Chinese Export Silver Offers a Cabinet Full of Charming Curiosities

中國出口銀器: 珍奇百寶屋

This pounce was made by Tu Mao Xing of Tientsin (Tianjin) towards the end of the 19th century. Pounce is a fine powder made from powdered cuttlefish bone or very fine pale sand used to dry ink after writing a letter or calligraphy.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself; I must be one of the luckiest people on the planet because I get to see so many beautiful objects very single day. I am also lucky that Chinese silversmiths had a wicked sense of humor, which they often expressed in the objects they created.

Other times I get to see items that are simply staggeringly over the top, while retaining their intrinsic masterful workmanship. Often, the items can simply take my breath away. So, I felt I should no longer be selfish and that sense of guilt has driven me to share some of the gems.

The first object I’m going to share with you is something that you might not recognize as all that unusual or earth shattering. But this object is very unusual; in fact, it is the only example of its kind I’ve ever seen in Chinese Export Silver. It is a pounce, used to contain pounce—a fine powder made from powdered cuttlefish bone or very fine pale sand used to dry ink after writing a letter or calligraphy. The word pounce is derived from the Latin for pumice by way of the old French word ponce.

Obviously a specially commissioned piece, it was very much a product of its time, when the high-Victorian style had become so overtly eclectic, with a resurgence of the Chinoiserie style in Britain.

This particular pounce was made by Tu Mao Xing of Tientsin (Tianjin) towards the end of the 19th century. Obviously a specially commissioned piece, it was very much a product of its time, when the high-Victorian style had become so overtly eclectic, with a resurgence of the Chinoiserie style in Britain.

The Tu Mao Xing pounce is indubitably decorated with traditional Chinese motifs, but it is interesting to see it carries the meander border which is so often referred to as “Greek Key” which, when used in context with a Chinese object, is somewhat of an oxymoron! Known in Chinese as Huí Wén, it is to be found as far back as the Neolithic age, but it first really comes into its own as a decorative border in the Ming Dynasty. The pattern loosely resembles the Chinese written character (huí), meaning “to return”; the motif itself symbolizes rebirth.

This ink stand is not actually Chinese Export Silver, but made by George Lambert of London in 1891 in the Chinese style.

Next we have here a Ming Dynasty silver gilt and bronze censer; the cylindrical body cast in relief and parcel gilded with Immortals accompanied by auspicious animals in a celestial landscape, all set against a diaper repeat background. The Huí Wén borders are inlaid with silver wire—a wonderful example of how styles and motifs became embedded. The evolution of the Chinese Style is fascinating, taking a thousand years to become definitively and recognizably Chinese, it remained constant with only some wayward nods to Western culture that were never meant for the Chinese anyway.

This Ming Dynasty silver gilt and bronze censer is cast in relief and features Immortals, accompanied by auspicious animals in a celestial landscape, all set against a diaper repeat background.

The Chinese style is like meeting an old friend; you know where you stand with it. There is nothing inconsequential or flippant about the culture of Chinese decorative motifs; everything had a meaning and combinations so often present an entire allegory or rebus. To the Chinese, it is second nature. It is almost a parallel language. What is comforting is that many Chinese today know and understand it; not something we could comfortably say of Western understanding of the symbolism of Post Medieval painting, for example.

Yet again, at first glance our next piece, a silver filigree box, may not show anything particularly extraordinary. But after close examination, it becomes apparent there is virtually nothing Chinese about this box other than its use of filigree as a technique. The silversmith is very Chinese; Yu Ying is the name of the shop and the place of manufacture is Dàlián. It is the combination of the maker and the place that has caused this box to be unusual as an example of Chinese Export Silver. In fact it is the epitome of that silver category.

Yet again, at first glance our next piece, a silver filigree box, may not show anything particularly extraordinary. But after close examination, it becomes apparent there is virtually nothing Chinese about this box other than its use of filigree as a technique.

This box was made by the Moscow silversmith Vasilij Potsov in 1869. The style and the particular form of the silver filigree technique is very Russian. As is the previous casket by Yu Ying, the common denominator between the two boxes is the technique of silver filigree.

Dàlián is in Liaoning Province, North East China. Yu Ying was a silver workshop that operated between circa 1905-1925. In 1898, Dàlián was leased from China by Russia and, in 1905, the name of this port city was changed to the Russian name Dalny.

This next box was made by the Moscow silversmith Vasilij Potsov in 1869. The style and the particular form of the silver filigree technique is very Russian. As is the previous casket by Yu Ying, the common denominator between the two boxes is the technique of silver filigree; very much an art that Jewish silversmiths have practiced for millennia to be more correct, it was the Mizrachi Jews, who came from ancient Middle Eastern stock such as Persia, formerly Sassania. Sassanian Jews were known to ply the Silk Route from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) until the 10th century A.D., when a significant number of Sassanian Jews migrated east and settled in Kaifeng. Many were silversmiths and it is how silver filigree influenced and became assimilated into Chinese silver making until the early 20th century.

Potsov was a Jewish silversmith and the besamim (spice) box is known to have been made by a Russian Jewish silversmith in the late 19th century using exactly the same techniques as Potsov and Yu Ying. The spice box is a ritual Jewish object used to celebrate the passing of the Sabbath and the beginning of a new week.

