UNDERSTANDING CHINESE EXPORT SILVER MARKS
Chinese Export Silver makers’ marks are not easy to understand, especially for a Westerner. This doesn’t particularly have anything to do with the fact that many marks may partially include Chinese characters, some of them totally. Silver marks in the West are designed to impart accurate and relevant information even though some Western countries did not have a registered or regulated assay system per se. In China, there was no regulated system of any kind when it came to silver marks; they were all the product of the maker’s whim on how they looked. The information they gave, with the exception of a few provincial areas of China where it was necessary to declare the purity of the silver, was minimal.
To even begin to understand a system of marking that is alien to anything in the West, one has to completely forget any prevailing norms and standards we may be used to and to understand that the “system” is actually not a system at all; it is haphazard at best and some of it the product of pure fiction! Bizarre as it may sound, it is also necessary to understand where a skilled artisan silversmith stood on the Chinese social ladder for us to understand the logic behind the marks [and I use the word ‘logic’ loosely].
THE ACTUAL MARKS
Firstly, the marks found on items of Chinese Export Silver are not “hallmarks”. A hallmark is a series of compulsory marks either punched onto silver or laser-implanted that convey precise information. These marks also apply to gold, platinum and palladium. The word “hallmark” refers to the British Assay Office which is administered by The Goldsmiths’ Company and has been since the 1300s. The “hall” refers to Goldsmiths’ Hall and this is where the central Assay Office is situated, because by 1478 there were several hundred gold and silver workshops and merchants manufacturing silver items in the area around Goldsmiths’ Hall known as the City of London. As it was not possible for the warden to visit them all, the merchants were ordered to bring their items to the Hall for testing, recording and marking; this is the origin of the term “hallmark” – struck with the sovereign’s mark at Goldsmiths’ Hall. It still remains essentially a basis of the same system.
The marks we find on Chinese Export Silver can at best be described as “silver marks”, but given that no assay system ever existed in China; no equivalent system of silver regulation existed in China; the only thing that is probably consistent about Chinese silver marks is the inconsistency!
It is appropriate to repeat myself here by stating the most noticeable differences between how China and the West approaches Chinese Export Silver has to be in how identification is established. For over 50 years Western experts have almost exclusively focused on the English silver marks, while any Chinese marks are largely ignored or simply referred to as being “Chinese character marks”. For over 50 years, Western descriptions refer to the English marks as being those of the “maker”. Almost without exception, the English mark will refer to the name of the retail silversmith, in most cases not an actual name of a person but a manufactured trading name intended to be auspicious rather than informative.
The Chinese character mark will invariably be the mark of the actual artisan silversmith and is frequently accompanied by a statement of silver purity. In the absence of any formal assay system in China, such purity marks exist on the whim of the artisan or retail silversmith. However, it is a whim formulated from their knowledge that raw silver was derived from mainly melted psych ingots or silver trade dollars.
The Chinese mark is therefore the most relevant and because of this Chinese collectors and dealers use it not only to identify a piece but also to judge its merit. The same benchmark exists for other world silver categories – the fact that an item might carry the mark of Paul Storr, for example, tells us of its supreme quality, the fact that it may also carry marks for Garrard the London court retail jeweller and silversmith is simply a further endorsement of quality.
To call them “maker’s marks” is also incorrect; for most Westerners, the only part of a Chinese silver mark they might understand is either a name that appears in Latin letters or initials. If a name appears, it is highly likely to be a fictitious name – a name devised to be auspicious rather than actually inform one of the existence of an actual person. Where there are initials, they also will refer to a fictional name.
The most important fact to understand is that in almost every case the English name or initials are not the name of the actual maker; it will almost certainly be the name of the retail silversmith or, more correctly, the name under which he trades. Naturally, because of the way Chinese society was then structured, all Chinese silversmiths and retail silversmiths were male.
Chinese silver produced prior to the late 18th century was often unmarked. The Tientsin and the Shanghai “9 Factories” silversmiths were the most consistent in their marking, but unlike their Canton counterparts, it was purely in Chinese ideogrammatic form. The degree of conformity of the marks was more a product of happenstance, rather than by any conscious collaborative agreement.
Much of the earlier Chinese Export Silver of the late 18th and early 19th century that was made in Canton carries so-called pseudo-hallmarks and invariably excludes any reference to the artisan silversmith. It is frustrating because some of the finest examples of the skill of Chinese silversmiths are to be found in this early neo-classical silver. The absence of any Chinese mark and the style much of this silver took is the reason why the majority of Chinese collectors have yet to discover its uniqueness and its sheer genius. For a Cantonese silversmith who most likely never ever left the confines of the alleys of the silver district of old Canton to be able to produce silver of a quality and style that rivals the finest London or Birmingham silversmiths should be a testament to the supreme artistry of these silversmiths.
From the onset of Chinese Export Silver as a definable silver category, marks began to appear in various guises. One of the earliest marks is that of Linchong [right]. As with the mark of Cutshing, the Linchong mark loosely mimicked a London hallmark. These marks have become known as “pseudo-hallmarks”, but unlike a true hallmark, the Chinese alias imparted no relevant knowledge other than possibly the retail silversmith’s name. Contrary to a true London mark or any British hallmark, there was no registration or regulation for Chinese Export Silver marks, in fact makers’ names are only known today because knowledge of them was passed down by word of mouth until much later, they were written down; again in an unofficial and unregulated way. Scant information can be gleaned from scrutinising journals of the day, shipping manifests and the trade and inter-trade logs of the large merchant companies. Gradually sufficient information may be gleaned to allow the identification of marks that present as a mystery.
As with many things Chinese, there are exceptions to the rule! One of the earliest known marks of the Chinese Export Silver manufacturing period is the mark [left] of Bao Ying [aka POWING]. Believed to be late 18th century, this scratch mark evolved into versions of the incuse mark [right].
One such pseudo hallmark mark [above] was used by the Canton retail silversmith Cutshing. While Cutshing used several versions during the years 1830-1895, this specific mark was used between 1850 and 1860, but importantly it was not used as the exclusive mark during that period.
At first glance, it could be mistaken for an English hallmark, but on closer inspection one can see the crudeness of the lion, crowned leopard, and monarch’s head. The “k” is meaningless other than it could possibly have been meant to denote “Kanton” – the “k” is quite constant in most of Cutshing’s pseudo-hallmark. There was no requirement for either a year date stamp or a city mark – the “k” therefore is in pure mimicry of a true hallmark. The insertion of “CU” is a further example of artistic license – there is no information contained in this mark other than we recognise it as being the mark for the retail silversmith Cutshing.
Of the two Cutshing marks [above] – the left-hand mark is a well-used version of Cutshing’s pseudo-hallmark, while the abbreviated “CUT” was also used but tends to appear on smaller items, in particular snuff boxes. Cutshing also used another version of the pseudo hallmark [above] that uses a conjoined “C” and “U”.
One of the most important facts to keep in mind about the Chinese pseudo-hallmarks is that they convey no information whatsoever about the artisan silversmiths. For a period of between 50-70 years, depending on the retail silversmith, the artisan makers were relegated to being anonymous, which is actually a sad fact given some of the finest silver was produced in China during this time. This applied to almost all Canton marks; it being the sole centre for the China Trade and the only area that foreign merchants were allowed to operate. It is quite lamentable that for such an extended period is will be virtually impossible to ever discover the identity of the artisan responsible for an individual piece of silver.
Above, a version of the maker’s mark for WE WE WC and below is the true London hallmark for the William Eley, William Fearn and William Chawner.
Of the known silversmiths of this early manufacturing period, one of the silversmiths who has “celebrity” status is known to us simply as “WE WE WC.” The meaning of the initials on this mark have never been discovered, assuming the initials actually do stand for something. WE WE WC operated in Canton between 1820 and 1880. From the marks that are to be found on silver items it is clear that consistency was again not part of the game plan and there is no way of telling whether this was the product of a workshop, a retail silversmith or even an umbrella mark that was used for silver for a specific merchant or destination made by a workshop we know by another name. The particular peculiarity of the silver bearing this mark is that it almost certainly began when copying a silver piece or pieces from the London-based silversmiths William Eley, William Fearn and William Chawner. Perhaps the “F” for Fearn was simply [or purposely] mistaken for an “E”. British and American merchants, sea captains and even crew members are known to have brought silver to Canton for the express purpose of having it copied. For crew members it became a lucrative sideline while they were forced to wait months at Macau for the trade winds to change before undertaking their return voyage.
This mark has to retain some of its enigmatic charm for now, but given silver carrying this mark was generally of the highest quality and almost always in the neo-classical style, not knowing the true identity is frustrating.
CHINESE CHARACTER MARKS.
What we sometimes refer to as a “chop mark” is actually a form of seal that originated in China for official documents as a means of signature. When silver trade dollars came into usage, Chinese merchants stamped the dollar coins with their “chop mark” to attest to its authenticity and worth and, in doing so, that mark became a way for merchants to advertise, as seen in the following illustration.
All transactions of any kind in China required a “chop mark” and in fact still do today. Deals struck between the Chinese Hong merchants and the foreign merchants often included that an insistence of “first chop” silver as payment.
