META-MUSEUM:CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: Easter Rarities 中國出口銀器: 復活節的珍寶



CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: Easter Rarities   中國出口銀器: 復活節的珍寶

While religious items of Chinese Export Silver are relatively rare, they certainly do exist for the Muslim and Jewish faiths, both of which were minority religions that had relevancy to China, with items with Hindu decorative imagery obviously existing in larger numbers. Christian religious objects, though, are even more of a rarity and one can only marvel at how strange this actually is given Christianity had a presence in China since the Tang Dynasty and much of the Chinese Export Silver that was manufactured was made specifically for Christian countries.

The first wave of Christianity came to China in 635CE when Nestorian Christians, a Christian sect from Sassania, who were fleeing not just their homeland but the Sassanian Empire as a whole because of the increasing tension between the Roman and the Sassanian Empires; a tension that would finally lead to the downfall of the Sassanian Empire shortly afterwards in 651CE. Other “waves” were to follow during the Yuan Dynasty but the largest and most influential occurred during the Ming Dynasty with Jesuit Missionaries who arrived in Peking and settled. The Jesuits applied an unusually accommodating approach to their missionary work; one that incorporated recognition of the Chinese practice of ancestor worship and one that would eventually come to be strongly disapproved of by Rome.

Matteo Ricci [below] who came to Macau in 1578 and moved to China when he’d mastered the language, compiled the first Western Chinese dictionary and drew the first western-style map of China.   Besides literature, Ricci studied music and astronomy. The Jesuits were quick to appreciate how Western and Chinese music might connect.

Matteo Ricci


The clavichord, for example [in the painting, bottom left], sounds a lot like the Chinese guqing, the pipa like a lute. At least three Jesuit priests composed music in the Chinese style, adapting the Catholic mass to Chinese aesthetics. Jesuits who were in China at this period tended to embrace Chinese life completely, dressing in the Chinese style and speaking the language. Ricci, as with many Jesuits who came, had a connection with the early Portuguese China Trade and retained that link, possibly because it was of benefit to both the Jesuits and the Portuguese East India Company.Matteo Ricci & Xu Gangqi

Ricci was the first to translate the Chinese classic texts into a Western language [Latin], and the first to translate the name of the most prominent Chinese philosopher Kong Fuzi as Confucius.

Along with another Jesuit father, he was the first European to enter the Forbidden City of Beijing, during the reign of the Wanli Emperor.

Matteo Ricci and his baptised Chinese colleague, the mathematician, astronomer, and agronomist Xu Guangqi [1562–1633] both depicted in the engraving [right], were the first to translate the ancient Greek mathematical treatise of Euclid’s Elements into Chinese in 1607.

It is because of this continued presence of Jesuits in China were few, if any, particularly in the interior and Beijing itself, Westerners were permitted to enter, that much of what we know of China in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries was originally communicated to the outside world

Knowledge of Chinese porcelain, for example, filtered out to the West courtesy of the Jesuits. A description of the manufacture of porcelain in 1713 by French Jesuit priest Father D’Entrecolles, a Jesuit missionary resident in Peking, relates the firing of blue and white porcelain “A beautiful blue colour appears on the porcelain after having been lost for some time. When the colour is first painted on, it is pale black; when it is dry and the glaze has been put on it, it disappears entirely and the porcelain seems quite white, the colour being buried under the glaze. But the fire makes it appear in all its beauty, almost in the same way as the natural heat of the sun makes the most beautiful butterflies, with all their tints, come out of their eggs”.

One would naturally assume the painting below of the Emperor K’aing-hsi was by a Chinese artist, but nothing could be further from the truth; this is a painting by the Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione who came to China in 1715 where he was then to live at the court of three successive Emperors in Beijing.

Emperor K'iang Hsi Giuseppe Castiglione

During the reign of Emperor K’aing-hsi [1661-1722], Castiglione was given the honour of being made  the First Painter which was repeated with the following Emperor Chien-lung.

The Jesuit communication with the “outside world” created some interesting Sino-esque philosophical writing by Europeans. This treatise [below] by the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz written in 1697, Novissima Sinica [Latest News From China], a neo-Confucian theory of pre-established harmony, was created almost entirely from dialogue with Jesuits in China.

Novissima Sinica

With a firmly rooted presence in China, both physically and trying not to be at odds with “the three teachings,” Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism – the harmonious aggregate, it is puzzling why evidence of Chinese Christian imagery and objects is so rare.

This 19th century Chinese Export Silver chalice is not only rare as being a definitively Christian object, but it is rare inasmuch as it is in the true high Victorian gothic style – in this respect it is probably unique. Created for Khecheong, one of the most notable 19th century retail silversmiths in Canton, it could easily be mistaken for a pure Pugin design and certainly worthy of being in an English cathedral.