Teapots are so often exemplary examples of the art of silversmithing, but the next Chinese Export Silver item is like a Brueghel painting; the more you look at it, the more one appreciates the happy medium that has been struck here of skill, restraint and love of the art of making.

Made by the Canton retail silversmith Wong Shing1 in the mid-19th century, this is one incredibly special teapot that has found a comfortable fusion of Western form and both classical Chinese and Western decorative motifs. It is highly tactile and very substantial.

Made by the Canton retail silversmith Wong Shing1 in the mid-19th century, this is one incredibly special teapot that has found a comfortable fusion of Western form and both classical Chinese and Western decorative motifs. It is highly tactile and very substantial.

The Chinese Mandarin figure finial sits proud and tall atop a mound decorated with songshú (squirrels) in a vine, a traditional allegorical combination that symbolizes longevity.

The baluster body of the pot is exquisitely formed and proportioned, with its segmented panels that depict an evolving story of figures in landscapes and gardens.

Acanthus caps the elegant scroll handle, a shell and foliate classical border forms the rim of the lid. The baluster body of the pot is exquisitely formed and proportioned, with its segmented panels that depict an evolving story of figures in landscapes and gardens; the whole sitting upon luscious feet formed of fu dog heads cunningly emanating from acanthus leaves and set resting upon a single giant clawed foot. It is obvious a highly creative master was in control of this piece. To have an intrinsically classical Western feel while retaining a definitive Chinese flavor is a sign of sheer genius. It flouts several conventions of what a teapot is, yet it works.

The panel nearest the faux bamboo scroll handle shows the allegorical combination of the songshu amidst grapes on the vine—not only symbolic of longevity, but also of plentiful fruitful issue. The panel nearest the spout depicts a swirling dragon amidst clouds. The faux bamboo stem finial, though fairly typical, is skilfully executed appearing from a cluster of bamboo foliage.

Next we stay with the figural, with the songshu (squirrels) and grapevine and a classic form teapot that is as skilful and creative as the Wong Shing piece, but from totally different mindsets. Made by Sheng Yuan2, a retail silversmith operating in Peking and Shanghai, it dates to circa 1890.

The tapered canister body is decorated with six hexagonal panels; the central panel depicts three maidens on a balcony watching a group of three travelers—one with a fan and another with a tall parasol. The corresponding panel on the opposite side depicts a scene of a tea ceremony taking place in a garden complete with gazebo and lush foliage.

Sheng Yuan traded under the shop banner of “Peking Silver Temple” in English and Sheng Yuan Lou, which literally means “The Shop of Sheng Yuan”, as we can see this commercial directory entry.

We should take a moment to take note of the use of the word “Peiping” in the Sheng Yuan ad pictured above. It was in the Ming Dynasty that a garrison was established called “Beiping,” where present day Beijing stands; the place having gone through various name changes through successive previous Dynasties. By the 15th century, the garrison had become a large town and the name became “Shuntian,” as well as being called Beijing. The construction of the new Imperial residence, The Forbidden City, was completed in 1420. Fast forward to 1928 and the name was changed back to Beiping (written at the time as Peiping). Beiping fell to Japan in 1937. The name Beijing was restored in 1949 and, sadly, in the 1960s, much of the ancient city wall was torn down to make way for expansion and the new subway system.

By knowing this, we can date the Sheng Yuan directory entry to circa 1930.

The silver marks on this piece indicate this teapot was probably made in the Peking workshop, but, yet again, the pure Chinese decorative motifs sit perfectly comfortable with the classic Western form.

This pagoda silver trophy is Chinese style on steroids! Yet, in all its frivolity, there’s a skillfulness that cannot be denied.

Lastly, we have a piece which is so extraordinary inasmuch as it has to be the epitome of Chinese high camp. It is a high-Victorian confection in the high-Chinese style and is so deliciously exaggerated that one is prone to wonder whether its design could even have been opium induced! This is Chinese style on steroids! Yet, in all its frivolity, there’s a skillfulness that cannot be denied.

It is made by one of the very established retail silversmiths in Canton—Hoaching3—who also had the reputation of being the best purveyor of carved ivory in 19th century Canton. When one studies the pagoda flanked by giant bamboo, it is very reminiscent of carved ivory; it is busy—there rare even two crane birds feeling at home in all this busy-ness.

The piece was intended as a trophy piece. It still retains its original wooden box lined with sumptuous turquoise silk.

It is monstrous and it is loveable. It is a nightmare and it is a dream. It is certainly unforgettable.


“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

— Albert Einstein

“Curiosity is a willing, a proud, and eager confession of ignorance.”

— S. Leonard Rubinstein


1 In Fine Silver & Objects of Vertu Sale, Feb. 26, 2014, Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions;
2 Available at Supershrink Storehouse of Silver;
3 Christie’s Interiors Sale, March 11, 2014, Christie’s South Kensington.


Thanks: to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; to Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions, U.K.; Christie’s, South Kensington; Dr. Fischer Kunstauktionen, Heilbronn, Germany; Skinners, Boston; Supershrink Storehouse of Silver.

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the www.chinese-export-silver.com archive.


Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research, a Fellow for Arts & Culture at the Asia Scotland Institute and works with museums and universities around the world. He is a consultant for Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions and 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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