Chinese Export Silver: An Almighty Battle Royal over a Tea Set!
Here is the tea set that caused the ground to move under author Adrien von Ferscht’s very feet. The battle scenes depicted on the panels of this tea set are of the Battle of Yancheng, the outcome of which was the routing of the invading Jin army. General Yue Fei was aided and abetted by six other generals of note.
Inundated though I am with images of Chinese Export Silver, both shared by others from around the world and unearthed by me in my research quest, not a week goes by without at least one specimen taking my breath away. Cape Town, South Africa, isn’t a city one would automatically associate with Chinese Export Silver, but this was the source from whence my breath was duly taken!
Tu Mao Xing was a master Chinese silversmith who operated from Jiǔjiāng (Kiukang) between 1880 and 1930; in fact, he is considered to be one of the first silversmiths to make Chinese Export Silver from that city. To the majority of people who know Chinese Export Silver, the maker Wang Hing would automatically spring to mind. Wang Hing was probably the most prolific maker of the Chinese Export Silver period, but Wang Hing was, first of all, a fictitious name, being all things to all Chinese siversmiths: agent to the artisans; entrepreneur; retailer. Wang Hing spelt quality, albeit varying degrees of it. Tu Mao Hsing, however, like all the Jiǔjiāng makers, was an actual master silversmith; a real person and master of artisans who worked at his benches in the traditional Chinese silver workshop way.
An artist’s depiction of General Yue Fei.
Tu Mao Hsing, for me, was the master of dragon-making. His silver dragons were quite extraordinary, once again in varying degrees but all degrees of excellence—so much so that I personally believe he was a supplier of component dragons to many makers across China. I also believe that certain makers probably ordered their own exclusive versions. This was common practice among Western silversmiths of the Georgian period in the making of both jewelry and high-quality silver objects, where die striking and other “mass production” techniques were prevalent from the latter part of the 18th century.
It was a tea set that caused the ground to move under my very feet. But it’s not just the exuberant proliferation of decorative treatment with which this set is literally covered in the true manner of that “wedding cake” look the Victorian age so strived for. It is the intricate panels that adorn it that are of particular added interest, once you’ve got over the dragons that is. In fact, Tu Mao Xing could be called an all-round Chinese Victorian!
The panels depict scenes from a famous and quite legendary battle that was dominated by the Southern Song Dynasty General Yu Fei, also known as Pengju. Yue Fei was born in 1103, when the incompetent ruler could hardly save the nation from declining, and the country was constantly invaded by the strong Jurchen army. Having received an education of traditional culture from childhood, Yue Fei was concerned about the situation of the nation and was determined to protect it from Jurchen’s invasion. Therefore, just in the year when the Northern Song Dynasty collapsed and the Southern Song Dynasty was founded, he renounced the pen (he was a poet of note) and joined the army. He distinguished himself in battles against northern invaders and was appointed general commissioner, the highest rank in the army. The army he led, known as “the army of Yue’s,” was a highly disciplined one that the enemies became terror-stricken on hearing the name. Emperor Gaozong sent him an autograph of “Total Loyalty to Serve the Country” and ordered him to have it embroidered on the banner when he commanded the army.
This is one of the battle scenes from the teapot. Three pennants are being carried by riders, one signifying “Commander-in-Chief,” another “Yue” and the third “Yang.” The Yang in this instance and in the context of this particular battle refers to General Yang Zai Xing; the Yue refers to Yu Fei’s son Yue Yun.
The battle scenes depicted on the panels of this tea set are of the Battle of Yancheng, the outcome of which was the routing of the invading Jin army. Yue Fei was aided and abetted by six other generals of note, among them was General Yang Zai Xing, and also his adopted son Yue Yun.
