#META-MUSEUM:CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: Standing on Ceremony 中國出口銀器: 講究禮儀

Chinese Export Silver Huabiao

#CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: Standing on Ceremony    中國出口銀器: 講究禮儀

Chinese culture is so enriched with allegorical imagery that one could almost say it is its very foundation. As with any world culture, it is an osmotic accumulation of influences from outside and within China over the millennia, manifesting itself in ceremonial and decorative objects in combinations that are themselves often wonders in their own right.

One particular object is the result of a virtual metamorphosis of usages, beliefs, superstitions and myths; as an object it literally stands out of the crowd of symbolic phenomena.

The huabiao is an ornamental totemic pillar that today we might see made of stone or marble. It is certainly not how it began life and it was never conceived to be made of silver, yet to my surprise I was confronted with a pair of Chinese Export Silver huabiao recently; certainly the only silver huabiao I’ve ever encountered. They were made by a Beijing silversmith by the name of Bao Xiang; a silversmith I have to say I’ve never previously encountered, not to be confused with Bao Xing of Canton and with Bao Xing of Nanjing, but obviously a silversmith of significant skill as we can see from the image below.

Chinese Export Silver Huabiao


These huabiao columns tell a story in themselves; one can take a stroll through the allegorical imagery and almost get lost, but to fully understand that collective meaning, it is important to discover how the huabiao developed over thousands of years and what it came to represent.

Having said that, it is actually difficult to determine exactly when and why these pillars originated. If we would rely on legend, then we need to travel back 4000 years to the reigns of Emperors Yao and Shun; the era when China’s moral and ethical codes of conduct were formulated. Then, huabiao were made of wood and served as landmarks and it is believed their shape and form are derived from an ancient dagger. As landmarks they were used to show soldiers on the march the direction to go. They then evolved another use when common people were encouraged to post comments and suggestions for their ruler on the posts. In this guise, the posts were known as feibang zhi mu [wood of direct speech] or bangmu, for short. The creation of the feudal system in the Zhou dynasty, just over 3000 years ago, put an end to this practice when suggestions from the commoners were replaced with carvings of dragons, the symbol of Imperial power.

Another school of thought believes Huabiao originated 2600 years ago as an ancient instrument of measurement; a pole would have been driven into the ground where a proposed building was to be erected. The pole, known as a “Biao”, cast a shadow that aided designers to determine appropriate directions.

As the use changed over the centuries, so did their appearance. They became more ornate, marble or stone was the preferred material, the base was typically either circular or octagonal surrounded by an ornate balustrade or railings.

Huabiao often come in pairs, yet probably the most famous huabiao in China are to be found in Beijing by Tian’anmen [The Gate of Heavenly Peace] at the entrance to the Forbidden City. These columns were created in the Qing Dynasty and as with all huabiao, they have a majestic looking beast known as “Denlong” or “Hou” perched on top.

The mythical dragon had nine children according to legend; the Hou is one of them. It is purported to have the habit of watching the sky; its specific role in life as guardian atop a huabiao is to communicate the mood of the people below to the heavens above. The hou maintains order in the cosmos and also represents power and good fortune.

Hou dragons

Here we can compare the hou atop one of the Tian’anmen columns to the Bao Xiang version. The latter is a very stylised interpretation of the more intricate classical hou we are more likely to encounter in stone. But even though Bao Xiang is a Beijing silversmith, his silver columns are clearly not faithful copies of the more famous Beijing huabiao.

The Tian’anmen four are particularly regal, The pair guarding the entrance to the palace have the hou looking away out to the distance demonstrating the people’s longing for the Emperor’s return should he travel out of the palace. This was also meant to remind  rulers not to become infatuated with the beauty of the landscapes of their domain and to return in  a timely fashion to continue running affairs of state. These pillars are given the name of wangjungui [looking forward to the Emperor’s return]. The pair inside the gate looking inwards, reminding the Emperor they were expected not to be beguiled by the sensual pleasures of the palace, but to leave the palace in order to have a better understanding of the common people and their needs, hopes and aspirations. These pillars are given the name wangyunchu [expecting his Majesty to go on an inspection]. Whereas they once kept rulers mindful of their role, today one could say they are a warning to the ruled.

