Chinese Export Silver: The Cultural Crossovers of Incense

中國出口銀器: 中外文化結合的香!

Here we have a particularly fine pair of spill vases by Wang Hing circa 1890, taking the form reticulated dragon in clouds cylinders standing upon three splayed dragon head feet that display an unusual attention to detailing. The vases have Bristol blue liners; probably made in England since blue glass was not typically Chinese.

The relationship and benefits between humans and incense may be likened to butterflies to flowers and trees to the sun. This, in itself, is a very Confucian concept.

The use of incense in Chinese culture dates to around 450 B.C., but by the Tang period incense was commonly used and no longer just within the confines of religious ritual and medicinal practices. It was therefore towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.) that the use of incense by the Chinese began its journey across several religious cultures and philosophies, becoming somewhat entangled along the way to emerge by the Ming Dynasty as something definitively Chinese, albeit with a confused history.

Stick incense was a development of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).In the West we commonly refer to stick incense as joss sticks; the word “joss” is actually from that wonderful language we know as pidgin—the word is actually an 18th-century derivation of the Portuguese word “deos,/i>”, meaning god (the Portuguese only relinquished Macau in 1887).

Incense has always been an Eastern phenomenon, regarded in the West as exotic unless taken in the context of Christian religious ritual, where its roots lie in the Middle East. With the advent of Chinese Export Silver in the late 18th century, while there was no widespread use of incense in Europe and North America, there was a widespread use of tapers or spills in an age where the flame was the only source of light and heat; there is no particular connection between their use and stick incense. During the same period in China, both the use of bamboo spills and bamboo incense sticks was widespread, although the latter was not as prevalent as it had been in ancient China.

Chinese Export Silver, in its early years, strove to faithfully copy Western English Georgian silver and its counterparts in Europe and it is here that we see an item of silver emerging that is the product of the crossover of East-meets-West: the spill vase.

On the left: two Portuguese figural toothpick holders, circa 1850. On the right: a Georgian English provincial silver toothpick holder.

I have seen these vases often described as bud vases or rather annoyingly as toothpick holders; bud vases were made in Chinese Export Silver, but these straight-sided objects were definitely intended to have a dual functionality—a spill vase for the Western export market and an incense stick holder for the Chinese market. They were never intended as toothpick holders. Although wooden toothpicks were invented in America in 1869, the craze for toothpicks in America only took off at the turn of the century. In the U.K., the Georgian’s used goose quills and, before that, porcupine, unless a silver or gold pick was to hand. It was not particularly accepted in polite society to be seen using a toothpick. Given Chinese Export Silver spill vases were almost always made as a pair, it implies they were made to use on a table—to have toothpick holders actually on a dining table is highly unlikely. The Georgians did have silver tooth pick holders, but given the pick was a quill, then a holder was designed so that the quills became an augmentation of the object; they were also not used on a table but usually used only when the ladies had withdrawn and the gentlemen had their port and cigars.

On the left we have an English silver spill vase dated 1890. Interestingly, it has its own integral vesta holder complete with striking plate. I stress my use of the word “interestingly” because Chinese Export Silver makers made an extraordinary number of silver vesta box covers. There were probably three reasons for this; smoking, lighting spills and, dare I mention it, opium. There were also smaller covers made for what were known as ladies’ matches. On the right we have a Wang Hing matchbox slip cover circa 1895, making it a distant relation to the spill vase.

Here we have a deliciously fanciful pair of vases by Chang Kong, circa 1890. Again, a reticulated cylindrical body with Bristol blue glass liner supported by the splayed tail of a Koi carp.

Here we have three examples of Chinese Export Silver spill vases, all made by Wang Hing. What they have in common are their feet; they all have splayed qilin (kilin) feet—the mythical hoofed creature that features in Chinese culture as one of the nine sons of a dragon (see below). Its nearest Western equivalent is probably the unicorn.

A qilin, the mythical hoofed creature that features in Chinese culture as one of the nine sons of a dragon.

Chinese silversmiths seem to have lavished much attention to creating extraordinary spill vases, almost to the point of it being reverential.

As you will note from the various images of Chinese Export Silver spill vases, they are almost always straight-sided; bud vases and posy vases are normally trumpet shaped.

Another example from Wang Hing and also firmly sitting upon qilin feet.

