Rare Qing Dynasty Mixed-Metals Confections 稀珍清代混合金屬組合的聯繫

Rare Qing Dynasty Mixed-Metals Confections 稀珍清代混合金屬組合的聯繫

Decorative items made of mixed metals by Chinese artisans who were otherwise known for their work in silver and gold existed throughout the many centuries of China’s silver-making history, but they were rarely noticeable during the 255-year Qing dynasty silver repertoire. That said, 19th and early 20th century Chinese silversmiths certainly had a penchant for the dramatic and while textures and various techniques can accentuate such an effect, the use of copper and silver together have the capacity to embolden an otherwise potentially mundane item. This is particularly so when one considers that much of the 19th century Chinese silver lexicon consisted of traditional Chinese motifs that were imposed upon otherwise European forms. The fact that to Chinese eyes these motifs, particularly combinations of them, had profound allegorical meaning; 19th century Chinese silver, therefore, can be said to have been constantly pushing the boundaries of previously established norms.

This is an extremely interesting and rare item [Fig.1]; a late 19th century [possibly very early 20th century] bowl that is essentially made of copper with applied silver decorative elements and supported on a silver base. The bowl was made by a Shanghai-based artisan workshop by the name of Hou Xiang 厚祥 for the then Hong Kong-based retail silversmith Wang Hing & Company. By the end of the 19th century, it was not particularly unusual for retail silversmiths to use artisans from other cities, especially where specialised skills were required. While some researchers of Qing dynasty silver [aka Chinese export silver] over the past sixty years have alluded to Wang Hing having had a Shanghai store, no documentary proof has ever surfaced to support this and my own research carried out with descendants of the original owners, the Cantonese Lo family, maintain they have no knowledge of a Shanghai branch of the firm ever existing.

This is only the second time I have encountered such a mixed metal object in the context of the Qing dynasty silver repertoire; the other item was made by the Canton-based [Guangzhou] artisan workshop Chang Lin 昌林, possibly better known as the Cantonese name “Cheong Lam”, the transliterated name it used for its retail operation [Fig.2; 3 & 4].

This is a fairly large bowl, measuring 24cm in diameter and weighing a hefty 1243gm. The bowl displays uniqueness in several guises; the combination of decorative motifs and the techniques the artisan maker has employed all come together to make this simply a visually outstanding piece.

The use of copper for the crab’s shell and the fact the crab is trying desperately to climb over the rim and into the bowl is both a stroke of genius and irony. The bowl interior is parcel gilded, suggesting it was designed to be used for food or a drinkable liquid, quite possibly soup. The relatively heavy hammer-work finish is unusual for Chinese export silver; it would be more usual to see a finely planished finish, but then this is intended to be an under-water scene. As one moves around the bowl, we discover the crab is in a water-scape of pond weeds, some of which are accentuated with copper embellishment, that are skilfully made to appear as if they are growing from the gravel sea bed, represented here by the concave planished flared foot. Pondweed [zao ] is one of the Twelve Imperial Symbols [shier zhangwen 十二章紋] representing the element of water and is indicative of harmony and light – the number twelve is the number of Heaven, according to The Book of Rights [li ji 禮記] – the Emperor was the Son of Heaven. Continuing further around the bowl on one’s journey through this underworld fantasy, one comes across another crustacean in the form of a large conch shell nestling among a variant of seaweed which has brass underneath the silver meshwork that represents the texture of the outer shell.

One mystery remains, possibly; why all this artistry lavished upon a crustacean? Could this bowl have been for the revered and much sought after dà zhá xiè, aka “the hairy mitten crab” [大閘蟹]? As a classic Cantonese dish, it often appears as a golden apparition in a bowl – possibly the reason why the interior of the bowl has been parcel gilded. In modern-day China, the name for this crab has also become a modern colloquial term for a loser on the financial or property markets because when the crab is cooked its claws are tied up rendering it useless – no connection with this bowl, however! As a species, this crab is somewhat invasive and has somehow managed to become a pest in parts of the River Thames in London and has even infiltrated the subway systems in China. 

Both the crab and the conch shell have significance as Chinese cultural symbols. The conch is one of the Eight Buddhist Symbols [bajixiang 八吉祥] and originally is derived from older Hindu belief where it was considered a symbol of royalty. In Buddhist culture it is seen as being a symbol of the pure and true teachings of the Buddha. It is also perceived as a symbol of Buddha’s deep and resonant voice and was physically used to call worshippers to prayer, using it as an ancient musical instrument awakening believers from their slumber of ignorance. In ancient times, conch shells were considered of high value and were used as currency, particularly white shells. The crab is representative of harmony in Chinese tradition.

Returning to the Hou Xiang bowl [Fig.4 + 5], it is made of thick gauge copper and is decorated with applied motifs made of silver of the four plant species that traditionally represent the four seasons;  winter: prunus 梅花 meihua; Spring: orchid 蘭花/兰花 lanhua; Summer: bamboo zhu; Autumn: chrysanthemum 菊花 juhua. The bowl is supported on three feet fashioned as orchid foliage and buds. Centrally placed above each foot is a reticulated silver medallion, each being a symbol for an auspicious good wish.

Both bowls are indicative of the vast majority of Qing silver objects inasmuch as they are both virtual hand grenades full of allegorical meaning when seen through Chinese eyes, while being quirky object for Western eyes. The bowls were almost certainly never made to venture outside of China; neither giving any substance to the use of the term “Chinese export silver”. 


1   Wang Hing & Company began life in Canton and only opened in Hong Kong towards the end of the 19th century

2   Hyytiäinen, T. [2008]. The eight auspicious symbols. In . E. M-R. S. . . E. T. H. (Ed.), Tibet: a culture in transition (pp. 194-199). [Tampere Museums’ publications]. Tampere: Vapriikki in conjunction with University of Helsinki

3   Encyclopedia of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives, C.A.S. Williams. New York: The Julian Press (1960). p. 190


Thanks to Dr Chao Huang, Dept. of History, Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, China for his unequivocal support

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