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Chinese Export Silver: Culture Shock!

by Adrien von Ferscht (01/01/14).

I recently received some criticism about an article I wrote after which I lost it, Joan Rivers-style.

文化震撼

I have chosen to start 2014 with a rant! Please humor me while I do…

For two years now, I have been striving to increase both the awareness and understanding of Chinese Export Silver by writing articles that disseminate optimal information in what I hope is a readable format. In the main, I am succeeding if only the amount of e-mails I receive now, compared with two years ago, is a meaningful indicator.

In those two years, I have become more or less immune to the occasional attack—mainly by self-appointed “purists” who regard this silver category as the prodigal son who moved back into the neighborhood of the “more established” and “gentrified” silver categories. But when a broadside attack was received recently from someone who comes under the heading “cultural think tank professional,” I have to admit I had a Joan Rivers-moment and lost my cool in true Rivers style!

I have written before about a degree of inherent snobbery that does exist in the auction and antique world and which has fallen on me in the past when I have had the temerity to compare specific examples of Chinese Export Silver to the master silversmiths of the Georgian period of British silver making and its European counterparts. I have long stopped donning my crash helmet, since I’ve discovered faith in my own convictions and recognized that most of the time, these counter-criticism are usually a case of “the lady doth protest too much.” A recent article about a pair of Chinese Export Silver huabiao columns caused a volley directed at me from several directions that all—strangely—had their origin in Greece, among the defenders of cultural heritage there. As a result, I probably have a better understanding of how Xerxes might have felt: I should have known better not to realize that a British person discussing the cultural heritage of columns might be a moot point to a Greek, given the antics of Lord Elgin and his contemporaries!

“The Elgin Marbles!” or “John Bull buying Stones at the time his numerous Family want Bread!” a cartoon by George Cruikshank, 1816, showing a conflicted John Bull purchasing the Greek sculptures from Lord Elgin at a time when the economy was bad in England.

In my quest to raise awareness of Chinese Export Silver, I have consciously chosen to share as much knowledge as I can, drawing on my research findings. I have found that examples of this very unique silver category are a superb vehicle to convey so many facets of Chinese culture and history across a wide spectrum of disciplines; the fact they are intrinsically attached goes a long way in making Chinese Export Silver so unique and so interesting.

It has taken two years for people supposedly in the know to begin to grasp that I am talking about a large and highly significant silver category, yet still Chinese Export Silver seems to present an ice-cold water situation where academics and auction house experts dip their toes in and swiftly take them out, declaring they are still not sure. The quality is undeniable and it really isn’t rocket science to understand that during a 150-year manufacturing period, some 10,000 silver workshops across China produced a massive amount of silver objects. I’m tiring of having to carry this crash helmet around with me, but who know me well understand how tenacious I can be; doubting Thomases beware!

One of my many mantras—the fact that Chinese Export Silver is an ideal vehicle to demonstrate Chinese culture—was upheld towards the end of 2013 when what seemed like a plethora of superb objects were presented to me for identification. I have chosen three to share with you and hopefully prove my point.

Miniature Ships

This miniature silver ship was made, circa 1895, by the Hong Kong silversmith Guang Ji and displays superb detailing.

Miniature ships were a favorite subject of Chinese silversmiths in the 19th century and the one pictured above has to be one of the most superb examples I’ve ever come across. The junk was developed more than 1,000 years ago in the Sung Dynasty; they were highly sophisticated ocean-sailing craft, Sung being the Chinese age of invention and discovery far advanced to Europe, which wasn’t to see its own renaissance until some 400 years later.

We are all familiar with the word “junk”—it is a word derived from the Malayan djong, meaning boat. The Sung developed this ship when it lost its northern empire and the overseas trade became an even higher priority. The resultant junk was the ideal craft for the South China Seas, as its strong hull was able to combat the frequent violent typhoons. The hull had a series of partitions that both strengthened it and provided watertight compartments that were invaluable when it was necessary to carry out repairs at sea. Traditionally built without a keel (allowing access to shallow waters), the junk is ill-equipped to sail a straight course until an important innovation of the Song period—the addition of the sternpost rudder. This is a large heavy board which can be lowered on a sternpost when the junk moves into deep water. Coming below the bottom of the boat, and capable of hinging on its post, it fulfils the function both of keel and rudder. Until this time, throughout the world, the conventional method of steering a boat had been by means of a long oar projecting from the stern.

Another innovation on the Chinese junk is multiple masts. Marco Polo described sea-going junks as “having four masts, with a further two which can be raised when required. Each mast has square-rigged sails that concertina on themselves, when reefed, in the manner of a Venetian blind.”

Flags were hung from the masts to bring good luck and women to the sailors. A legend among the Chinese during the junk’s heyday regarded a dragon, which lived in the clouds. It was said that when the dragon became angry, it created typhoons and storms. Bright flags, with Chinese writing on them, were said to please the dragon. Red was best, as it would induce the dragon to help the sailors.

Pagodas

This Chinese Export Silver pagoda was created in the latter part of the 19th century by Ju Xing Zheng Ji; a highly intricate piece of silversmithing.

As familiar as the junk when thinking of China, the next object has to be ubiquitous in the minds of Western cultures in relation to concepts of the ideal Chinese landscape. Again, a masterpiece of the silversmith’s art, this pagoda (above) was created around the same time as the junk ship.

It was created in the latter part of the 19th century by Ju Xing Zheng Ji; a highly intricate piece of silversmithing. It remains a mystery whether this is meant to be a faithful copy of an actual pagoda or if it a fanciful notion of one. Certainly, it is not the famous, nine-story Canton pagoda that guards the Bogue, although it is uncannily similar in other architectural. There is the seven-story Lung Wha pagoda, though, in Shanghai—another traditional silver manufacturing city, the pagoda roof curves most like the silver version.

The Lunghua pagoda in Shanghai, built, 977AD.

The Pazhou pagoda at the mouth of the Boca Tigris (Bogue) at Canton from a painting by William Heine painted in 1853. The pagoda was built in 1597 in the Ming style, along with its sister Chigang pagoda at the other end of the Bogue as Fengshui, to facilitate safe navigation along the Pearl River. Unique in form, having 12 sides, it is easy to see this is a pagoda that still retains Indian influences yet is beginning to develop Chinese elements.

I’m just reaching for my crash helmet again, as I’m about to reveal that the pagoda does not originate in China; it evolved from the stupa in the Indian subcontinent. Although the origins of the word pagoda are somewhat obscure, the Chinese word for stupa is ta, an abbreviated translation (tapo) of the sanskrit word stupa. However, there’s a parallel school of thought that believes the popular word pagoda did not derive from Sanskrit but originated in Sri Lanka, where the stupa were called dhata-gabbha (dhata meaning “relics”; gabbha meaning “cavern”). This gradually became corrupted to dhagabbha or the vernacular dhagoba. When the later Portuguese began coming to the region, they found the word dhagoba difficult to pronounce and this subsequently became corrupted to pagoda, both for the Portuguese and the local inhabitants.

Chinese pagodas attract lightning strikes because of their height. As with our silver pagoda, many pagodas have a decorated finial at the top of the structure, and when made of metal, this finial, sometimes referred to as a “demon arrester,” is believed to act as a lightning conductor; a dubious belief at best, since there was no understanding of connecting the finial to the earth.

Here we see traditional dougong bracketing. They were both a decorative and practical wooden component network that with columns, beams, purlins and lintels inter-connected with tenon joints to form a flexible, earthquake-resistant structure—particularly high multi-story structures.

The oldest constructed Buddhist stone pagoda in China that remains is to be found at Songyue (above) and was built in 523 AD. Unique in form, having 12 sides, it is easy to see this is a pagoda that still retains Indian influences yet is beginning to develop Chinese elements. At the base of the door pillars are carvings shaped as lotus flowers and the pillar capitals have carved pearls and lotus flowers. After the first story there are 15 closely spaced roofs lined with eaves and small lattice windows. The pagoda features densely clustered ornamental bracketed eaves in the dougong style ornamenting each story. Inside the pagoda, the wall is cylindrical, with eight levels of projecting stone supports for what was probably originally wooden flooring. Beneath the pagoda is an underground series of burial rooms to preserve cultural objects buried with the dead. The inner most chamber contained Buddhist relics, transcripts of Buddhist scriptures and statues of Buddha. Doungong, literally meaning “cap and block,” is a unique structural element used in Chinese architecture, originating in the Tang and Sung Dynasties, and was highly sophisticated.

The concept and tradition of dougong has recently been brought into the 21st century by incorporating the core principles into the new 42-story Dougong Tower in Beijing (left). The design of this tower adapts the principle of joining and interlocking to drive both the architecture and the structure. As with the pagoda, it is built to be earthquake-resistant. Is Rui Guo’s proposed vertical gardened MoMa Tower for New York (right) the ultimate Chinese pagoda?

If you are interested, both the silver pagoda and the silver junk ship will appear in auction later this year (May 21, 2014) at Halls Fine Art Auctioneers in the U.K.

Bamboo

Back to Guang Ji and remaining vaguely on the tower theme, the next article is diminutive, exquisite and jam-packed with allegorical meaning. As with pagodas, bamboo is such an inimical Chinese image.

Here we have a Chinese Export Silver spice shaker (left), complete with grinding mechanism, made by Guang Ji and made circa 1900. As we can see in the real thing (right), the shaker is inspired by a newly sprouting bamboo shoot.