As I previously conjectured, Chinese silversmiths probably invested so much attention to detail for what is essentially a very modest object because of the position and respect incense held within Chinese culture, even though the objects in question were probably destined for another use if and when they found their way to the West, where they were used for tapers or even on a lady’s dressing table for hatpins. Although we can see that Wang Hing was the predominant purveyor of spill vases, we need to remember that Wang Hing was a retail silversmith being supplied by a plethora of artisan silversmiths, so the intensity of workmanship is being lavished by quite a number of individual makers.

When the ancient Chinese formed cults to worship gods and their ancestors, they usually burned sacrifices or certain plants to create a heavy smoke in the belief they could communicate with spirits through the ascending smoke.

The development of incense culture in China has a long history, being born in the time of high antiquity, sprouted in pre-Qin Dynasty, formed in the dynasties of Qin and Han, developed in Six Dynasties, matured in the dynasties of Sui and Tang, culminated in dynasties of Song and Yuan and was widely used in the dynasties of Ming and Qing.

Incense use developed in China to include cultural activities, religious ceremonies, ancestor veneration and traditional Chinese medicine. It is known as xiang (Wade-Giles: Hsiang), loosely meaning “fragrance.” Edward Hetzel Schafer, the distinguished Sinologist, wrote that in medieval China:

“there was little clear-cut distinction among drugs, spices, perfumes, and incenses—that is, among substances which nourish the body and those which nourish the spirit, those which attract a lover and those which attract a divinity.”

Along with the introduction of Buddhism in China came calibrated incense sticks and incense clocks xiangzhong or xiangyin incense seals. The poet Yu Jianwu (487-551 A.D.) first recorded them:

“By burning incense we know the o’clock of the night, With graduated candles we confirm the tally of the watches.”

The use of these incense timekeeping devices spread from Buddhist monasteries into secular society.

A rarer type is the dragon vessel of bronze, silver, silver gilt or lacquered wood, lined with pewter and fitted with V-shaped wire racks to hold an incense stick. A more esoteric Chinese device for measuring time, it had strings with metal weights that were suspended perpendicular to the body at regular intervals, or at one place only, depending on the specific use; when the heat from the burning incense ignited the string, the balls fell into a metal platter over which the dragon was suspended. The resulting clatter served as an alarm for the light sleeper.

The most primitive incense clock is a graded incense stick; the time elapsed is registered by the speed at which the trail of incense is consumed. Powdered incense was formed into a stick of hardened paste and graded for hourly intervals. There are three common types of post-16th century incense seals. All consist of a metal base, tray for the ash bed and powdered incense, perforated grid pattern (the seal) and perforated cover. The utensils include a tamper and a small shovel, stored in the base which insulates the burner. A bed of wood ash is put into the tray and tamped. The grid is placed on the ash and the sharp end of the shovel traces the path of the grid. Powdered incense is placed in the groove and smoothed. The grid is removed and small bamboo pegs, each stamped with an hour character, are placed at regular intervals along the incense track. The seal is then covered with the perforated lid to protect the incense from drafts, and the incense is ignited. The types are: the single seal, round, square or rectangular. The double square seal having two trays and two different seal grids stacked one on top of the other; and the Ju’i sceptre, in the shape of the ancient sacred mushroom.

Here we have a late 19th-century Chinese Export Silver incense stick holder engraved throughout with stylized flowers, swirling dragons and bamboo motif around a central flaming pearl.

In ancient China, the equivalent of today’s Karaoke party was for high-ranking families to invite people to appreciate their collection of incenses. Sadly, today, incense burning has been relegated to the burning of “joss” sticks at temples, with the rich history and heritage of incense burning being lost or forgotten.

I have purposely decided not to venture into the world of Chinese incense burners in this article simply because that is a whole wonderful world of its own. I have chosen to share just one example below—this circa 1840 Chinese Export Silver burner by Tien Shing of Hong Kong. Today they are highly desirable objects sought mainly by Chinese collectors: this particular example was sold in Montreal last year for $2,200.

A Chinese Export Silver burner by Tien Shing of Hong Kong, circa 1840.

The journey incense has travelled in Chinese culture over the millennia is somewhat akin to a train travelling across many junctions, at each junction slightly changing course. The same might be said for the humble spill vase that, according to where in the world one places it, has a different connotation entirely.


“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.”

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)


Thanks: Danny Cheng, for his translation skills. Acknowledgments: S&J Stodel, London; Bonhams, London; Lyon & Turnbull, Edinburgh + Glasgow; University of California, Los Angeles.

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. His new 250-page Third Edition of the “Collector’s Guide to Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940,” is the largest information reference resource for this unique silver category. The single purchase price acquires the Catalogue plus all subsequent editions free of charge. Adrien also encourages people to share images and ask questions at avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth