UNDERSTANDING CHINESE EXPORT SILVER MAKERS’ 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 contain 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 marks; they were all the product of the maker’s whim on how they looked and the information it gave, with the exception of a few regional areas of China where it was necessary to declare the purity of the silver.

To even begin to understand a system of marking that is alien to anything in the West, we have to forget completely prevalent 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, as a skilled artisan, it is necessary to understand where a silversmith stood on the Chinese social ladder for us to understand the logic behind the marks [and I use the word “logic” loosely].

Social hierarchy was very important in China and existed in a defined rigid structure from ancient times. Towards the end of the Ming dynasty, this structure had changed slightly, caused by a general natural momentum of upward social mobility. By the 18th and 19th centuries, this revised structure had remained roughly the same with a few minor aberrations that were mainly a product of the forces of greed engendered by the China Trade itself.

Viewed from the point of view of a Westerner, the Chinese social hierarchy had a profound effect how people working with their own particular skills could operate in society as a whole. In order to understand how master silversmiths operated during the Chinese Export Silver period, we have to understand the social pyramid in China, see how that itself evolved historically and then put that into the context of manufacturing bases such as Canton, ShangHai and Hong Kong in the late 18th century and 19 century.

Below the Imperial Court and noblemen stratum there were what were known as “The Four Occupations” or four categories of people. In Europe, this system would be akin to the feudal system; in China it is known as the Fēngjiàn, the political ideology of the Zhou Dynasty [1046-256 BC] – a de-centralised system of government.

The Four Occupations 士农工商:

The Shi: In ancient times, the Shi were a knightly order of semi-aristocratic lineage who commanded battle from chariots, wearing 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 being 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 and were now scholarly bureaucrats.

The Nong: The Nong were the salt of the earth; farmers and agricultural workers who effectively sustained the whole of Chinese society with food and the taxes levied on their land provided 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 strangely 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, were not sources of taxation. They occupied an unusual social position – surprisingly it was above the merchants. Artisan skills was something that was 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 additional labourers that could be overseen by the chief artisan acting effectvely 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 phenomenon 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 somewhat parasitic. The scholarly class looked down on this, but they were eventually to see 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 social standing.

Merchants could become very wealthy and by the end of the Ming Dynasty funding for infrastructure projects was sought often 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 reaching a level where the scholars believed the merchants and traders were a model of proper behaviour and ethics. Thus more blurring of the social boundaries occurred.

The Tides of Change

If we take all the blurring of borders into account, by the mid-18th century this was the 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, prestige, privilege and social significance of the four classes changed, especially for the lower classes. Attitudes toward people based on social status also changed. People who tied with other social classes no longer felt disgraced to make it publicly. As one dynasty replaced another, borders with other classes became more blurred. For this reason, class division was a concept based on idealism rather than realism while still retaining slightly under the surface old ways.almost to the point of them being there by superstition.

The Complex Hierarchy of The China Trade

Chinese Export Silver was a product of the China Trade, but the period between 1757-1842 is now known as the Old China Trade. Despite frenetic attempts by the Emperor to restrict European merchants, citizens and their trading to Macau, it began to spread throughout China. The Canton System was devised to control trade with the West within China. and also had the effect of funneling trade between the European merchant and Chinese civilians. As with all things Chinese, there was a structure and a hierarchy, with the Emperor at the top of the pyramid.

By Europeans we mean mainly employees of major trading companies, the most dominant being The British East India Company. These agents were obliged by Imperial decree to deal with an association of Chinese called the Cohong; a group of powerful, wealthy Chinese Canton merchants and not particularly renowned for their ethics.

One official was appointed by the Emperor known as the Hoppo to control any trade transacted and to collect taxes from it. The word “hoppo” has passed into English slang but it is derived from the Chinese word hubu, short for Yuehaiguanbu.  Merchants were not allowed access or dialogue with the Emperor; the Hoppo was the effective representative of the Qing Court in Canton. The Chinese hong merchants developed close relations with their Western counterparts, instructing them carefully on how to conduct their business without antagonizing the Chinese bureaucracy. This was the Cohong creating the ultimate opportunistic situation. The whole scenario is [and was] a recipe for chaos and corruption which somehow also provided the Emperor with sufficient taxes to appease him [or most of the time!].

