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The Clever Box: Small Containers offer Chinese Silversmiths Room to Astonish

by Adrien von Ferscht (12/03/13).

中國出口銀器: 不凡的盒子!

This late seventh-century Tang Dynasty silver gilt box from Shaanxi Province takes the form of a six-lobed flower decorated with a finely hammered surface upon which repoussé, ring punched and chased decorative motifs are applied, embellished by mercury gilding. It is hard to fathom this box is 1,300 years old, yet it amply demonstrates the silver-making tradition China has. The box is displaying traditional motifs that all have allegorical meaning—a sign that a definitive Chinese style was forming.

For Chinese artisans, boxes have always been more than mere utilitarian objects. Through the centuries, special decorative techniques were developed in order to make them extraordinarily special, while the amount of decorative detailing lavished upon boxes is often excessive, relative to the size of the object or the purpose it was made for.

Cultures vary around the world vary greatly, but one thing all cultures have in common is a fascination of the box. To determine, though, how far back the history of the box goes is nigh impossible.

This slightly later Tang lobed box from the early ninth century uses the same decorative techniques and unusually depicts two flying parrots, a bird that has no relevance to Chinese culture as we know it today. Yet the decorative and creative skills are clearly firmly established.

Was it the Ark of the Covenant that inspired this global fascination? The Mayans? The ancient Egyptians? We shall never know. While many objects served as ample fodder for Chinese silversmiths to act out their creative fantasies, nothing did it better than a box, often the smaller being the better. I should add that silversmiths from all over the world have placed the box high up on their preferred object list, but it was the Chinese silversmiths that added humor and their love of allegory into the creative mix.

By the mid-18th century, the detail work, such as in this pair of ornately decorated octagonal filigree silver boxes (below), that came into the possession of Catherine the Great to be used as glove boxes, is almost beyond belief.

These are decorated with garlands and branches of flowers and foliage, partially parcel gilded and partially enameled with blues and greens.

The quality of workmanship of both the silver filigree and the applied parcel gilded and enameled flowers (below) is astonishing; while Chinese filigree work is not unusual, to have created it using cloud and wave motifs in such minute detail and to create fruits with the degree of detailing we have come to expect from Chinese ivory carving is bewildering—as is the thought of Catherine the Great requiring them to store gloves in!

The lids are enhanced with a branch of pomegranates and are fully lined in silk.

The lid handles have broken pomegranates showing their seeds—a traditional Chinese symbol to invoke many male offspring.

We now move on to the mid-19th century, and you’d be mistaken if you think this is an ornate baroque casket of some kind (below). It is, in fact, a table-top snuff box! It was made by Khecheong of Canton with highly elaborate trailing vine tendrils, “C” scrolling and leaves on a matted ground, the corners of the bombé base applied with large scrolled acanthus leaf and berry brackets and each side with floral garlands, also applied with a regimental badge and vacant cartouche. The lid is slightly domed and applied with a large finial modeled as a standing lion. The interior has been parcel gilded and the box is raised upon four scroll and hoof feet inset with their own integral casters.

This Khecheong snuff box is emblazoned with the regimental badge the box carries is that of the 59th (2nd Nottinghamshire) Regiment of Foot of the British Army, formed in 1755 and in 1849 sailed to China to become part of the force that imposed the terms following the First Opium War. The regiment stayed and was used again in 1858 to occupy the city of Canton in the Second Opium War.

It is an astounding piece of master silversmithing and we should not be surprised to know it was sold at auction in June of 2013 at Bonhams, London, for £20,000.

The lid of this snuff box is decorated with a high relief Chinese battle scene depicting horsemen among trailing chrysanthemums set within a raised foliate border—all in contrast to the reeded sides with central bands of engraved engine-turning.

Continuing on the theme, this rather fine gentleman’s snuff box (above) is slightly schizophrenic in as much as it appears to be torn between neo classicism and the traditional Chinese. The box is by the retail silversmith Cutshing of New China Street, Canton, and was made circa 1830—an early and rather fine example of Cutshing Chinese Export Silver.

Even the manner in which the leaves extend beyond the rolled ridge lid line on each side is a stroke of genius.

This is a quite remarkable cigarette box (above), made circa 1900 by Luen Wo of Shanghai. The applied high relief tiger head orchids are simply spectacular; set against a finely planished ground, they appear to grow out of the box with their phenomenal degree of detailing in each petal and leaf.