When a trade dollar reaching Canton was accepted by a Hong merchant as being full value, the merchant or the “shroff” acting on his behalf would “chop” the coin by stamping his unique Chinese character seal on it. As a coin changed hands from one merchant to another, it could receive a number of different chops from the various merchants. Wily as the Chinese merchants were, they quickly came of the opinion that “chops” gradually reduced the actual silver content of the coin – first chop, therefore, was the highest silver content coin available to them that had passed muster.
The Spanish-Mexican dollar [aka “pieces of eight”] was considered the most preferred payment by the Hong merchants, so it was not uncommon for a sale to be agreed on the basis of “first chop Spanish dollar” [see below].
British trade dollars were minted in India – coins minted in Calcutta bore the letter “C”, while those minted in Bombay carried the letter “B” [left]. As coins became more and more “chopped”, the less desirable they became and they eventually were either melted down and made into new coinage or actually used to make Chinese Export Silver
Towards 1842, the Treaty of Nanking and beyond, a change in the appearance of Chinese silver occurred as well as the marks makers used on them. Chinese decorative motifs became far more prevalent—sometimes subtle additions to classical Western forms or a more blatant disregard for them. It is also during this period that we see more “named” silversmiths appearing. Silver marks also changed in format as some makers began to use marks that combined Latin initials of the maker along with a mark in Chinese characters or ideograms of the actual artisan silversmith that carried out the work under the roof of the master silversmith. The Treaty of Nanking being signed  and the effective changed landscape of trading with China signalled the end of the Canton System of trade. The treaty also acted as a catalyst for a growing fashion in the West for all things “Chinese” and “Oriental” and as the century progressed, there was a steep rise in a new emerging affluent middle class in China.
The treaty was the culmination of the ‘First Opium War’ [1839-1842]; the war between Britain and China that began what is now known in China as ‘The Century of Humiliation 百年国耻 [1839-1949]. This was perceived by the British, then the largest colonialist nation, as a victory, which in turn spawned the fashion for the oriental in Europe and America.
The combination ideogrammatic mark [above] with either Latin initials or a full name in English indicates the latter was almost certainly a retail silversmith. Occasionally the retail silversmith and the artisan workshop were one and the same, but the silver mark will give no indication of this. The illustrated mark is that of the Shanghai retail silversmith Luen Wo [LW] and the artisan silversmith who went under the name “Zhou”. The “90” mark is the silver purity mark.
A workshop could be a single artisan or one where where several experienced artisan silver makers operated. Some workshops operated the equivalent of what might be called “hot benching” where artisans could work or use the facility on a temporary or part time basis – many of the artisan silversmiths were itinerant, especially those that had special skills sought after by the retail silversmith commissioning a specific piece. Some workshops worked as a family unit while other Chinese silversmiths employed more of a production line method with each expert carrying out an essential element until a master artisan silversmith [the man behind the Chinese chop mark] finished it. It is not unusual to see the same artisan chop mark used in conjunction with several retail silversmith’s marks. The same chop mark can appear in conjunction with several different main makers’ marks.
When deciphering a silver mark or chop mark in Chinese, one must always consider that a Chinese ideogram is essentially a tonal symbol, making transliteration of a chop mark only an approximation of what it might look and sound like in English.
To complicate matters further, we are somewhat plagued by historic interpretations of names – interpretations that have, over the course of time, been adopted as the given name. Chinese is not an easy language to transliterate into English, especially since the sound of a name in Mandarin is almost certainly to be different in Cantonese. The mark illustrated on the left could be transliterated as either De Xing Lou using the Mandarin dialect or Tak Hing Lau using Cantonese. If a mark originated from Canton or even Hong Kong, the default dialect would be Cantonese. It is mainly for this reason one is often presented with at least two options of name; sometimes, however, there could be names that have become the norm through lantern usage that are not accurate transliteration – the previously mentioned Powing/Bao Ying being a good example.
Given many Chinese artisan silversmiths were itinerant and, using Osmond Tiffany’s journal observations of the mid-19th century, this gives us an insight into a world where there was a network of thousands of silversmiths working for a hardcore of main retail silversmiths. Since almost all of the names we see written in English are fictitious, there is a school of thought that believes that behind some of the main retail silversmiths’ names lies a complex arrangement of foreign and Chinese merchants and agents who, acting as a de facto cartel, were able to monopolise significant segments of the China Trade. While there is no firm evidence of who was behind the retail silversmith Cutshing, for instance, was one of the most notable retailers of export goods of that time and had been since the late 18th century. My research indicates there was likely to have been one such cartel that operated behind the guise of the Cutshing name.