Three of the Cohong circa 1830

The Europeans were eventually joined by the Americans. All were strictly restricted to a relatively tiny piece of land in the harbour at Canton called The Thirteen Factories. Each foreign country had its own enclave [factory] and foreign workers and crews were allowed to stay in Macau during what was known as the “off season” which was basically when the shipping winds were not favourable. The merchants lived in cramped living quarters on the upper levels of their warehouses.

The Thirteen Factories, Canton, 1780

The freneticism of Old Canton can only be imagined. It was not just confined to the overcrowding of the Pearl River with all sizes of ships and boats chaotically trying to load and unload and it wasn’t just confined to the maze of streets and alleys that pressed upon the backs of the foreign enclaves; a maze that grew more dense, narrow and chaotic the further away they were in that hierarchy of streets. The freneticism was palpable in the air with each hong merchant and each foreign agent plotting and scheming evermore ways to engender profit. Canton and the China Trade was the ultimate cash cow.

It was not long before vast profits lay latent in the huge volume of silver that literally poured through Canton. By Imperial decree and of defiance of the West, payment for all goods purchased in China for export had to be paid for in silver. Towards the end of the 18th century, the Qing economy had recovered from the devastating effect of overthrowing the Ming and foreign trade was growing at the rate of 4% per annum. As a guideline, by the end of the Ming Dynasty the level of silver flowing into the treasury was in the region of $190 billion in today’s values.

The Formative Years That Culminated in Chinese Export Silver

Some silversmiths had also understood the potential and the more successful and entrepreneurial of them had begun to establish retail establishments supplied by their own workshops that either had a master silversmith at the helm with other artisans either employed or paying for bench space or several silversmiths might have worked as a loose cooperative. Although Chinese Export Silver as we know it had not yet been born, there are numerous examples of 17th and 18th century Chinese silver in important European collections.

It would not take long before the colluding Hong merchants and foreign agents seized the last logical step and formed alliances with the silversmiths and although relatively small-time workshops had begun to create silver items for the West, the first known major “maker’s name” to form one such partnership was Cutshing. The young John Perkins Cushing from Boston, Massachusetts was an entrepreneurial cannonball headed up the Perkins & Company, one of the prominent Boston merchant companies that had a base within the Thirteen Factories complex. By the Chinese, he was known as Ku-shing and he formed several highly lucrative partnerships with the most powerful of all the Hong merchants, Howqua. Together they created a collective of master silversmiths with the sole purpose of creating high quality silverwares in the classic high Georgian style specifically for the affluent American and British markets. The name given to this operation was to be Cutshing.

Massachusetts Bay Merchants in Canton

The reality of the entity Cutshing was not particularly different to high-end silver manufacturing today. Tiffany & Co, Asprey, Garrards; they are all considered to be retailers of exclusive silverwares. The silver items themselves are either made in their own workshops or by dedicated suppliers. The designs and quality control are imposed upon the silversmiths. The silversmiths know exactly what is required of them to produce an item for, say, Asprey. The finished items carry the maker’s mark of the retailer; the label, if you will. This is the exact same manufacturing model that prevailed across the entire Chinese Export Silver period.

THE ENIGMA OF THE MAKERS’ MARKS

 The Structure of a Chinese Export Silver Manufactory – What Lies Behind the Name on the Mark

To get to grips with the enigma, it is necessary to understand the structure of how the world of Chinese Export Silver worked. It is a rather convoluted and hierarchical system that is alien to anything in the West and, unlike almost all silvermaker’s names in the Western world, the name on the maker’s mark of Chinese Export Silver is almost certainly not the name of an actual person. Mostly, the names we know today are totally fictitious or names constructed to be auspicious for invoking good trade. So if we take Wang Hing as an example, we might naturally assume there is a person of that name being the master silversmith in charge; silver from that company would be attributed to “him” and we would refer to Wang Hing as “he”. The reality is there is no Wang Hing and there is no “him” or “he”.

