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Chinese Export Silver Design is Firmly Footed in Chinese Mythology

by Adrien von Ferscht (07/18/13).

中國出口銀器: 牢牢紮根於中國神話

An image of a Qílín as depicted in the Ming Dynasty work Sancai Tuhui (三才圖會), compiled by Wang Qi (王圻) and Wang Siyi (王思義).

A modern-day digital art version of the Qílín.

All cultures have their own mythological hooved beasts. The Etruscans had their Minotaur, European mythology has its unicorn, in Hebrew mythology there is the Re’em and in Egyptian lore there is the Cerberus. In China there is the Qílín (pronounced “Chhi-lin).

Antique silver and furniture have long been made standing on hoofed feet; it’s a logical and highly practical choice that adds a touch of the exotic to any object.

As with all mythological creatures, they come loaded with allegorical implications; the Chinese are probably the masters of allegorical and auspicious figures. Nothing in Chinese decorative art is what it might seem at first glance and it is this that helps make Chinese art all the richer for it. To a silversmith, any mythological animal is a god-send in as much as artistic license can be allowed to go wild since by definition it cannot be life-like and there is no ultimate point of reference.

The Chinese Qílín is a quite unique mythical animal, having two horns, a coy carp-scaled deer’s body, dragon’s head, hooves and a bear’s bushy tail. It signifies benevolence, longevity, grandeur, felicity, illustrious offspring and wise administration. The Qílín sometimes replaces the tiger as one of the Four Heraldic Animals (a.k.a. The Intelligents).

Qílín are rarely depicted as the focal point in Chinese Export Silver decorative motifs. This repoussé work from a Chinese Export Silver cigarette case is therefore quite unusual.

The Qílín also has the ability to fly; this is why it is often depicted within cloud motifs.

Tradition has it that “real Qílín” were last seen shortly before the death of Confucius. As a result, the Qílín was instated as the highest symbol of rank by the Kãngxĩ Emperor, replacing the lion on military rank badges. It remained such until the fall of the empire in 1911.

Since Qílín are believed to live for 2,000 years, they are used to refer to people over the age of 60 in the context of “very old.” This is usually the intended meaning when Qílín appear in decorative motifs. The Qílín also has the ability to fly; this is why it is often depicted within cloud motifs.

Qílín are rarely depicted as the focal point in Chinese Export Silver decorative motifs. But just as hooves are often used as actual feet for Western decorative silver objects (as well as furniture), Qílín hooves are often to be found on Chinese Export Silver objects, in particular on what are known generally as “spill vases.”

Three examples of Chinese Export Silver spill vases all by Wang Hing, all circa 1880-1900 and all standing proudly on Qílín hooves.

Here we have another four examples of Wang Hing spill vases, this time supported on splayed bamboo.

Traditionally a Western object, a spill vase was usually kept on the mantel piece and was filled with rolled paper tapers or very thin wood sticks, called spill. Spill was used to transfer fire from the fireplace to light candles, lamps, a clay pipe or a cigar. In China, they became a rather gentrified and very Chinese accouterment for opium smoking, whereas dragon-shaped objects were often used as cigar lighters.

Chinese Export Silver that is overtly in the high Chinese style will rarely incorporate classical Western elements. Most objects will tend to stand upon a plain tapered plinth. When raised feet are used, apart from Western ball feet, splayed bamboo stems and Qílín hooves are basically the de rigueur means of support.

Bamboo and the Qílín share a common thread of possible meaning, namely upstanding, upright and dependable. Interestingly, the combination of bamboo and prunus in Chinese decorative art is known as zhú méi shuãngxĭ or the “double happiness of bamboo and plum,” representing a married couple—quite difficult, perhaps, to reconcile that with a possible opium accouterment!

A very fine English George II circular sterling salver by Robert Lucas of London, 1730. The salver stands on four imposing eight-lobed, cast, hoof feet in typical Georgian neo-classical decorative style.

A rather fine Chinese Export Silver bonbon basket dish of quatrefoil form by the Shanghai maker Luen Wo. Made circa 1885, this small dish manages to combine so many Chinese decorative motifs that all have their own individual significances, as well as combinational implications—bamboo handles, reticulated embossed panels of dragons and prunus blossom, all standing on four splayed hooved Qílín feet.

The Qílín, bizarrely, became a confusing figure in China when the famous Ming Admiral Zheng brought a giraffe to the then Chinese emperor as a gift from a voyage to Bengal, where he managed to acquire it (the giraffe had been previously unwanted gift from an East African ruler). With a degree of “fast talk,” Zheng managed to persuade the Yongle Emperor it was actually a real live Qilin! He was a favorite of the emperor, after all! Ever since, the images of a Qílín and giraffe have remained mixed in historical and cultural records. This is historically and culturally relevant because the giraffe and Qílín became linked by the common word used to name them. However, to this day in the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City, two large bronze Qílín stand guard to the First Heaven Gate. Strangely, though, these Qílín seem to have acquired clawed feet, as opposed to the ubiquitous hooves. One can only guess this is artistic license at play.

Ming Admiral Zheng brought a giraffe to the then Chinese emperor as a gift from a voyage to Bengal. With a degree of “fast talk,” Zheng managed to persuade the Yongle Emperor it was actually a real live Qilin!

The Qílín is found “roaming” in the folklore culture of many South East Asian countries, In Japan it is known as the Kirin, in Korea it is the Girin and in Vietnam it is the Ky Lan. In Cantonese it is known as the Keileon.

Fierce as the Qílín may appear to us today, it is in fact very calm; it’s a vegetarian, after all! Although sometimes depicted with flames emanating from its body, they are stylized and meant to emphasize its magical abilities. One of the most sublime symbolic meanings of the Qílín is “halcyon days”—a very happy or successful period in the past.

A highly logical choice, then, to have a silver object resting upon such stable and evocative feet.


Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills.

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the Chinese Export Silver website archive, managed by Christopher Hunter at eleven38 photography.


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 avf@chinese-export-silver.com“> avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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