Chinese Export Silver: Culture Shock 文化震撼

CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: Culture Shock!   文化震撼

I have chosen to start 2014 with a rant! Humour me while I do.

Chinese Export Silver & Joan Rivers

For two years now I have been striving to increase both an awareness and understanding of Chinese Export Silver by writing articles that disseminate optimal information in what I hope is a readable format. In the main, I am succeeding if only the amount of emails I receive now, compared with two years ago, is a meaningful indicator. In those two years I have become more or less immune to the occasional attack, mainly by self-appointed “purists” who regard this silver category as the prodigal son who moved back into the neighbourhood of the “more established”  and “gentrified” silver categories. But when a broadside attack was received recently from someone who comes under the heading “cultural think tank professional”, I have to admit I had a Joan Rivers moment and lost my cool in true Rivers’ style!

I have written before about a degree of inherent snobbery that does exist in the auction and antique world which I have fallen victim to in the past when I have had the temerity to compare specific examples of Chinese Export Silver to the master silversmiths of the Georgian period of British silver making and its European counterparts. I have long stopped donning my crash helmet since I’ve discovered faith in my own convictions and recognised that most of the time these counter-criticism are usually a case of “the lady doth protest too much”. A recent article about a pair of Chinese Export Silver huabiao columns caused a volley directed at me from several directions that all strangely had their origin in Greece amongst the defenders of cultural heritage there. As a result, I probably have a better understanding of how Xerxes might have felt; I should have known better not to realise that a British person discussing the cultural heritage of columns might be a moot point to a Greek given the antics of Lord Elgin and his contemporaries!

The Elgin Marbles Cartoon

ELGIN MARBLES, 1816. ‘The Elgin Marbles! or John Bull buying Stones at the time his numerous Family want Bread!!’ Cartoon by George Cruikshank, 1816, showing a conflicted John Bull purchasing the Greek sculptures from Lord Elgin at a time when the economy was bad in England.

In my quest to raise awareness of Chinese Export Silver, I have consciously chosen to share as much knowledge as I can, drawing on my research findings. I have found that examples of this very unique silver category are a superb vehicle to convey so many facets of Chinese culture and history across a wide spectrum of disciplines; the fact they are intrinsically attached goes a long way in making Chinese Export Silver so unique and so interesting.

It has taken me two years for people supposedly in the know to begin to grasp that I am talking about a large and highly significant silver category, yet still Chinese Export Silver seems to present an ice cold water situation where academics and auction house experts dip their toes in and swiftly take them out, declaring they are still not sure. The quality is undeniable and it really isn’t rocket science to understand that over a 150 year manufacturing period, some 10,000 silver workshops across China produced a massive amount of silver objects. I’m tiring of having to carry this crash helmet around with me, but those that know me well understand how tenacious I can be; doubting Thomases beware!

One of my many mantras, the fact that Chinese Export Silver is an ideal vehicle to demonstrate Chinese culture, was upheld towards the end of 2013 when what seemed like a plethora of superb objects were presented to me for identification. I have chosen four to share with you and hopefully prove my point.

Chinese Export Silver Guang Ji Junk Ship

Miniature ships were a favourite subject of Chinese silversmiths in the 19th century and this has to be one of the most superb examples I’ve ever come across. This particular example was made circa 1895 by the Hong Kong silversmith Guang Ji and displays superb detailing

The junk was developed over 1000 years ago in the Sung Dynasty; they were highly sophisticated ocean-sailing craft, Sung being the Chinese age of invention and discovery far advanced to Europe which wasn’t to see its own renaissance until some 400 years later. We are all familiar with the word “junk”; it is a word derived from the Malayan djong, meaning boat. The Sung developed this ship when it lost its northern empire and overseas trade became an even higher priority. The resultant junk was the ideal craft for the South China Seas; it’s strong hull was able to combat the frequent violent typhoons. The hull had a series of partitions that both strengthened it and provided watertight compartments that were invaluable when it was necessary to carry out repairs at sea. Traditionally built without a keel (allowing access to shallow waters), the junk is ill-equipped to sail a straight course until an important innovation of the Song period – the addition of the sternpost rudder. This is a large heavy board which can be lowered on a sternpost when the junk moves into deep water. Coming below the bottom of the boat, and capable of hinging on its post, it fulfils the function both of keel and rudder. Until this time, throughout the world, the conventional method of steering a boat had been by means of a long oar projecting from the stern.

Another innovation on the Chinese junk is multiple masts. Marco Polo described sea-going junks as “having four masts, with a further two which can be raised when required. Each mast has square-rigged sails that concertina on themselves, when reefed, in the manner of a Venetian blind”.

Flags were hung from the masts to bring good luck and women to the sailors. A legend among the Chinese during the junk’s heyday regarded a dragon which lived in the clouds. It was said that when the dragon became angry, it created typhoons and storms. Bright flags, with Chinese writing on them, were said to please the dragon. Red was best, as it would induce the dragon to help the sailors.