Bamboo is the most popular plant in China; it is also the fastest growing plant on the planet. To be Chinese is to feel at home with bamboo, as in the Chinese Export Silver spice shaker (above), complete with grinding mechanism, made by Guang Ji and made circa 1900.

In the “Order of the Four Gentlemen” (the four seasons), bamboo represents the spirit of summer. The bamboo is considered to be a gentleman with perfect virtues, since it combines upright integrity with accommodating flexibility; it has a perfect of grace and strength (ying and yang). Like a self-cultivated scholar in hermitage, it is ready to render services when called upon. Bamboo personifies the life of simplicity. It produces neither flowers nor fruit. When the young shoots emerge from the roots, they are under the shade of the older bamboo branches. Such a spirit reflects the young respecting the old, as well as the old protecting the young. 

Pronounced zhú in Chinese, it is easy to understand how the ideogram character mark for bamboo was devised by comparing it with the bamboo culm pattern on the spice shaker.

The last object that I present for your delectation is a small, highly decorated box employing a bat motif made by the Tientsin silversmith Qing Yun in the mid 19th century. As with most small Chinese Export Silver boxes, it comes as virtual hand grenade of allegorical meaning. It is plain to see that this silversmith has clearly taken great delight in lavishing many hours of work to create this tiny masterpiece.

The bat is feeding off a stylized peach fruit. In traditional Chinese art, peaches are a symbol of longevity and immortality. According to Daoist lore, the peaches of immortality grew in the garden of the goddess Xi Wángmŭ, also known as the Queen Mother of the West. At her birthday celebrations that occurred every 3,000 years, she is believed to distribute her special peaches to her heavenly guests and, in doing so, granted them eternal youth and immortality. The combination of bats and peaches is one of the most widely used allegorical combinations in Chinese art. In the context of this box, the meaning to be conveyed is “May both blessings and longevity be complete in your life.”

The box is part of a collection held at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; a highly eclectic collection of art and artefacts from the travels of Isabella Stewart Gardner, who amassed the collection of master and decorative arts over three decades at the end of the 19th century. Fenway Court, built by Mrs. Stewart Gardner to house the collection, is where the collection sits today.

I have seen and researched many hundreds of items of Chinese Export Silver in the past two years. I have never found one that failed to take me on a cultural journey. Few silver objects from the Western world can lay to the same claim—that, and the sheer mastery of the silversmith’s art is what makes Chinese Export Silver so unique.

I began this article with a rant caused by self-appointed purists who bizarrely criticized the pillaging of Chinese art by Westerners. I say “bizarre” since the clue is in the very handle “Chinese Export Silver”—silver made ostensibly for export. I was also criticized for being an academic who appeared to them to promote auction houses. That is not what I do at all. If it were not for auction houses holding sales and bringing to my notice items of Chinese Export Silver, I would probably be oblivious to the existence many of these superb objects; I also could not share them and their cultural history and significance in my articles. Often, it is these objects from auction houses that are the source of discovery for identifying previously unidentified Chinese silversmiths.

The bat on this box is feeding off a stylized peach fruit. In traditional Chinese art, peaches are a symbol of longevity and immortality. According to Daoist lore, the peaches of immortality grew in the garden of the goddess Xi Wángmŭ, also known as the Queen Mother of the West.

“Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice,” painted by Anders Zom in 1894. She was a woman with an obvious zest for life and a highly sophisticated sense of style she wished to share with an entire nation.

There is no taboo in linking academia with the commercial world that auction houses occupy. It seems to me to be a perfectly logical co-existence. It has been accepted for decades in the world of fine art, yet for some inexplicable reason other than a strange version of inverted snobbery, it is not acceptable for artifacts. Methinks the lady really doth protest a tad too much!

Chinese Export Silver has lain dormant and unnoticed in the Western world for the past century or more in vast quantities—so much so that we have probably only seen the tip of the iceberg as it slowly becomes rediscovered. Through that discovery we can learn so much about a rich culture most of us are not really aware of; a culture totally different to the West and a culture much of which pre-dates Western culture by centuries. Equally, our rediscovery is fuelled indirectly by the growing interest by Chinese to “repatriate” legitimate exports of the 18th and 19th centuries and, in doing so, rediscover facets of their own culture lost in the political turmoil of the 20th century.

It’s time for purists to get slightly more real, methinks. Culture, by and of all its definitions, is “of the people” and should not be the preserve of or falsely protected by intellectuals and academics.

Now where’s that crash helmet!


Thanks: Danny Cheng, for his translation skills and to Annamarie Sandecki & Amy McHugh at Tiffany & Co, New York. Acknowledgments: Joan Rivers World Enterprises; Halls Fine Art Auctioneers, U.K.; Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Library; Salem; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

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.

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