“Arts & Crafts” From the T’ou Sé Wé Jesuit Orphanage That Wowed the World…. and TinTin!

Tou Se We stained glass triptych

In December 2012 a somewhat obscure silver lot appeared in auction in the US that was described as being “Chinese Export Silver”. Being a maker I had not come across before, my curiosity got the better of me and so I discovered a much forgotten piece of Shanghai history – The T’ou Sé Wé Orphanage 土山湾, the cradle of Western “arts and crafts” in China.

Tou Se We Tea:Coffe set + tray

Tou Se We makers marks



This is the 4 piece tea and coffee set with tray that caught my eye.  Weighing 4.2kg, the set is circa 1915, similar to other silver items exhibited at the 1915 Panama World Expo. T’ou Se We silver is probably not what we would normally perceive as Chinese Export Silver, since evidence shows that in the main items created in the workshop were probably aimed at the affluent Shanghai market – both Chinese and foreign residents. However, the fact silver and other “arts and crafts” items were being exhibited at international expos indicates they were sold there too. The maker’s mark is typical of that used at T’ou Se We, but as yet no information has come to light about who “AR” might have been. The set achieved $10,6250 at auction by Heritage Auctions, Dallas

T’ou-Se-We had, until recently, become virtually forgotten, but back in 1915 it was to have the most influence in introducing Western arts and crafts expertise to China and, in doing so, created a modern Chinese arts and crafts movement and appreciation. The work these Shanghai orphans created literally wowed the world. Sadly, few people today realise the extent of the T’ou-Se-We legacy to Chinese modern arts. It not only played an extremely important role in introducing and popularising Western arts in China, but it was responsible for creating astoundingly skillful works across a wide spectrum of disciplines – woodcarving, sculpture, painting, printing, stained glasswork, embroidery and metalwork, of which silver making was a shining star. That all this took place in a Jesuit orphanage in China is quite incredible.

Around 150 years ago, Taiping troops attacked Shanghai Tou Se We complex 1864causing many civilians to become destitute and homeless. Many orphans were displaced as a result of the war. To help mitigate the disaster ravaging the city, the Catholic Diocese of Shanghai bought Tushanwan [T’ou Se We in Shangainese dialect], bulldozed the mountain and began a massive construction project originally named the “Southern Orphanage”. Their aim was to build a large-scale orphanage capable of accommodating the 400 displaced orphans from the Qingpu Hangtang orphanage and the Dongjiadu orphanage in Shanghai. The facility was named the Tushanwan Orphanage [T’ou Se We], the year was 1852.

Acting on a foundation of Christian charity, Jesuit missionaries provided the orphans with clothing, food and education. They did all this to equip the orphans with the skills necessary to support themselves and flourish in society. The orphanage also became the place where Western culture, art and technology were introduced into China. Essentially, it was the confluence where Chinese and Western cultures could mix and integrate with each other. The Tushanwan Orphanage trained China’s first Western-style painters, sculptors, photo-mechanic professionals, printers, industrial artists and a large number of other skilled craftsmen. The orphanage was thus instrumental in the creation of modern Chinese culture, creating many ‘firsts’ in the history technology.

Tou Se We Painting Studio

The founder of the workshops was the Jesuit Spanish Brother Juan Ferrer born near Valencia in 1817. His father had been a distinguished sculptor who had worked on the decoration of the Escorial Palace. He entered the Jesuit order in Naples where he was completing his artistic education and, on his request, was sent to China in 1847. With the approval of his superiors he founded a training workshop in Xujianhui (Zi-ka-wei), the domain where Jesuits in Shanghai were gathering their various works and schools, in 1852. The workshop educated potentially outstanding and talented sculptors and painters, working first for religious buildings and later extending the range of

Tou Se We printshop

ts activities and extending the workshops and artisanal skills. Juan Ferrer died a premature death in 1856. Other professors and artists at the orphanage included Brother Nicolas Massa [1815-1870] who taught oil painting, Brother Lu Baidu [1836-1880], Brother Adolphe Vasseur [1828-1899], and, most notably, Brother Liu Bizhen [1845-1912], all of whom were highly woodcut engravers who produced work for evangelical publications – T’ou Se We students would often colour the prints, many of them woodcuts of the Evangelicae Historiae Imagines. T’ou Se We expanded its printing into photoengravure and in the early 1900’s, Wenming, the largest Chinese publishing house began using T’ou Se We prints in its text books.

Tou Se We paintings

These paintings were completed by T’ou Se We students in 1914 for a collection of arts and crafts items representing the newly formed Republic of China at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition held the following year in San Francisco. The Palace of Fine Arts still stands in the Marina District of San Francisco where this huge worlds fair was held.

