Chinese Export Silver an Oft-Forgotten yet Significant Antique Silver Category
An exquisite lidded Chinese Export Silver centerpiece by Wang Hing, circa 1880. The blend of neo-classical and high Chinese styles presented Chinese silversmiths with an ideal outlet to display their skills; this piece an example of a spectrum of silvermaking techniques
Chinese Export Silver (1785-1940) is a much-forgotten, yet highly significant antique silver category. Early Chinese Export Silver was comprised mostly of faithful copies of comparable quality of British, American and European silver of the Georgian period, with silver content being up to half as much again as the originals. Probably most of the true masterpieces of Chinese Export Silver are to be found in the first 80 years of production, when relatively few silver manufacturers were operating, compared to the ensuing 75 years, when both numbers of silversmiths and production mushroomed.
Chinese Export Silver did not happen overnight; it is important to recognize this. China already had a 1,200-year history of silver making. The craftsmanship was as deeply embedded as silver was in the psyche of the Chinese. It was a highly sophisticated system of small workshops that would be akin to miniature production lines that were operated by highly skilled artisans who each shared a part in the finished item. The skills were more often than not passed down from generation to generation through families.
China also had a unique love affair with silver, basing its entire monetary system and economy on it. However, world trade with China in the 18th and 19th centuries and the eventual British plot (the “Opium Wars”) to counteract the vicious trade imbalance dealing with China caused, were the catalysts for an amazing outpouring of high-quality silver items we now know as Chinese Export Silver.
Chinese Export Silver was a product of the last three centuries. The preceding 17th and early 18th centuries saw Chinese silversmiths creating exceptional pieces for royal households and aristocracy throughout Europe and India and occasionally to wealthy American merchant families. In the 19th century, it was the high quality and relatively low price that caused Chinese Export Silver to become so sought after. History always repeats itself in China; yet another constant! China’s many-centuries love affair with silver culminated in the extraordinary period we now know as Chinese Export Silver. The work was constantly astounding to look at and constantly astounding in quality. It was almost like the last roaring flames from the dragon’s mouth that were finally, abruptly extinguished in the late 1930s and the coming to power of the Communist Party of China.
Identification of Chinese Export Silver can prove to be a minefield. There was no assay system in China and there was no registration of makers’ marks. Silver never carried a date mark. So this introductory article will be more of an initiation right to the minefield!
Chinese Export Silver makers’ marks were never intended to be an assay mark; no such system of silver regulation existed in China. In fact, the only thing that is consistent about Chinese makers’ marks is the inconsistency! The silver that was produced prior to the late 19th century was often unmarked; the Tientsin makers and the Shanghai “Nine Factories” makers being the most consistent in their marking, but in purely Chinese ideogram form.
Often referred to as “pseudo- hallmarks,” many of the early Chinese silversmiths adopted them, but did so unwittingly. Since they were asked to copy items brought from the West, many of which featured British hallmarks, the silversmiths copied the pieces “faithfully,” hallmarks and all! Not fully understanding the significance of the information these marks caused a degree of artistic license to be applied; date letters were replaced by a letter that were sometimes the first Latin letter of the silversmith’s name using Pinyin transcribing. Nearly all of the silver created during this period generally took Western forms, sometimes manifesting eccentric anomalies, often inadvertently.
Nearly all of the silver created during this period generally took Western forms, sometimes manifesting eccentric anomalies, often inadvertently.
This is one of the marks used by the Canton silversmith Cutshing. While he used several versions during the years 1830-1895, this particular mark was used between 1850 and 1860. At first glance, it could be mistaken for an English hallmark, but on closer inspection we can see the crudeness of the lion, crowned leopard and monarch’s head. The “k” is meaningless and the insertion of “CU” is an example of artistic license. So the mark tells us absolutely nothing other than it belongs to Cutshing.
Another example of a Cutshing mark on the hallmark theme.
A simple mark “CUT.”
Above left we have another example of a Cutshing mark on the hallmark theme, while on the right we have the simple mark “CUT.” Uniformity was not something marks had all through the Chinese Export Period.