In the absence of a regulated assay system or even an official register of silversmiths or retail silversmiths, dating objects can only be a subjective opinion based on the evaluation of the style of an item in relation to the maker and other pieces we know that particular maker produced. It is reasonably easy to place an item of Chinese Export Silver within one of the 4 manufacturing periods. The form the maker’s mark takes may also help. Quite a few of the makers have a fairly long track record of manufacturing years and their own particular style evolved noticeably within that time span – this and all the other factors can help pinpoint an item within an approximation of ten years.
Occasionally, items carry an engraved inscription or dedication, often on standing cups and trophies. While this is potentially a good indicator, it can also be a case of an inscription being applied to a stock off-the-shelf item that wasn’t necessarily of that same year. A look at old photographs of some of the silver emporia of Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong shows us very large showrooms crammed from floor to ceiling with silver items. Presentation items could also have previously been owned by someone who then decided to use it or offer it as a presentation piece. There are ample recorded examples that have dated inscriptions that were obviously made earlier – sometimes 10-20 years earlier.
Unless a firm proof of provenance exists [and it sometimes does], dating can only be an informed approximation at best.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SOCIAL HIERARCHY & SKILLED ARTISANS
The Shi: In ancient times, the Shi were a knightly order of semi-aristocratic lineage who commanded battle from chariots, and wore long flowing robes when not in battle. By the time the philosophical schools had developed towards the end of the Zhou Dynasty, the Shi had evolved into being scholars and administrators. By the Sung Dynasty, the civil service as we’d recognise it, had developed and a system of examinations were required to enter it. Recruitment was mainly from the Shi class. By the end of the Sung period, there were 400,000 civil servants and the Shi had become less aristocratic in social standing, while scholarly bureaucrats had become more prevalent.
The Nong: The Nong were the salt of the earth; farmers and agricultural workers who effectively sustained the whole of Chinese society with food with the taxes levied on their land providing the bulk of revenues for the ruling classes. For such an all-round productive sector of society, they were highly regarded. Soldiers were traditionally recruited from farming families; soldiers being considered of a lower order. By the Ming Dynasty, the socio-economics of the Shi had become more indistinct and the borderlines between them and the next level of society, the Gong or artisans, had become blurred.
The Gong: The Gong was made up of artisans and craftsmen; the word literally means “labour”. They produced essential goods for all society but, because they owned no land, they were not sources of taxation. The Gong occupied an unusual social position that placed them in a surprising level above that of merchants. Artisan skills were something handed down from father to son through the generations since earliest ancient times. The Gong could be either government employees or self-employed. A successful and highly skilled artisan was theoretically able to gain enough capital to hire others as apprentices or hire additional labourers that could be overseen by the chief artisan effectively acting as manager. Hence, artisans could create their own small enterprises in selling their work and that of others, and similar to the merchants, they formed their own guilds. It is this mechanism that later allowed highly skilled and successful silversmiths to own and run their own workshops.
The Shang: The merchants, traders and itinerant salesmen were regarded as essential to society, yet, because they were non-productive they were placed on a lower rung of the social ladder. Although essential, they were also generally regarded as being greedy and distrustful. The concept of making profit from goods others had made was deemed to be parasitic. The scholarly class looked down on this, but they eventually came to understand there were benefits to being able to do this, so they began to use agents to transact on their behalf in order not to be seen to defile their own social standing. Merchants could become very wealthy and by the end of the Ming Dynasty funding for infrastructure projects was often sought from merchants. Gradually merchants, with their new-found wealth, acquired manners equal to the scholarly elite, causing the latter to inculcate the merchants with morality and business ethics. Eventually they reached a level where the scholars came to believe the merchants and traders were a model of proper behaviour and ethics. Further blurring of the social boundaries occurred.
THE TIDES OF CHANGE
If one takes all these transitions into account, by the mid-18th century it was this new order that shaped Chinese society. Obviously, many categories of society were left out of this structure; soldiers, guards, religious clergy, entertainers, courtiers, slaves, prostitutes, concubines and low-class labourers all existed in a peculiar social ether that was to all intents and purposes a way for the scholarly class to exert control. Eunuchs were probably the only category from this group to become influential; they came to dominate the Emperor, his Court and the entire central government and as a result were regarded by the scholars with great resentment and suspicion.
Throughout the successive Chinese dynasties, the prestige, privilege and social significance of the four classes changed, especially for the lower orders. Attitudes toward people based on social status also changed. As one dynasty replaced another, the borders between classes became more blurred. For this reason, while class division was a concept based on idealism rather than realism, old ways remained slightly under the surface seeming to be there as a result of long-held superstition.