daoists believed that the soul of a plant was released in its fragrances. Perfumes were divided into six moods: tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined or noble. The sensibility of Chinese scholar poets and writers who steeped themselves in the ephemeral nature of beauty clearly depict the practice and use of a heightened awareness of scent to enhance all forms of experience is clearly demonstrated in this excerpt from this Tang Dynasty poem written by Wang Wei “A Song of a Girl from Loyang”:

…On her painted pavilions, facing red towers,

Cornices are pink and green with peach-bloom and with willow,

Canopies of silk awn her seven-scented chair,

And rare fans shade her, home to her nine-flowered curtains. 

Chinese Export Silver Wang Hing Box

The reticulated box [above] by Wang Hing was originally designed to contain a source of natural fragrance. The dragon is both revered as a mythical animal and a potent symbol of strength, good fortune and transformation. The mystical faming pearl the dragon is forever chasing is often viewed as a metaphor for wisdom, enlightenment and spiritual essence. Dragons are traditionally in pursuit, desperately reaching out to clutch the elusive object while travelling through swirling clouds, mists and shadows – eyes bulging in the anticipation of achieving the prize of clutching the flaming pearl.

Chinese Export Silver Zee Wo Box

The dragon continues his eternal chase on this casket; a box that is slightly at odds with itself in as much as it is essentially a neo-classical casket that at birth succumbed heavily to the high Chinese decorative style. The applied high relief dragon motif is exquisitely executed in great detail, its fangs protruding independent of the main body of the box. Made by Zee Wo, a well-known Shanghai retail silversmith, it is one of the finest examples bearing the Zee Wo mark I’ve seen.

Even the smallest, most mundane of of boxes does not escape the generosity of care and artistic flair of the Chinese silversmith.

Chinese Export Silver Kwong Man Shing Matchbox Slip Cover

Here we have a Chinese Export Silver matchbox slip cover bearing the mark of the Hong Kong and Canton retail silversmith Kwong Man Shing. Silver slip covers seems to have been more prevalent than vesta cases in China in the late 19th century. They weren’t just a male accoutrement; small matchboxes were made especially for women and they too were encased in silver.


Chinese Export Silver Yi Tai Matchbox Slip Cover

Above right we have a lady’s matchbox slip by Yi Tai, a rare maker to find, who was operating in Shaanxi Province in North West China – an area of China that was ceded to the Russian Empire in the Treaty of St Petersburg in 1881. It is also the same area the Tang Dynasty box mentioned at the beginning of this article came from.

A box, by nature, will always have an element of surprise. Chinese silversmiths, not known for their bashfulness, tended to allow the boxes they created to wear the surprises on the outside. A case of “what you see, you get”? Not always, it seems, if Catherine the Great be a good example. Oh, how she would love that! The very woman who said:

 “I shall be an autocrat, that’s my trade; and the good Lord will forgive me, that’s his”

 “A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache”

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Adrien von Ferscht is the only academic carrying out in-depth research into Chinese Export Silver in the context of The China Trade and the 1200 year history of Chinese silver making. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research, he the Expert for Chinese Export Silver for Auctionata and now consults for Heritage Auctions for this unique silver category and he is a Worthologist at WorthPoint.

Adrien von Ferscht’s website is the largest online information resource for Chinese Export Silver:

3rd Edition Cover copyHis new 250-page 3rd Edition “Collectors’ Guide to Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940” is the largest information reference resource for this unique silver category is available at:

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Thanks to Danny Cheng for his translation skills. 

Acknowledgements: Heritage Auctions, Dallas; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; Bonham’s, London; Rago Arts & Auction Center, Lambertville, New Jersey; Aspire Auctions, Cleveland & Pittsburgh; International Auction Gallery, Anaheim, California; Honolulu Museum of Art

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