Almost all of the makers’ marks belong to retail silversmiths, albeit of varying sizes, we know collectively as “shops”. Some of them, particularly in Canton, Hong Kong and ShangHai had grown by the 1860’s to be large emporia that specialised in silver but also sold ceramics and lacquerware. Ownership often changed, yet the maker’s name remained. This, in itself, is nothing unfamiliar to the present day where we see names such as Garrard and Asprey having changed ownership several times yet they still remain Court jewellers and their silverware is still considered of the highest quality. Many of the Chinese retail silversmiths either owned and ran their own silver manufactories that were populated with skilled artisan silversmiths, while others operated with a dedicated supply chain. Some of these artisans worked permanently under one maker’s mark while others chose to be itinerant and worked for several makers on an ad hoc basis. During the earlier periods of Chinese Export Silver, in most cases we are left oblivious to the names of any of the artisan makers. The so-called pseudo-hallmarks give us no clue or reference to an artisan silversmith having been involved.

As Chinese Export Silver developed, not only did the silver become more overtly Chinese in its decorative treatment but many makers began to adopt maker’s marks using a combination of Latin letters and Chinese characters. The latter character marks often allowed us to put a name to the artisan who worked the item and we can recognise the same artisan mark appearing with different main maker’s names. At the time this silver mark transition happened we must bear in mind that the volume of silver being produced had mushroomed to meet the demand. However, many of the makers in Tientsin and Jiujang remained using only Chinese characters as did all the makers known collectively as “The Nine Factories” in Shanghai.

However inconsistent Chinese Export Silver marks looked, the structure of the manufactory machine was basically the same. For example, it is documented in a mid-19th century journal that the maker Hung Chong & Co ran a reasonably large retail emporium on Nanking Road in ShangHai, that the original owner was Fok Ying Chew and that some 40 silversmiths were “employed”. The word employed is probably used more loosely than Western people might normally use.

Hung Chong Shop Interior

Although totally foreign to most Western silversmiths, the convoluted structure the Chinese operated should not detract from the quality of workmanship and, indeed, the definitive house style that many of the makers’ marks had. Two factors drove the Chinese Export Silver phenomenon – price and quality. The latter varied from very good to exceptional. The price was low because silver, as a raw commodity, was available in such vast quantity in China and the cost of highly skilled workmanship was capped very low. The retail silversmiths demanded a level of quality and very often required everything made for them to befit a house style they had developed and clients expected. They imposed a strict quality control on the makers and the designs would have been carefully created in order to be faithful to a house style. Again, this is something we should be familiar with today with so many high quality products being made in China yet appearing under a Western brand name. An Apple computer is very much a product of Apple in California, yet it is made in China under strict quality controls.

Many of the retail silversmiths, especially during the early manufacturing periods of Chinese Export Silver, were very much in league with the Hong merchants who in turn were in league with the foreign merchants based in the treaty ports as well as the sea captains – we have already seen how a silver retailers’ name was the product of a joint venture between a Hong merchant and a foreign merchant. In the frantic world of Canton, in particular, this would have seemed both natural and inevitable. Cutshing is one such silver name that was born of such an alliance, yet early Cutshing silver is considered comparable to the finest Georgian silversmiths in Britain and America. Cutshing silver was the product of strict quality control, highly honed design and highly skilled silversmithing. It also had a deep understanding of the end user and this could only have beena product of collusion between the Western merchants and the Hong merchants.

