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Chinese Export Silversmiths were Masters of the Art of the Tazza

by Adrien von Ferscht (11/01/13).

中國出口銀器: 藝術大師級的高腳盤子

A tazza does not have to be grand and imposing, as this rather sweet small example by Hung Chong shows. The delicate fretwork chrysanthemum motif signifies longevity. The plain circular central motif could well be a “wish granting” pearl.

It is equally perplexing to find the origins of the object we know as a “tazza” as to understand why Chinese silversmiths during the Chinese Export Silver period (1785-1940) both excelled at and took such obvious delight in making.

The word itself means a cup or a vessel and is derived from the Persian word “tasht” and the Arabic “tassa.” What began life as a shallow drinking vessel morphed at some stage of its long life into a shallow stemmed or footed vessel for serving fruits or sweetmeats. But why would 19th-century Chinese silversmiths feel at home with such an object? To understand why, we need to go on a journey back in time.

Probably one of the earliest objects we would recognize as a tazza is the so-called Tazza Farnese, created circa 100 B.C. Made of sardonyx—an extremely strong stone with the visual qualities of glass or rock crystal—this object is believed to have been made at the Egyptian Ptolemaic Court, probably during the time of Cleopatra, who believed she was a reincarnation of the god Isis. Although “converted” into a Christian chalice at some stage of its life, it began life as a pagan libation cup. The technique of decoration being identical to cameo work.

This particular tazza, however, has spent a lifetime on walkabout and one of the first documented people to acquire it was Tamerlane—Timur the Lame (yes, the man had a pronounced limp)—the brutal and merciless Mongol warlord, otherwise known as Tarmashirin Khan. This places the object in the 14th century A.D. on its journey through time; Timur was the successor to Genghis Khan. Brutal and merciless as he was, Timur also had a passion for beautiful objects.

Tazza Farnese (left), created circa 100 B.C. Made of sardonyx—an extremely strong stone with the visual qualities of glass or rock crystal—this object is believed to have been made at the Egyptian Ptolemaic Court, probably during the time of Cleopatra. Tamerlane—Timur the Lame (yes, the man had a pronounced limp)—the brutal and merciless Mongol warlord. Brutal and merciless as he was, Timur also had a passion for beautiful objects.

The Ming Dynasty had driven the Mongols out of China, but Timur planned to eventually conquer China; a plan that he failed to realize, having died during the long, hard campaign he waged.

So, this famous tazza found its way into the realms of China, yet intriguingly, the tazza—as a form—existed as a Chinese form and in silver significantly before the time of Timur.

This silver gilt flower-form tazza was created during the Sung Dynasty (circa 11th century A.D.); an extremely sophisticated pentafoil shallow dish on a central stem depicting a scene of three men playing weiqi, the board game we now know in the West as the game of “Go,” a game that is believed to have existed in China for 3,000 years. Chinese silver wares of the Sung period often have a Persian influence, but this object already displays recognizable decorative motifs, such as the chrysanthemum and foliate border on the everted rim and the geometric meander border around the perimeter of the base of the bowl. The tazza, as a form, was probably introduced into China through Sassanian influences.

In Europe, the golden age of the tazza seems to be the Renaissance Age, with the 12 so-called Aldobrandini tazze probably being the most famous—each tazza, made circa mid-16th century, depicting one of the first 12 Caesars. The complete set eventually fell into the hands of the 19th-century Austrian dealer and collector Frédéric Spitzer who, sadly, “improved” the tazze by changing their stems to ones modeled after 16th-century style stems. This did not seem to have had an adverse effect of their value, since this particular tazza achieved $1.4 million at auction in 2013.

The so-called Morgan Aldobrandini tazza, from the original set of 12, depicts the Emperor Vespasian. Despite its obvious Italian subject matter and decorative treatment, is believed to have been made by either German or Dutch craftsmen.

So, the scene is set: the tazza is firmly established and we fast-forward to the 19th century, where we witness a virtual outpouring of silver tazze from the workshops of Chinese Export silver makers. In Europe and America, the late Georgian and Victorian eras created a fashion for silver table centers in the form of épergnes and tazze, often made in pairs. Perhaps this created a ready market for the Chinese silversmiths; we shall never really know. But the Chinese silversmiths found an object which they managed to create an ideal marriage of the intrinsic elegance of the tazza as an object with rather fantastical Chinese motifs.

We see here two examples from Wang Hing, both made circa 1875, that admirably demonstrate this very ideal partnership of the East with the West. Both the tazze have a trio of prunus branches supporting shallow reticulated bowls. The left-hand tazza has the addition of cranes amidst the branches. Although the phoenix is the king of birds in Chinese art, the crane is the top-ranking or “number one” bird, symbolizing both status and longevity (Chinese belief being that cranes live for centuries). This combination of crane and prunus takes us back to the Sung Dynasty and the poet Lin Bu. For much of his later life, Lin Bu lived in quiet reclusion in a cottage by West Lake in Hangzhou. According to stories, he loved plum blossom and cranes so much that he considered the plum blossom of Solitary Hill at West Lake as his wife and the cranes of the lake as his children, thus he could live peacefully in solitude. The tazza, however, and its contemporary partner is Wang Hing silver at its best.

Here we have a pair of slightly later Wang Hing tazze, circa 1890, taking the form of lotus lobed dishes with alternating chased panels of prunus and bamboo supported on dragon columned stems emanating from acanthus-chased pedestal feet. This particular pair was offered for sale in 2012 and achieved a hammer value of $8,110 at Christie’s, South Kensington.