Chinese Export Silver Pagoda by Ju Xing Zheng Ji

This Chinese Export Silver pagoda was created in the latter part of the 19th century by Ju Xing Zheng Ji; a highly intricate piece of silversmithing. It remains a mystery whether this is meant to be a faithful copy of an actual pagoda or if it a fanciful notion of one. Certainly, it is not the famous 9 storey Canton pagoda that guards the Bogue, although it is uncannily similar in other architectural. There is the seven storey Lung Wha pagoda, though, in Shanghai – another traditional silver manufacturing city, the pagoda roof curves most like the silver version.

As familiar as the junk is when thinking of China, the next object has to be ubiquitous in the minds of Western cultures in relation to concepts of the ideal Chinese landscape. Again, a masterpiece of the silversmith’s art, this pagoda was created around the same time as the junk ship.

I’m just reaching for my crash helmet again as I’m about to reveal that the pagoda does not originate in China; it evolved from the stupa in the Indian subcontinent. Although the origins of the word pagoda are somewhat obscure, the Chinese word for stupa is ta, an abbreviated translation [tapo] of the sanskrit word stupa. However, there’s a parallel school of thought that believes the popular word pagoda did not derive from Sanskrit but originated in Sri Lanka where the stupa were called dhata-gabbha [dhata meaning “relics”; gabbha meaning “cavern”]. This gradually became corrupted to dhagabbha or the vernacular dhagoba. When the later Portuguese began coming to the region, they found the word dhagoba difficult to pronounce and this subsequently became corrupted to  pagoda, both for the Portuguese and the local inhabitants.

  Left: The Lunghua pagoda in Shanghai, built, 977AD.  Right: The Pazhou pagoda at the mouth of the Boca Tigris [Bogue] at Canton from a painting by William Heine painted in 1853. The pagoda was built in 1597 in the Ming style along with its sister Chigang pagoda at the other end of the Bogue as Fengshui to facilitate safe navigation along the Pearl River

The origin of the pagoda lies in Buddhism where it was originally built for the purpose of preserving the remains of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism. Before the pagoda was introduced to China, it had already gone through various transitional developments in India. Apart from serving as tombs, pagodas were created as grottoes or temples for offering sacrifices to ancestors. After entering China, the pagoda took on distinct visual Chinese characteristics; Buddhist iconography became so well incorporated into native Chinese traditions that a unique system of symbolism developed.

Chinese pagodas attract lightning strikes because of their height. As with our silver pagoda, many pagodas have a decorated finial at the top of the structure, and when made of metal, this finial, sometimes referred to as a “demon-arrester” is believed to act as a lightning conductor; a dubious belief at best since there was no understanding of connecting the finial to the earth.

Songyue Pagoda

The oldest stone constructed Bhuddist pagoda in China that remains is to be found at Songyue [above]  and was built in 523 AD. Unique in form, having 12 sides, it is easy to see this is a pagoda that still retains Indian influences yet is beginning to develop Chinese elements. At the base of the door pillars are carvings shaped as lotus flowers and the pillar capitals have carved pearls and lotus flowers. After the first storey there are fifteen closely spaced roofs lined with eaves and small lattice windows. The pagoda features densely clustered ornamental bracketed eaves in the dougong style ornamenting each story. Inside the pagoda, the wall is cylindrical with eight levels of projecting stone supports for what was probably wooden flooring originally. Beneath the pagoda is an underground series of burial rooms to preserve cultural objects buried with the dead. The inner most chamber contained Buddhist relics, transcripts of Buddhist scriptures and statues of Buddha.

Doungong, literally meaning “cap and block” is a unique structural element used in Chinese architecture, originating in the Tang and Sung Dynasties and was highly sophisticated. Here [below] we see traditional dougong bracketing. They were both a decorative and practical wooden component network that with columns, beams, purlins and lintels inter-connected with tenon joints to form a flexible, earthquake-resistant structure – particularly high multi-storey structures.

Dougong detailing on pagoda

Dougong Tower Beijing

The concept and tradition of dougong has recently been brought into the 21st century by incorporating the core principles into the new 42 story Dougong Tower in Beijing [right]. The design of this tower adapts the principle of joining and interlocking to drive both the architecture and the structure. As with the pagoda, it is built to be earthquake-resistant. Is Rui Guo’s proposed vertical gardened MoMa Tower for New York the ultimate Chinese pagoda [below left]?

MoMa Pagoda Tower New York










Both the silver pagoda and the junk ship will appear in auction later this year on May 21st 2014 at Halls Fine Art Auctioneers in the UK.

Back to Guang Ji and remaining vaguely on the tower theme, the next article is diminutive, exquisite and jam-packed with allegorical meaning. As with pagodas, bamboo is such an inimical Chinese image.

Here we have a Chinese Export Silver spice shaker complete with grinding mechanism, made by Guang Ji and made circa 1900. As we can see below, it is inspired by a newly sprouting bamboo shoot. Bamboo is the most popular plant in China; it is also the fastest growing plant on the planet. To be Chinese is to feel at home with bamboo.