The swirling dragon on the main column of a huabiao represent the imperial power of the Emperor, or Son of Heaven. The hou sits majestically upon a dew-collecting tray under which is a stylised cloud that is a symbol of the delineation between heaven and earth. The octagonal base plinth represents the solid foundations of the earth. Usually, crowning the balustrade or railings are small creatures known as suan ni [see examples below], the fifth son of the dragon and symbolic of imperial good fortune. The whimsical horizontal element towards the top is known as the cloud board

Suan ni dragons

Huabiao are to be found at the entrances to palaces, bridges, imperial tombs, ceremonial gates and spirit roads [an ornate road leading to a Chinese tomb of a notable dignitary]. The latter huabiao are known as shen dao zhu [spirit way columns] – seen towards the middle of the picture. We can see examples here in this late 18th watercolour painting of the Ming Tombs in Changping, about 50 kilometres from Beijing and the subsequent photographic image. The auspicious animal-lined avenue is the “spirit way” leading to the mausoleum complex.

Ming Tombs Beijing 18th century watercolour

Ming Tombs huabiao

But the huabiao has evolved to become such an iconic symbol that it appears on coinage and currency.

50 Renminbi note with huabiao


Here we can see it on a 1999 version of the 50 Renminbi note and below we have it on a 1 and 2 ounce special 1997 silver coinage edition.

Chinese silver coinage with huabiao

Beijing Olymics Promotional graphic with huabiao

While this official Chinese government publicity material for the Beijing Olympic Games incorporated a huabiao at the very heart of this collage of Chinese cultural imagery drawn from the centuries of Chinese history.

Peking University huabiao

Dalian huabiao - Chinese Export Silver

Above we have one of a pair of huabiao  that now stand in the grounds of Peking University, having been relocated from their original home in the grounds of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.

Here [right] we have the superb contrast of the modern towers of Dalian city with the majestic huabiao  standing in Xinghai Square. Originally a small fishing village that became a city that was occupied in the 19th century by a succession of British, Japanese and Russian occupations, Dalian is today a modern city of 3.3 million with a 19th century district at its heart.

China Huabiao award for film









The Chinese equivalent of an Oscar is — yes, you’ve guessed it – a huabiao. Created originally in 1957, the award ceremony is held in Beijing and has ten versions for various Chinese film categories.

At the Huabiao Awards








The final stop for the huabiao in its 4000 year evolution from wooden milestone through several thousand years in imperial splendour can only be this rendition of Tian’anmen complete with a pair of huabiao in LEGO! While it is an impressive model, one cannot help being slightly miffed at the degree of detail Lego devote to its product range in China than it does in the West!

Tian'anmen in Lego with huabiao

Returning to our pair of Chinese Export Silver columns. We can only wonder why they were made. They carry no inscription, so it is doubtful they were made as a trophy piece. They are not particular faithful to their Tian’anmen cousins, so it is doubtful they might be presentation souvenirs. About the only thing we can know is that they are fairly unique, they are of superb quality and they are culturally faithful in detailing to a traditional huabiao. One could theorise that given the hou dragons are removable, perhaps they might have been originally planned to have detachable alternative bobèche sconces so they could be used as candlesticks. The columns stand at 29.5cm, so the height would be right. The columns also weigh a combined 839gm, so they are heavy enough to be used as candlesticks even though they have no additional loading – the amount of silver in the bases gives the weight, the columns themselves are hollow although made of heavy gauge silver.

The columns are being offered as a single lot pair in a Fine Silver & Objects of Vertu Sale on Wednesday 12th February 2014 at Dreweatts, Donnington Priory, UK . During the past year, I have been keenly aware of a noticeable rise in the amount of important items of Chinese Export Silver coming to auction as well as a marked increase of interest in the lots as well as eventual hammer value. This is a highly significant lot and a rare pair of Chinese Export Silver objects that are richly endowed with Chinese decorative imagery.

I leave you with this nostalgic view of Tian’anmen taken in 1901 in its natural state, unadorned in bright red we are familiar with today and the landscaping in front before it was became a concrete square. The huabiao stood the test of time and stand today in exactly the spot where they were first erected.

Tian'anmen 1901

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Adrien von Ferscht’s website is the largest online information resource for Chinese Export Silver: www.chinese-export-silver.com

Adrien von Ferscht is the only academic carrying out in-depth research into Chinese Export Silver in the context of The China Trade and the 1200 year history of Chinese silver making. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research http://universityofglasgow.academia.edu/AdrienvonFerscht

He is “Expert for Chinese Export Silver” for Auctionata for this unique silver category and he is a Worthologist at WorthPoint.

His new 250-page 3rd Edition “Collectors’ Guide to Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940” is the largest information reference resource for this unique silver category is available at: http://chinese-export-silver.com/catalogue-of-makers-marks/

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Thanks: Danny Cheng, for his translation skills. David Rees at Dreweatts

Acknowledgments: Dreweatts, UK; United States Library of Congress; Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China; Lego China; Peking University

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