Three of the panels on the tea pot relate to the same significant battle, while the others on the pot and the creamer and sugar are of less prominent battles of the Three Kingdoms, of which there were historically many. The use of the “Greek Key” or “meander” motif is also very much a traditional classical Chinese motif with no connection whatsoever to the ancient Greek version. The Chinese meander is believed to have evolved from the graphic evolvement of clouds and rolling thunder and this is quite relevant, since the dragon has a close association with wind, thunder and rain.
But back to my admiration of Tu Mao Hsing’s renditions of the dragon. The detailing and workmanship on the teapot lid, what is essentially a very small part of this object, speaks for itself. The use of the five-clawed dragon is, among many things, the symbol of Imperial power and of the son of heaven. The dragon holds such a wealth of symbolism in classical Chinese art that there are at least 100 specific versions of the dragon, each having its own name, many of them ending in the suffix “long”—龍 or 龙. In fact, a natural disaster, such as a flood or tornado, would be known as lóngjuǎnfēng—龙卷风—literally, the dragon rolls up the wind.
The manner in which the dragon is virtually gripping the teapot side and the sugar bowl with its claws is literally depicts being invaded from all sides. It is incredibly dramatic yet in no way over the top. The way the dragon has been slightly adapted to suit the cream jug is also fascinating. Overall, there’s a demonstration of intense love a care and attention to detail.
The Chinese dragon is very different from its Western counterpart, where it is depicted as a cruel, avaricious and bloodthirsty creature, probably best immortalized by Tolkien’s Smaug in “The Hobbit.” For the Chinese, the dragon is an auspicious creature symbolizing strength, wisdom, good luck and power of the elements of wind and water. As such, Chinese people proudly claim they are descendants of the dragon. China’s feudal rulers did everything they possibly could to maintain this discordancy, surrounding themselves with dragon-related ornamentation, ruling from a dragon throne and even waging war under a dragon flag. The emperor’s robes lóngpáo—龙袍—were embroidered with curling dragons. While Western dragons are firmly rooted to the earth, Chinese dragons are indisputably rulers of the sky.
The teapot lid. The detailing and workmanship on what is essentially a very small part of this object speaks for itself.
The use of the five-clawed dragon is, among many things, the symbol of Imperial power and of the son of heaven.
The use of identical dragon handles and the treatment on the base of the spout in another example of a tea set by Tu Mao Xing (pictured above), again, employs the classical Chinese frieze borders. This is a tea set in the grand style. Consistent with most Chinese Export Silver makers, the gauge of silver used is far heavier than one would ever expect to see in a comparable Western tea set.
The use of the same dragon elements demonstrates they were probably standard components at the Tu Mao Xing workshop, which also points to the strong possibility that bespoke orders could have been decided by using a catalogue of component parts and design elements such as borders. This was, after all, common practice among English silversmiths and furniture makers; Thomas Chippendale’s catalogue is legendary and still consulted to this day as a reference resource. One can almost imagine a potential client confirming the number of dragons, the style of dragon and style of ruyi border—all amidst the chaos of a Chinese workshop or showroom. I am also reasonably certain that speed of execution of orders was paramount. There must have been a good degree of rivalry among the makers for the best customers, not dissimilar to the bespoke tailors and shirtmakers in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district today.
Returning to the battlefields of the featured tea set; it transpires that the battles were not just confined to the silver panels in this instance. Having stunned me by its exuberance and workmanship, it was this tea set that led to the ultimate discovery that a long-running misconception had existed in the Chinese Export Silver world since the mid-1960s. It was then that Crosby Forbes created his treatise, which has been acknowledged as the unofficial “bible” for collectors ever since. And rightly so, because at the time it was a major breakthrough. But it was compiled on the information at hand at the time and it should be remembered that fewer than 200 pieces of Chinese Export Silver had been identified when the first exhibition at the China Trade Museum in Salem, Mass., was staged. In 1984, when the second major exhibition was staged that figure had risen to 2,000 pieces. His work was also confined to Canton and Massachusetts. Anyone who has any connection with this silver category will know there are tens of thousands of pieces out there; we shall probably never know how many.