Yet here we see a similar tazza made during the same time but by the Hong Kong Chinese Export Silver maker Wing Chun. There is arguably slightly more attention to detailing—the dragon is marginally more intricate but in each instance, the dragon is appearing out of a traditional Chinese motif depicting clouds. Overzealous Western cataloguers have often mistaken similar dragon depictions as dolphins in waves; they are very definitely dragons.

The dragon surfaces again in this tazza by the ShangHai silversmith Hung Chong, circa 1875. Prunus is here, as are bamboo and the acanthus adorned foot, but there is a very skillful fusion of techniques incorporated into the actual dish—high relief, reticulation and then the finely engraved bamboo foliate motif on the highly polished shallow central basin.

Tazze appear to give the Chinese silversmiths an ideal channel to express their sense of the dramatic and the theatrical. The obvious pleasure that was derived in creating these pieces is almost palpable.

The depiction of the actual root system of the bamboo is a classical Chinese art technique designed to emphasize the strength and ability of bamboo to resist adverse conditions, likening it to human strength of character and resolve to endure at all odds. Abalone and bamboo obviously inspired Wang Hing to create an entire series of tazze. And the decorative use of abalone and mother of pearl finds its roots back in the Tang dynasty.

AUTHOR’S ASIDE: Probably completely unrelated, abalone is also viewed in China as an aphrodisiac. Quite how that might have a connection to its use in tazze I have to admit defeats me currently! One hopes it is simply for visual effect!

The Chinese love of allegorical decorative motifs is almost always employed, yet there is often the addition of the ingenious, as we can see from this quite superb tazza by Wang Hing, taking the form of three abalone shells supported by an exquisite bamboo thicket. But that wasn’t enough for Wang Hing, since each shell is affixed to the supporting bamboo culme by silver butterflies (right) that are set off by further bamboo foliage overlapping each shell platter. One can imagine a pair of these tazze gracing a long dining table—pure theatre.

The decorative use of abalone and mother of pearl finds its roots back in the Tang dynasty. Abalone and bamboo obviously inspired Wang Hing to create an entire series of tazze. This single abalone version.

The same combination of bamboo supporting abalone shell, secured by a silver butterfly is used in this small tazza by the ShangHai retail silversmith Luen Wo, circa 1900.

While a dolphin is highly unlikely ever to be found in any Chinese Export Silver piece, nothing could be more natural than carp and its variant, the goldfish. Fish (), as a generic decorative motif, have a homophonous relationship with “surplus, abundant.” This is one of the reasons why blue and white porcelain decorated with fish is so ubiquitous in China. The allegorical use for abundance can relate to offspring, wealth and virtually anything else one would wish plenty of.

Quite whether the tazza pictured below is a goldfish, a fat fish or a carp is not totally clear, but fish (yú), as a generic decorative motif. This particular tazza bears a maker’s mark of Fu Long, a maker who has hitherto been unknown to me. This is highly deceiving as an object, since each element could be construed as being essentially Western, yet it is quite the opposite—everything about it is so essentially grounded in Chinese tradition and allegory.

The combination of various allegorical components in this tazza [above] are probably the nearest one could get to the Chinese equivalent of “cornucopia”. Although this fish appears to be spouting water, almost erupting from it and suspended upon it is the lobed lotus shape, itself bearing reticulated panels on each lobe depicting chrysanthemum, prunus and bamboo motifs – the whole alluding to “excess” and “surplus.” There is a particularly masterful decorative treatment of the unudulating top rim of each individual lobe.

Lastly, I want to touch on a highly interesting type of tazza, made circa 1880 by the Canton silversmith Da Xing, who was one of the few mainland Chinese silversmiths of the Chinese Export Silver era producing silver in a separate Singapore-based workshop in the Peranakan (Peninsular Malaysian and Singapore) and Thai (Siamese) styles. Hindu-Islamic in shape and function, yet strangely characteristic of the Chinese in decorative design, Straits Chinese silver is an unusual fusion of two cultural traditions. During the late 19th century, large quantities of Straits Chinese silver were being created in small towns in Malaya and Singapore by local Chinese silversmiths. Few also had a presence in China proper.

Diminutive and simple as this piece is, it could equally be the very height of luxury—one’s own personal tazza! Everyone’s dream (well, almost… perhaps I speak personally!).

Da Xing was well-known for refined craftsmanship and had patrons including at least two documented prominent and wealthy Peranakan families in Malacca. While the best Peranakan silversmiths operated towards the end of the 19th century on Arab Street, Jalan Sultan and North Bridge Road in Singapore, many believe that Da Xing also had a presence in Malacca, since inherited estate goods from many wealthy Malaccan families feature Da Xing silver objects.

Da Xing made something quite unique and extravagant which I feel the need to digress totally from the world of the tazza to share. This pair of silver gilt curtain hooks have the upper stems of the hooking device skillfully simulating the appearance of a gnarled and twisted prunus branch with the side branches bearing buds and blossom. The design is fashioned in the round so that both sides show identical motifs. The hooks themselves are fashioned as a serpent-ended swirl—a detail that was hardly noticeable in situ, yet the silversmith nevertheless took such care and attention to.

The ingenuity of Chinese silversmiths never ceases to amaze.


“The way of Heaven and Earth may be completely declared in one sentence: They are without any doubleness, and so they produce things in a manner that is unfathomable.”

— Confucius


Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills. Special thanks to: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; Michael Backman Ltd, London; Christie’s, South Kensington; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; S&J Stodel, London; Sofia de Ruival Ferreira, Lisbon, Jeremy Astfalk of The Old Corkscrew, Franschhoek, South Africa.

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 “Catalogue of Chinese Export Makers’ Marks [1785-1940],” is the largest collector’s guide for Chinese Export Silver available, with information on 155 makers and 133 pages of in-depth history. It is updated every six to eight months and is only available as a download file. 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“> avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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