From this, we can see more clearly how labyrinthine the trade was and, more importantly, the actual artisan silversmith that worked an item was very much at the bottom end of the food chain. There is nothing particularly different between manufacturing in China then and now – the worker may be skilled but they are relatively poorly paid for something that is highly prized in the West or by affluent Chinese. Skilled artisan silversmiths had a place towards the bottom of the Chinese social hierarchy and I have expanded upon this in an earlier section. I should counter this by saying not all the silver was destined for the West – some went to India, Arab countries, other south east Asian countries  and the silver that was sent there was very much designed to suit regional and even religious tastes. Some was also much sought after by affluent Chinese, some of whom aspired for a more Western lifestyle which was certainly the case in ShangHai and Hong Kong.

So Chinese Export Silver makers’ marks do not deliver information other silver marks might do and although making sense of them can be somewhat of a minefield, it isn’t an insurmountable minefield. That said, the silver speaks for itself.

THE ACTUAL MARKS

Pseudo-hallmarks:

Pre-Chinese Export Silver, most Chinese silversmiths did not mark their silver. With 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; as with the mark of Cutshing, the Linchong mark loosely mimicked a London hallmark. These marks have become known a “pseudo-hallmarks”, but unlike a true hallmark, the Chinese alias imparted no relevant knowledge other than the maker’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 unregulated way. Scant information can be gleaned from scrutinising journals of the day, shipping manifests and trade and inter-trade logs of the large merchant companies.

Linchong maker's mark

Linchong began producing silver in 1800. The mark is a crude imitation of a hallmark and the only information we glean from it is the “L” for Linchong, which we must remember is a fictitious name, not the name of a master silversmith.

Pseudo-hallmark is the term that has stuck for all similar Chinese Export Silver makers’ marks that were used. I personally have a dislike of this name as it seems to imply these marks hold a similar relevancy to a genuine hallmark. It also implies there was an assay system in China. Both implications are incorrect. Contrary to most of the other types of marks Chinese Export Silver makers used, these pseudo marks never tell us who the actual silversmith is; they only tell us the name of the retail silversmith.

Cutshing pseudo-hallmark

This is an example one of the marks used by the Canton retail silversmith Cutshing. While several versions were used during the years 1830-1895, this particular mark [above] was used between 1850 and 1860. What we don’t know is if it was the only mark used during those years. At first glance, it could be mistaken for an English hallmark, but on closer inspection we can see the crudeness of the lion, crowned leopard, and monarch’s head. The “k” is meaningless other than it could feasibly stand for Kanton and the insertion of “CU” is an example of artistic license.

Cutshing maker's marks

Above left we have another example of a Cutshing mark on the hallmark theme, while on the right we have the simple mark “CUT.”  This is a good demonstration of how uniformity of marks was never part of the game plan.

Items of silver from Linchong and Cutshing are considered extremely high quality and often comparable to contemporary makers of the period such as Paul Revere and Paul Storr. As retail silversmiths, Linchong and Cutshing are equally comparable to Tiffany’s and Asprey’s inasmuch as it was they who created a level of quality and a house-style that ensured their silver had a uniformity that was to become expected of their respective names. So although they were not manufacturing silversmiths per se, the quality of a Linchong or Cutshing piece of Chinese Export Silver is undeniably high. The artisan silversmiths either working for them or supplying them understood perfectly what was expected of them – a manufacturing model still used today by many top quality silver retailers who sell silver under their own maker’s marks.

Cutshing & Linchong Silver in the Georgian Style

Of the known retail silversmiths of this first early period, the maker who has “celebrity” status is one we simply know as “WE WE WC.” The name of this maker has never been discovered; we will assume it is a “he,” rather than a “they.” He operated in Canton between 1820 and 1880. We can see from the marks that consistency was again not part of his strategy, but the particular peculiarity of this maker and his mark is that it all 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 mistaken for an “E”. This London mark was considered a a high quality maker, much sought after in English society. It is highly feasible an enterprising merchant or sea captain seized on the idea of importing copies that were comparable in quality and style. Likewise, it could even be feasible that owning a high quality Chinese copy became a sought after phenomenon since Chinoiserie and the Orient were becoming highly fashionable. Chinese Export Silver was also made using a much heavier and thicker gauge of silver which appeared as “good value” in the West. Silver weight was highly relevant to an American or European silversmith but of no particular consequence to a Chinese maker.