Khecheong Chalice

Luckily, we know the provenance of this chalice, as it carries the engraved inscription “To Basil Scott from his Grandfather JS, 1867”.  The bowl of the chalice takes the form of an octagonal font shape, each panel decorated with entwined and architectural Gothic arch motifs with trailing foliage against a matted ground. A pendant apron of frosted acanthus leaves surmounts a simulated basket weave bulbous border decorated with leaves. The tapered stem and base is chased and applied with leaves edged with a further border of high relief trailing vine tendrils.

Basil Scott eventually grew up to become the Chief Justice of Bombay in 1908.

Writing this at Eastertide, I would dearly liked to have discovered a Chinese Christian object, notably in Chinese Export Silver, that was connected to Easter, but none of my extensive research has ever unearthed such an object. The best I can do under such duress is this exotic and rather sumptuous ostrich egg that has been mounted in an elaborate silver bamboo cage.

Hoaching Ostrich Egg

Created for Hoaching, another notable retail silversmith in Canton in the 19th century, this object is probably as unusual and unique as the Khecheong chalice and bordering on being as excessive as a Fabergé egg might be, albeit minus the gemstones.

Hoaching Ostrich Egg


The intricate open silver cage supporting the egg has obviously taken its inspiration from Chinese Export Silver goblets and there are several elements that are particularly signature Hoaching detailing.

Hoaching Tazza & Goblet

The delicate bamboo stems and fronds of the Hoaching “pagoda” tazza [above left] and the use of the traditional Chinese decorative motif of exposed bamboo roots upon a mound seen in the Hoaching goblet [above right] have been clearly incorporated into the ostrich egg piece.

Was it made specifically for Easter? Sadly, we can never know, but the existence of an ostrich egg in China, although not unique, is probably linked in some way to one of the many Chinese immigrants who went to Australia in the 19th century, some of which did return to China towards the end of the 19th century having made their fortune and were ready to create businesses in China.

There have certainly been precedents of coconuts used in Chinese Export Silver items, of which this  circa 1830  Cutshing coconut and silver goblet [below] is a superb example and, as with the Gothic chalice, displays no recognisable Chinese workmanship, in fact it could easily be an example of Elizabethan English exotica.

Cutshing Coconut Goblet

Given the protracted history of a relatively entrenched Christian presence in China, it is really remarkable how few Christian ritual objects of each era of that history remain. Certainly, as each era came to a close, violence often accompanied the final closing of the doors. It is certainly true of the Boxer Rebellion at the end of there 19th century, which had a pointedly anti-Christian and anti foreign imperialism driven cause. This rebellion was particularly violent and is it highly likely a large amount of valuable Chinese Christian art and artefacts were destroyed along with lives lost, given the final sieges were centred upon Beijing as well as a number of treaty ports where there were significant Western communities.

Icon Holy Martyrs Chinese Orthodox Church

During the Boxer Rebellion as a whole, a total of 136 Protestant missionaries and 53 children were killed, and 47 Catholic priests and nuns. Thirty thousand Chinese Catholics, 2,000 Chinese Protestants, and 200-400 of the 700 Russian Orthodox Christians in Beijing were estimated to have been killed. Collectively, the Protestant dead were called the China Martyrs of 1900. The Boxers went on to murder Christians across 26 prefectures.

The above icon was only commissioned in 1990 but it depicts the Holy Chinese Martyrs of the Chinese Orthodox Church who were canonised before 1917.

During the mid 19th century, a 14 year rebellion took place in China that was tantamount to widespread civil war. The Taiping Rebellion was waged against the ruling Manchu Qing Dynasty because of widespread malcontent fuelled by corruption, famine and poor economy. It was a highly unusual conflict; it also resulted in 20 million dead.

Taiping Rebellion Banner

It was a millenarian movement led by Hong Xiuquan, who announced that he had received visions in which he learned that he was the younger brother of Jesus.  Hong established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom with its capital at Nanjing. The Kingdom’s army controlled large parts of southern China, at its height ruling about 30 million people. The rebel agenda included social reforms such as shared “property in common,” equality for women, and the replacement of Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion with their form of Christianity. Because of their refusal to wear the queue, Taiping combatants were nicknamed “Longhairs”.

The Qing government eventually crushed the rebellion with the aid of French and British forces but not before the wanton destruction of a huge amount of historic ritual artefacts had taken place, not to mention loss of life.

