Chinese Export Silver Goes Heavy Metal!


It would be perfectly logical to expect Chinese Export Silver to be exactly what it says on the can; silver made for the export market in mind. The art of silversmithing is, after all, a very exacting and particular skill. To discover examples of this quite unique silver category that combine other metals, in particular copper, is not only a surprise; it is a rarity. It also beggars the question why would a silversmith working in a country and a city where silver, as a raw material, was available in vast quantities and relatively cheaply. One can only assume, due to the rarity of actually finding such an animal, that it had to be specially commissioned.

This is all highly plausible, but to then produce an item that is not only of outstanding quality but also is creatively a product of genius is both pleasurable and surprising, all things considered.

Chinese Export Silver bowl by Cheong Lam

Here we have a bowl made circa 1890 by a Canton maker we only know as C.L.; sadly this is a maker that to date has not been fully identified. It’s a fairly large bowl, measuring 24cm in diameter and weighing a hefty 1243gm [just under 40 Troy ounces]. 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 an 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 genius and humorous. The bowl interior is parcel gilded, suggesting it was designed to be used for food or a drinkable liquid. The relatively heavy hammer-work finish is unusual for Chinese Export Silver; it would be more usual to see a finely planished finish.

As we move around the bowl, we discover the crab is in a sea-scape of different seaweeds, 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 flared base.

Chinese Export Silver bowl by Cheong Lam

Continuing further around the bowl on our journey through this underworld fantasy, we come across another crustacean in the form of a large conch shell nestling among a variant of seaweed.

Chinese Export Silver bowl by Cheong Lam

Completing the journey, we discover yet another specie of weed that has been enhanced with some fine copperwork.  This bowl is a delight to have and to hold and one can palpably feel the delight the maker had at being let loose to express both his skill as a silversmith and to allow his obvious sense of humour shine through.

Chinese Export Silver bowl by Cheong Lam

And lastly, we have the CL mark along with the artisan mark of the actual silversmith who worked the piece, Cheong Lam, which leads me to conjecture whether he was the hitherto enigmatic CL. But there remains one mystery; 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], because as a classic Cantonese dish, it often appears as a golden apparition in a bowl. In modern-day China, the name for this crab is also a colloquial term for a loser on the financial or property market because when the crab is cooked, its claws are tied up, rendering it useless – no connection with this bowl, however! As a species, the 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.

CL Cheong Lam silver mark

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 and is also perceived as a symbol of Buddha’s voice and is used to call worshippers to prayer. In ancient times, conch shells were considered of high value, particularly white shells. The crab is representative of harmony.

Next, we find our dear friend Wang Hing, the most prolific of all the retail silversmiths operating in the Chinese Export Silver period of the mid-late 19th century. One would never dream of ever seeing silver and copper together on a Wang Hing piece, yet here we find a set of 6 exquisitely unusual bowls that almost certainly were originally made to be outer containers for glass bowls, given the bases are completely open.

Chinese Export Silver Wang Hing Bowl cover

As a creative ensemble, the decorative motifs collectively make unusual bed fellows. A flowing silver-capped lotus rim borders the copper woven basket work that in turn is adorned by applied high relief chrysanthemum blooms and foliage.

Chinese Export Silver Wang Hing set of 6 bowl covers

Without knowing what the bowls were originally intended for, it is difficult to deconstruct or even determine if there’s a meaning to the combination of decorative motifs here; is this a rebus or pure decorative happenstance.

The most dominant motif here is the chrysanthemum; the gentleman of flowers according to Chinese culture, by dint of them being not as pretty and coquettish as the prunus or peach. The chrysanthemum is symbolic of intellectual accomplishments and in ancient China were used as a good luck symbol for anyone taking the official examination to become the equivalent of a civil servant, which was considered a rung up the social ladder. It is also associated with autumn since it begins to flower in the ninth month – the most auspicious day to pick chrysanthemums is the ninth day of the ninth month [or chrysanthemum moon].

The Chinese have been cultivating chrysanthemums for over 3000 years and are deemed a virtuous occupation for a retired person.

Wang Hing mark on bowl cover

The blooms are believed to resemble the sun and because of this close connection and yang forces, chrysanthemum tea and wine are still believed to be both life sustaining and beneficial to one’s health. There has been a long tradition of superstition that its clean scent prolonged life. It became regarded as the flower of immortality and was admired for the way it knew how to die with dignity and grace.