WE WE WC maker's mark

Above [top] we have a version of the maker’s mark for WE WE WC and below it we have the mark for Eley, Fearn and Chawner.

The Chopmark:

What we refer to as a “chopmark” is actually a form of seal that was originally used in China for official documents as a form of signature. When the silver trade dollars came into usage, Chinese merchants stamped coins with their “chopmark” to attest to its authenticity and worth and, in doing so, that mark became a way for merchants to advertise.

Trade Dollars with chopmarks

During the mid-periods of Chinese Export Silver making, there is a change in the appearance of silver produced as well as the marks makers used on them. Chinese motifs begin to appear on items—sometimes subtle additions to classical Western forms and sometimes a more blatant disregard for them. It is also during this period that we see far more silversmiths appearing. Maker’s marks also changed as some makers began to use marks that combined Latin initials of the main retail silversmith along with a mark in Chinese characters or ideograms of the actual artisan silversmith that carried out the work or was responsible for it from his workshop. To add to the mounting confusion, some Chinese Export Silver retail silversmiths did not adopt the pseudo-hallmark and either used a combination mark of Latin initials and Chinese ideogram or a mark totally in Chinese. The latter was true of certain makers in Tientsin [Tianjin], Jiujang and ShangHai, for example – some of these makers known to have operated as early as the late 18th century.

Feng Xian; Tu Mao Xing & Lao Feng Xian maker's marks

Far left we see the mark of Feng Xian of Tientsin, in the middle we have Tu Mao Xing of Jiujang and at the right we have the mark of Lao Feng Xian of ShangHai. Latin letters never appear in conjunction with these names.

Some early makers chose to mark their silver with a combination of Latin letter and a Chinese character mark. This form of mark was in the latter part of the 19th century to become a format adopted by many retail silversmiths and makers.

Cum Shing maker's marks

One such maker was Cumshing [Cum Shing], a retail silversmith operating in Canton between 1775-1835. The Chinese character mark is that of the artisan silversmith responsible.

Chinese Character Marks:

Many marks appear solely using Chinese characters. Generally they tell us who the retail silversmith is and the artisan maker. Occasionally there is additional information to be gleaned such as the manufacturing base and sometimes a silver purity guarantee.

Sheng Yuan maker's markHere we have a maker’s mark that tells us the retail silversmith is Sheng Yuan, the main artisan silversmith is He Ji [in Mandarin] or Wo Kee [in Cantonese] who probably was responsible for the item carrying the mark and probably worked a bench under the Sheng Yuan umbrella. What theScreen Shot 2013-09-08 at 18.59.35 mark doesn’t tell us is that Sheng Yuan was located in ShangHai and Peking and he operated between 1890-1930.

Deciphering Character Marks:

When deciphering a Chinese silver mark or chopmark, we must always consider that a Chinese ideogram is essentially a tonal symbol, making transliteration of a chopmark only an approximation of what it might look and sound like in English. However, this can be further convoluted by the fact that Mandarin and Cantonese have different sounds. For example:

Tu Mao Xing maker's mark

This is the maker’s mark for a retail silversmith that can be transliterated into English as Tu Mao Xing in the context of Mandarin Chinese or Tu Mao Hing in the context of Cantonese Chinese. In the context of the accepted English transliteration of the Early Republic Period [1912-1916] it would have been Tu Mao Hsing.

Silver Purity Marks:

From around 1840 onwards, marks began to appear that included an addition stamped mark declaring the purity of the silver. In most cases, it is reasonable to assume that Chinese Export Silver would be .90 purity silver, given the raw source was melted down trade dollars that silversmiths would then acquire or be supplied in the shape of a sycee.

19th century silver Sycee

Some makers worked in .85 silver or .95. Some stamped their items with the English word “Sterling”, while others used a Chinese character mark for zhu wen [pure silver], zu yin or wen yin [fine or pure silver - see right], which theoretically implies the silver is .95 or over.