Chinese Export Silver Guang Ji spice grinder

Bamboo shoot inspires Chinese Export Silver

In the “Order of the Four Gentlemen” [the seasons], bamboo represents the spirit of summer. The bamboo is considered to be a gentleman with perfect virtues since it combines upright integrity with accommodating flexibility; it has a perfect of grace and strength [ying and yang]. Like a self-cultivated scholar in hermitage, it is ready to render services when called upon. Bamboo personifies the life of simplicity. It produces neither flowers nor fruit. When the young shoots emerge from the roots, they are under the shade of the older bamboo branches. Such a spirit reflects the young respecting the old as well as the old protecting the young.

zhu bamboo character

Pronounced zhú in Chinese, it is easy to understand how the ideogram character mark was devised by comparing it with the bamboo culm pattern on the spice shaker.


The last object that I present for your delectation is a small box highly decorated with a bat made by the Tientsin silversmith Qing Yun in the mid 19th century. As with most small Chinese Export Silver boxes, they come as virtual hand grenades of allegorical meaning. It is plain to see that this silversmith has clearly taken great delight in lavishing many hours of work to create this tiny masterpiece.

Chinese Export Silver box by Qing Yun of Tientsin


The bat is feeding off a stylised peach fruit. In traditional Chinese art, peaches are a symbol of longevity and immortality. 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 3,000 years, she is believed to distribute her special peaches to her heavenly guests and, in doing so, granted them eternal youth and immortality. The combination of bats and peaches is 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.”

Isabel Stewart Gardner by Anders ZomThe box is part of a collection held at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, USA; a highly eclectic collection of art and artefacts from the travels of Isabella Stewart Gardner who amassed the collection of master and decorative arts over 3 decades at the end of the 19th century. Fenway Court, purpose built by Mrs Stewart Gardner to house the collection, is where the collection sits today.

[Left] “Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice” painted by Anders Zom in 1894; a woman with an obvious zest for life and a highly sophisticated sense of style she wished to share with an entire nation.

I have seen and researched many hundreds of items of Chinese Export Silver in the past two years. I have never found one that failed to take me on a cultural journey. Few silver objects from the Western world can lay to the same claim; that and the sheer mastery of the silversmith’s art is what makes Chinese Export Silver so unique.

I began this article with a rant caused by self-appointed purists who bizarrely criticised the pillaging of Chinese art by Westerners. I say bizarre since the clue is in the very handle “Chinese Export Silver”; silver made ostensibly for export. I was also criticised for being an academic who appeared to them to promote auction houses. That is not what I do at all. If it were not for auction houses holding sales and bringing to my notice items of Chinese Export Silver, I would probably be oblivious to the existence many of these superb objects; I also could not share them and their cultural history and significance in my articles. Often, it is these objects from auction houses that are the source of discovery for identifying previously unidentified Chinese silversmiths. There is no taboo in linking academia with the commercial world that auction houses occupy. It seems to me to be a perfectly logical co-existence. It has been accepted for decades in the world of fine art, yet for some inexplicable reason otter than some strange version of inverted snobbery it is not acceptable for artefacts. Methinks the lady really doth protest a tad too much!

Chinese Export Silver has lain dormant and unnoticed in the Western world for the past century or more in vast quantities – so much so that we have probably only seen the tip of the iceberg as it slowly becomes rediscovered. Through that discovery we can learn so much about a rich culture most of us are not really aware of; a culture totally different to the West and a culture much of which pre-dates Western culture by centuries. Equally, our rediscovery is fuelled indirectly by the growing interest by Chinese to “repatriate” legitimate exports of the 18th and 19th centuries and in doing so rediscover facets of their own culture lost in the political turmoil of the 20th century.

Time for purists to get slightly more real, methinks.  Culture, by and of all its definitions, is “of the people” and should not be the preserve of or falsely protected by intellectuals and academics.

Now where’s that crash helmet!

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 17.09.19University of Glasgow

 Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research


This article was written to be published simultaneously with WorthPoint. Adrien von Ferscht is the Worthologist expert for Chinese Export Silver

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 17.09.19Chinese Export Silver The Collectors' Guide

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

His Catalogue of Chinese Export Silver Makers’ Marks [1785-1940] is the largest collector’s guide for Chinese Export Silver available, with information on 200 makers and 250 pages of in-depth history. It is updated every 6-8 months and is only available as a download file. The single purchase price acquires the Catalogue plus all subsequent editions free of charge. Adrien also encourages people to share images and ask questions. The Catalogue is available at:

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 17.09.19


To Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills

Joan Rivers World Enterprises; Halls Fine Art Auctioneers, UK; Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Library; Salem; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

One Response to “META-MUSEUM:CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: Culture Shock! 文化震撼”
  1. Jeff Herman says:

    Adrien, my friend, you’re doing a fantastic job researching this subject. There will always be those individuals who will challenge you, and many more who won’t comment at all, even with a positive note. Many times I feel the same way running the Society of American Silversmiths for almost 25 years. There will be very few who take an active roll, but the great majority will sit on the sidelines and not say a thing. It’s a labor of love for both of us. Know that I very much appreciate your scholarship.

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