The lotus is a symbol that has its roots in Buddhism; as with Buddhism, it symbolises harmony and purity as well as summer, longevity, nobility, elegance and curative powers. But whereas many flower combinations have an auspicious meaning within Chinese culture, I know of no relevance to chrysanthemum and lotus together, so I would be happy to say these bowls are simply a decorative coincidence, albeit the use of chrysanthemum as decoration on plates and bowls in China is historically very commonplace.

With the advent of Chinese Export Silver in the late 18th century, China was literally awash with silver. There was no logical reason to combine silver with any other metal, in fact Chinese Export Silver has consistently been made of thicker and heavier gauge silver than any of its Western counterparts; such was availability of it and the relative low cost. But the combining of metals is, historically, a very Chinese trait and once that was finds it root influences to the West in Persia and Sassania.

Tang silver 750AD six lobed box

In general we find silver and silver gilt combination work aplenty during the Tang Dynasty as we can see in this six-lobed segmented lidded box circa 750AD. The bronze and inlaid silver Tang Dynasty horse [below] a much more rare example yet clearly employing a metal combination firmly embedded in Tang culture.

Tang Dynasty bronze and silver horse

Certainly, we don’t see silver combinations after the Sung Dynasty but the Chinese did acquire a taste for what they perceived as “exotic” combination in their love of ”singsongs”, a love that grew to obsessive levels. Singsongs was the colloquial team for automaton clocks and musical boxes that originally came from English clockmakers; the more outlandish the better. They were pure rococo confections as we can see from this 1766 example by James Cox, who was considered the king of singsong makers.

1766 Singsong automaton clock by James Cox

This automaton was commissioned by the English East India Company in 1766 for presentation to the Emperor of China. Mandarins and flying dragons like the creature perched atop the bouquet of flowers on the top of the double-tiered parasol represent European stereotypes of Chinese culture in the Qianlong era [1736–95]; the Chinese apparently considered them to represent a curious European taste. The case is gold with diamonds and paste jewels set in silver with hanging pearls. The balance wheel and cock is silver set with paste jewels; the dial is white enamel. A bell hidden beneath the lower tier of the parasol sounds the hours and the entire mechanism is propelled by a spring and fusee device housed above the two central wheels; the attendant is dragged along behind. Two more birds were originally fixed on spiral springs attached to the front end of the chariot, and they must have fluttered when the automaton was set in motion.

Were these confections, often bordering on the bizarre, somehow resurrected in the 19th century as the copper and silver objects we’ve seen previously?  We shall probably never know, but the combination of humour and the skill certainly are very similar and if the Chinese Export Silver pieces were specifically made for the West, then it was a case of turning the tables.

Chinese Export Silver 18th century silver filigree detailing

Or was it a mental recollection of 17th and 18th century Chinese silver filigree worked with gold that became a must-have of European royal houses including Catherine the Great, who had a particular obsession with this Chinese silver-work?

Shi Sou bronze ware inlaid with silver was popular in both the Ming and Qing Dynasties and this, too, could have left a mental footprint in the sub-consciousness of Chinese silversmiths that lay latent until it might spark inspiration to contrast metal with metal. This late Ming vase is a fine example of Shi Sou technique; Shi-sou was a late Ming Dynasty monk who perfected the art of fine silver wire inlay and from him rose a whole school of work in the same style and technique.

Ming Dynasty Shi Sou bronze and silver inlay vase

So were Wang Hing and CL influenced by the Shi-sou school, Chinese silver filigree work or the flashy gewgaws the 18th century “singsong” brought to China that seemed to appeal to the Imperial court and all its dedicated followers of fashion? Debatable, but possible would be my answer! It was all inspired by the desire for something different.

John Dryden quote

Herman Melville quote

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


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Collectors' Guide to Chinese Export SilverAdrien 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:   

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Spacer barAcknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills. To Wax Antiques, London and a Private Collector, USA  for use of images                                                              

Thanks: The Hermitage Museum, Amsterdam; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Palace Museum, Forbidden City, Beijing; Museum Speelklok, Utrecht; Kunsthandel Inez Stodel, Amsterdam; Bonhams, London

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the archive which is managed by Christopher Hunter at

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