Chinese Export Silver Thurible

Protestantism and Catholicism both existed in China, albeit somewhat at odds with each other. Even so, the dearth of Christian ritual objects that survive is hard to believe. This mid 19th century Chinese Export Silver thurible is incredibly rare, given they must have existed in the hundreds, if not thousands, across China, but one of the most beautiful and particularly poignant in the context of Easter is this 19th century Chinese Jesuit crucifix inlaid with mother of pearl on rosewood. The intricate inlay displays a plethora of Chinese decorative motifs that include intertwining grape clusters, peonies, prunus branches and lotus flowers above an image of the Passion of Christ.

Chinese Crucifix

19th Century Chinese Crucifix

Chinese CrucifixThe centre of the cross has the Eucharistic Chalice, with the host radiating light, and a dove, contained in a crown of thorns above, and the Immaculate Heart of Holy Mary pierced by swords, and the Arma Christi [the Instruments of the Passion] below, adorned with peonies and floral scrolling and a Chinese vase at the very bottom.

Extraordinary as this piece is, we know of at least two such crucifixes recorded; it is not recorded, however, where they were made in China.

It was not uncommon for Jesuits to have run orphan schools for boys in China that tended to have a focus on teaching arts and crafts. Probably the most famous was the Jesuit-run T’ou Se We school in Shanghai which is widely regarded as the spiritual home of the arts and crafts movement in China.

T’ou Se We came about as a result of Taiping  troops attacking Shanghai causing a large amount of 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 Shanghainese 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 and was a pioneer in the introduction of the arts and crafts movement that stayed a part of the ethos of the orphanage. Apart from stained glass, silver-making, copper beating, bronze statuary, printing and fine art, extraordinary examples of creative woodcarving and woodwork that included some significant pieces of furniture emanated from T’ou Se We. The school had its own foundry that made bells for churches in China as well as around the world.

Given T’ou Se We was a Jesuit institution particularly known for its elaborate woodwork, it is highly likely the inlaid crucifix may have been created there.

Beijing Church

South Cathedral, known as the Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, is the oldest Catholic Church in China. It was first built by Italian missionary Matteo Ricci during the reign of Emperor Wanli in the Ming Dynasty. It was rebuilt under the direction of Adam Schall. Schall, a Jesuit missionary and tutor to the Emperor Kang Xi, one of a series of missionaries who served in the Imperial Court. After being destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the time of Emperor Qianlong, the church was closed in 1827 by Emperor Dao Guang but saved from confiscation by the Portuguese Bishop of Beijing. The current building was constructed in 1904.

The Jesuits’ 16th century strategy of serving the state as “foreign experts” bringing in new ideas and technology, helped sustain political tolerance and was well received by the social elite. It was a role played earlier by the Nestorians and later by the pioneer Protestants. Robert Morrison, a Scot, later became the first modern “China expert” serving as interpreter and translator for both officials and traders alike. Every generation of missionaries and Chinese Christians also have wrestled with balancing evangelism with ministries of service. The Church was often affected by trends in international trade.

The key moments in Chinese history – the collapse of the Ming dynasty and later the Qing dynasty, were periods of openness to Christianity, as the elite sought to find a new social philosophy and ethics to suit new circumstances. This is happening again today, as the incumbent political system is gradually evolving. The legacy and history of Christianity in China is a long and rich one and, as everything that happens in China, so uniquely Chinese. It is sad that the tangible evidence of that legacy is thin on the ground as a result of the tumultuous nature of that history.

Happy Easter




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Adrien von Ferscht at University of GlasgowButton_academiaEdu3


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Adrien von Ferscht at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions

Adrien von Ferscht at WorthPoint

Asia Scotland Institute

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Chinese Export Silver Makers Marks New 4 Edition

Chinese Export Silver Marks

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Nestorius and His Teaching, Cambridge University Press, 1908.History of Eastern Christianity.

A. S. Atiya. Notre Dame University of North Dakota Press, 1968.

By Foot to China, John M.L.Young, Japan Presbyterian Mission

Christian Missionaries in China, J. Breen

Giuseppe Castiglione – A Painter at the Court of 3 Chinese Emperors, Carolyn McDowell

A Dance with the Dragon: The Vanished World of Peking’s Foreign Colony, Julia Boyd, 2012

The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. Joseph W Esherick,University of California Press, 1987

The Origins of the Boxer War: A Multinational Study. Xiang, Lanxin, 2003

The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1800–1914, Robert A. Bickers

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, Stephen R. Platt. 2012

God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, Jonathan Spence, 1996

The Legacy of Chinese Christianity and China’s Identity Crisis, Dr Carol Lee Hamrin, 2006


Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills

Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, USA; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; The Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, Massachusetts; Global China Center, Virginia, USA; Bonhams, London

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the archive

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