 The paintings are done in traditional Chinese watercolors on paper. Each subject is depicted in his familiar attire, surrounded by the religious, scientific, and musical objects through which they achieved renown and are believed to be inspired by the 18th century  book “Description géographique,historique,chronologique,politique, et physique de l’empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise” that feature famous Jesuit missionaries in China. At the head of each painting is a biography written by Xia Dingyi, with one dated Minguo 3 [1914]. At the foot of each painting after the signature are the letters T.S.W. for T’ou-sé-wéi [Tushanwan].

It is probably the woodcarving work produced at T’ou Se We that is most significant. It was of incredible quality and intricacy and it found its way around the world, sometimes in the most obscure places.

Tou Se We Eisteddfod Chair 1933

Here we see the 1933 Eisteddfod Chair that took students at T’ou Se We over a year to carve. It was given to the National Eisteddfod in Wales by a successful Welshman living in Shanghai – Dr John Robert Jones, a barrister and an avid Eisteddfod-goer who also showed great interest in Chinese art and culture. He went to Shanghai in 1924, became General Secretary of International Council in 1928, and was a leading figure in the Shanghai Society and Cymdeithas Dewi Sant. It was his idea to commission the craftsmen of T’ou-se-we to make the chair. An almost identical chair, also made at T’ou-se-we in the 1926 Swansea Eisteddfod.

Tou Se We carved column detail




This magnificent lion [left] is part of a colum from the equally magnificent gateway arch created for the Palace of Fine Arts at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Franciso [below].


Tou Se We 1915 Triumphal Arch


Some of the most striking work that emanated from T’ou Se We was stained glass, where a large studio created some of the most extraordinary work. While early work was mainly for ecclesiastical buildings, the studio combined its skills with the woodwork studio to produce some exceptional pieces of Arts and Crafts furniture with glazed panels.

Tou Se We stained glass panel:1



Pictured below is the stained glass workshop circa 1900 and shows a hive of industry. The large triptych panel spanning the top of this article

Tou Se We stained glass workshop









Tou Se We metal workshop

is of the same period and shows a quite unique blend of Chinese and Western within a definitive arts and crafts/art nouveau feel. T’ou Se We was also known to have created glass lampshades in the style of Tiffany, the bases being made in the T’ou Se We metalwork studio [right].

Tou Se We bronze sculpture




The same workshop had a foundry that was also used for creating bronze statuary [left] and beaten copper panels with elaborate repoussé designs – again very much in the Arts and Crafts tradition [below]. It also made bells for churches.

Tou Se We copper panel

One of the most famous students of this workshop was the painter and sculptor Zhang Chongren and he unwittingly created probably the most bizarre link with T After Zhang had completed his training at T’ou-Sè  it later led him to study art in Brussels, where he met Hergé [Georges Remi], the creator of the comic book character Tintin. Based in Shanghai, the Tintin adventure, The Blue Lotus , was created in close collaboration with Zhang Chongren, who is immortalized in the figure of the Chinese boy Zhang.

Tou Se We - TinTin in Shanghai

 Tou Se We TinTin and Chang


There is so much one can write about T’ou Se We; it’s a book in itself and conveying its extraordinary work and influences in one article cannot do it justice at all. But we have to finish on the silver trail and sadly very little T’ou Se We silver has so far come to light*. This is probably for two reasons – the fact that most of it was made for Shanghai consumption and the silver that did make it to the West is, as yet, not recognised as great silver simply because T’ou Se We is hardly known and is probably not recognised at as Chinese Export Silver; a category of silver that is otherwise extraordinarily buoyant.

Tou Se We silverThe bowl, lidded box and teapot [left] are items that have been donated to the new T’ou Se We museum in Shanghai by someone who began his life at the T’ou Se We orphanage. Not only do they demonstrate the exceptional quality produced in the metalwork studio, but it also shows that the tutelage had a very Western bias. The majority of the artisanal tutors were European.

Thankfully T’ou Se We has recently undergone a massive refurbishment and restoration to emerge as probably one of the most unique museums in Shanghai. The old dormitory building [below] forms part of that complex.

Tou Se We today

A far cry from the early days of the orphanage as we see here!

Tou Se We dining al fresco

Special thanks to Melody Amsel-Arieli who first brought the silver of T’ou Se We to my attention and to Heritage Auctions, Dallas, Texas Red Flash

Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow, Scottish Centre for China Research: SourceURL:

* Please feel free [encouraged even!] to share any images of other items of T’ou Se We silver

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