Chinese Export Silver maker's marks selection

Here we can see a small selection that demonstrates clearly the lack of uniformity between marks and how they declare silver purity. To add to the confusion, some makers did not uniformly use .90 or .95 so it is not uncommon to see the same maker’s mark with different silver purities.

Anomalies:

Chinese Export Silver makers’ marks are full of strange anomalies. There is no other solution to understand them other than to become familiar with them.

Tian Xing maker's mark

This is probably one of the most unusual maker’s marks, just one of several versions of a mark used by Tian Xing, a retail silversmith who operated in Peking, ShangHai and also, to complicate matters further, Singapore, where Straits Chinese silver would have been made and sold. This particular mark is a Peking mark for a piece of Chinese Export Silver. The top Chinese character mark is telling us the item was made in Zhang Jia Wan – a village or small town in Tong Zhou District outside of Peking. The right hand character marks tell us the retail silversmith is Tian Xin and the left hand marks state the piece is “shi zhu wen yin” or 100% pure silver; a term mainly used in Hebei Province and Beijing as a silver purity standard.

Bao Ying 1780 maker's markThis is one of the earliest Chinese Export Silver maker’s marks ever foundBao Ying maker's mark [left]. It refers to Bao Ying, a retail silversmith in Canton and who was referred to as Powing by early travelers in the late 18th century and later by early researchers. This mark is believed to date back to 1780 approx. The mark for Bao Ying appears was later transformed into a more recognisable format [right].

 

Date Identification:

In the absence of an assay system, dating objects can only be a subjective opinion based on the style of an item in relation to the maker; many makers having their definitive style. 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 can also help. Quite a few of the makers have a fairly long track record of manufacturing years and their own particular style evolves within that time span – this and all the other factors can help pinpoint an item within an approximation of ten years.

Occasionally, items bear an engraved inscription. We find this quite often with trophies and other presentation items and Chinese Export Silver lent itself well for widespread use. While this is a good indicator, it can also be a case of an inscription being applied to a stock off-the-shelf item. 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.

Unless a firm proof of provenance exists [and it sometimes does], dating can only ever be an informed approximation.

Teh Ling 1938 receiptHere we have a receipt from the Peking retailer and maker for quite specific items of Chinese Export Silver that we can safely date as 1938. Obviously this doesn’t happen with every item of Chinese Export Silver but the more you get to know it, the easier it will become to date the item according to decorative treatments and style.

Assay:

I keep seeing references to “Assay Office” used in descriptions of items of Chinese Export Silver. There was no assay system in China as we would recognise it; something many would find strange for a peculiarly silver-centric nation. The only region in China that exerted a form of control over silver purity was the administrative area of Bei Jing [Peking].

Silver sycee, effectively the raw material in ingot form used by silversmiths, were not issued by an official mint but individual silversmiths were responsible for making them and for attesting their purity; the silversmith Tai Shan in Bei Jing was known to be a sycee maker. However, the main silver source to make sycee was the vast quantity of silver trade dollars that poured into China and these coins were regulated in the country of origin. The sycee system of taels remained standard until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912

Payment by weight in silver was the accepted system in China. Individual merchants had their own scales with them. Most of the so-called “opium scales” we might see in museums today are actually silver scales that sometimes may have been used to weigh payment in silver for opium, or any other merchandise. The silver standard was then re-adopted in 1914 by the new republic and was abandoned by China  and Hong Kong only in 1935 but the Chinese for bank remains 銀行 [silver office].

Therefore, it is incorrect to refer to the existence of an assay office. If an item came from ShangHai, then it came from there but was not assayed there. Other than a shop receipt or possibly an entry on a ship’s manifest, it would be nigh impossible to verify the existence of a particular piece of Chinese Export Silver. Individual makers’ marks that carry “silver purity” stamps of .90 are common, but this was done purely at the whim of the maker or retail silversmith. Likewise, referring to Chinese makers’ marks as “hallmarks” is incorrect; since there was an absence of an assay system, the word hallmark is highly inappropriate.

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