Pictured above, we have another example of a tea set by Tu Mao Xing. We have identical dragon handles and the treatment on the base of the spout is similar. Again, classical Chinese frieze borders are being used. This is a tea set in the grand style. Consistent with most Chinese Export Silver makers, the gauge of silver used is far heavier than one would ever expect to see in a comparable Western tea set.
In the course of my lengthy research, I have discovered a number of misconceptions in Crosby Forbes work, which is fine; I am also not infallible. But I have the good fortune to be carrying out research in a digital age and, thanks to a network of trusty devotees around the world, I am constantly being corrected, for which I am always eternally grateful and long may it continue.
So it was through this very tea set that a major discovery was made. Originally labeled as being made by Kan Mao Hsing, this set is in fact made by Tu Mao Xing; it is incorrect to translate this mark as Kan Mao Hsing; Tu Mao Xing is the correct identity of the mark we have all been cataloguing as Kan Mao Hsing for more than 50 years and it is all because of robotically accepting a reference in the Crosby Forbes catalogue. There is no Kan Mao Hising.
An example of Tu Mao Xing’s mark can be seen above; Kwong Man Shing’s mark is below left and, as you see, always features the KMS initials and a Chinese chopmark. Tu Mao Xing’s mark is always only in Chinese characters.
But the confusion doesn’t really end there, and this is actually of slight concern, because there are dealers out there who consistently catalogue what would have been Kan Mao Hsing pieces as Kwong Man Shing. The latter is a completely different maker working in Hong Kong and Canton, albeit in the same period. But his work is very different—as are his maker’s marks. In my own personal view, there’s a quality difference too; Tu Mao Xing is superior and, in being so, should command higher values.
Some might find this controversial. I know that and I am well-equipped with a suitable flak jacket (embroidered with crouching tigers and very prominent dragons). Lively debate, however, invariably produces optimal research in the end. Bring it on!
Back again to Crosby Forbes. His work was almost exclusively Canton-, Hong Kong- and ShangHai-focused. This has resulted in Tientsin and Jiujang being confined to virtual obscurity, where, in reality, they were both important treaty ports. We must also remember that Chinese Export Silver didn’t magically appear from nowhere after the Treaty of Nanking in 1842; China had a 1,200-year rich history of silvermaking and, because of this and the new opportunities the “China Trade” offered, Chinese Export Silver was born. Shortly after the Treaty of Nanking came the Treaty of Tientsin, which changed the playing field yet again relating to port creation in China and the opening up of trade.
Not all the silversmiths found themselves in Canton, ShangHai or Hong Kong; some of the finest stayed in Jiujang and Tientsin. In fact, some of the more obscure makers who are not mentioned by Crosby Forbes were actually in ShangHai; the so-called “Nine Factories,” many of which were operating back in the 18th century and some even earlier. A 17th-century coffee pot sits proudly in Queen Victoria’s Osborne House on the Isle of Wight in the U.K. and is now part of the Royal Collection. This pot was almost certainly made by one of the old established ShangHai makers. Some really superb makers manufactured in relatively obscure places such as Chengdu. Even Peking makers were comparatively few. The focus since Crosby Forbes has been on Canton, ShangHai and Hong Kong; I believe the time is right to re-evaluate that perception.
Yue Fei is still glorified today, such as in this “The Patriot Yue Fei” TV movie.
I’ll say it again. And again… and again: Chinese Export Silver is a highly significant and extensive silver category.
For those who agree with me on the featured Tu Mao Xing teas set and crave it, it is due to appear in auction at Strauss & Co, Cape Town during October 2013.
Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills;
Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the www.chinese-export-silver.com archive, managed by Christopher Hunter at www.eleven38photography.co.uk.
Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research and also works with museums and universities around the world. His ever-expanding website, Chinese Export Silver, is the largest online information resource on the subject. Adrien recently released “Catalogue of Chinese Export Makers’ Marks,” the largest reference work for makers’ marks ever published. You can e-mail Adrien at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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