Of the known silversmiths of this first early period, the maker who has “celebrity” status is one we simply know as “WE WE WC.” The name of this maker has never been discovered; we will assume it is a “he,” rather than a “they.” He operated in Canton between 1820 and 1880. We can see from the marks that consistency was again not part of his game plan, but the particular peculiarity of this maker and his mark is that it all began when copying a silver piece or pieces from the London-based silversmiths William Eley, William Fearn and William Chawner. Perhaps the “F” for Fearn was mistaken for an “E.”
What we refer to as a “chopmark” is actually a form of seal that was originally used in China for official documents as a form of signature. When the silver trade dollars came into usage, Chinese merchants stamped the coins with their “chopmark” to attest to its authenticity and worth and, in doing so, that mark became a way for merchants to advertise.
Chinese merchants stamped coins with their “chopmark” to attest to its authenticity and worth and, in doing so, that mark became a way for merchants to advertise.
During the mid-period of Chinese Export Silver making, there is a change in the appearance of silver produced, as well as the marks makers used on them. Chinese motifs begin to appear on items—sometimes subtle additions to classical Western forms and sometimes a more blatant disregard for them. It is also during this period that we see more silversmiths appearing. Maker’s marks also changed as some makers began to use marks that combined Latin initials of the maker along with a mark in Chinese characters or ideograms of the actual artisan silversmith that carried out the work under the roof of the master silversmith.
This latter mark is known as a “chopmark,” indicating that makers probably ran workshops where several experienced silver makers operated. In fact, it is generally believed that Chinese silversmiths employed more of a production-line method with each expert carrying out an essential element until a master artisan silversmith—the man behind the Chinese chopmark—finished it.
These artisan silversmiths were itinerant; the same chopmark often appears under various main makers’ names. This gives us an insight into a world where there was probably a network of thousands of artisan silvermakers working for a hardcore of main makers. It is not unusual, for example, to find a Tientsin, Jiujang or Shanghai artisan’s chopmark alongside a Canton main maker’s mark. In a way, it is probably not too different from the garment and cap industries in America and the U.K. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
When deciphering a Chinese silver mark or chopmark, we must always consider that a Chinese ideogram is essentially a tonal symbol, making transliteration of a chopmark only an approximation of what it might look and sound like in English.
The mark of Feng Xiang, Tientsin.
The mark of Fei Wen Yuan, Shanghai.
A mark from the Jiujang-based maker Kan Mao Hsing.
Another mark from the Jiujang-based maker Kan Mao Hsing.
Some makers employed makers’ marks exclusively in Chinese characters. These are mainly the makers operating in Tientsin and Jiujang and a group of Shanghai makers known collectively as “The Nine Factories.” Sadly, there is no full proof identification method unless you are able to read Mandarin or Cantonese, but my catalogue does list all those that so far I’ve come across and identified.
In the absence of an assay system, dating objects can only be a subjective opinion based on the style of an item in relation to the maker. It is reasonably easy to place an item of Chinese Export Silver within one of the four manufacturing periods. The form the maker’s mark takes can also help. Quite a few of the makers have a fairly long track record of manufacturing years and their own particular style evolves within that time span—this and all the other factors can help pinpoint an item within an approximation of 10 years.
Occasionally, items bear an engraved inscription. We find this quite often with trophies and other presentation items. While this is a good indicator, it can also be a case of an inscription being applied to a stock off-the-shelf item. A look at old photographs of some of the silver emporia of Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong shows us very large showrooms crammed from floor to ceiling with silver items.
Unless a firm proof of provenance exists—and it sometimes does—dating can only be an informed approximation.
Other Chinese Makers’ Marks
I constantly come across silver in auction house catalogues that are described as being “Chinese Export Silver” and actually aren’t. Because a mark is in Chinese characters, it’s often assumed it’s simply a “chopmark”; this is a dangerous assumption and one I believe auction houses haven’t realized the misrepresentation this causes.
The mark of Zhu Wen of Tibet and Shanghai.
The mark of Da Fu, Vietnam.
Silver made in Tibet, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaya and other straits countries often carry a Chinese character mark. Eventually, my research will result in a cataloguing of these marks.
In the coming months, I shall gradually immerse you into the fascinating and complex world of Chinese Export Silver in articles exclusively written for WorthPoint.
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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