To the Western eye, at first glance, this box would seem to depict irises. Although a Chinese flower, irises are not traditionally used as an allegorical floral motif unless, strangely enough, they are partnered with orchids; then they become a symbol of friendship. It was the Japanese that made the iris a popular decorative motif.

A closer look at the Luen Wo cigarette box.

The tiger-head orchid is very similar to the iris, with ragged petals and almost identical leaves. A native to Yunnan, it was prized for its delicate fragrance and was always associated with elegance. As a result, irises are particularly associated with women, love, beauty and fertility. Because of their association with refinement, the word “orchid” or lánxin (literally “orchid heart”) was used as an adjective to describe items of refinement. A tastefully decorated room was “an orchid room” (lánfang).

So, was this box made for an elegant and refined woman? We shall never know. What is interesting is that the irises and the entire box have the hint of the “Arts and Crafts Movement” about them, which perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at given Shanghai at the time this box was made was a stylish cosmopolitan city that rivalled Berlin and Paris.

Allegory is at the heart of almost all Chinese decorative style. This tiny box, measuring just eight centimeters in length, is both stunning and packed with subtle meaning. Made circa 1895 by the Beijing silversmith Wu Hua, it takes the overall form of a peach fruit surmounted by a bat, with the sides having a banded meander border top and bottom framing a garland of lotus flowers. 

Made circa 1895 by the Beijing silversmith Wu Hua, it takes the overall form of a peach fruit surmounted by a bat, with the sides having a banded meander border top and bottom framing a garland of lotus flowers.

To understand what is a veritable hand grenade of allegory, we must deconstruct it motif by motif.

Peaches are the ubiquitous symbol of longevity and immortality in traditional Chinese art; as such, it is considered one of the most important symbols.

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 actually 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 combination of bats and peaches is actually 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 meander border is not related whatsoever to the Greek key design; it is a totally Chinese motif in this context and it also denotes longevity and immortality. The lotus flower garland, again in the context of this box, represents longevity—it also has strong Buddhist associations. The lotus rises undefiled and in all its glory from impure muddy waters, implying it stands as a model to try to live a life of integrity and purity in what is otherwise a mundane world.

Natural fragrances and perfumes are very much an integral part of Chinese culture; Daoists believed that the soul of a plant was released in its fragrances. Perfumes were divided into six moods: tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined or noble. The sensibility of Chinese scholar poets and writers, who steeped themselves in the ephemeral nature of beauty, was clearly depicted the practice and use of a heightened awareness of scent to enhance all forms of experience as demonstrated in this excerpt from this Tang Dynasty poem written by Wang Wei “A Song of a Girl from Loyang”:

…On her painted pavilions, facing red towers,
Cornices are pink and green with peach-bloom and with willow,
Canopies of silk awn her seven-scented chair,
And rare fans shade her, home to her nine-flowered curtains.

Dragons are traditionally in pursuit, desperately reaching out to clutch the elusive object while travelling through swirling clouds, mists and shadows—eyes bulging in the anticipation of achieving the prize of clutching the flaming pearl.

The reticulated box above by Wang Hing was originally designed to contain a source of natural fragrance. The dragon is both revered as a mythical animal and a potent symbol of strength, good fortune and transformation. The mystical faming pearl the dragon is forever chasing is often viewed as a metaphor for wisdom, enlightenment and spiritual essence.

The applied high relief dragon motif is exquisitely executed in great detail, its fangs protruding independent of the main body of the box.

The dragon continues his eternal chase on this casket (above); a box that is slightly at odds with itself in as much as it is essentially a neo-classical casket that at birth succumbed heavily to the high Chinese decorative style. Made by Zee Wo, a well-known Shanghai retail silversmith, it is one of the finest examples bearing the Zee Wo mark I’ve seen.

Even the smallest, most mundane of boxes does not escape the generosity of care and artistic flair of the Chinese silversmith.

Silver matchbox covers weren’t just a male accoutrement; small matchboxes were made especially for women and they, too, were encased in silver.

Here we have a Chinese Export Silver matchbox slip cover (above) bearing the mark of the Hong Kong and Canton retail silversmith Kwong Man Shing. Silver slip covers seems to have been more prevalent than vesta cases in China in the late 19th century.

Below we have a lady’s matchbox slip by Yi Tai, a rare maker to find, who was operating in Shaanxi Province in North West China—an area of China that was ceded to the Russian Empire in the Treaty of St Petersburg in 1881. It is also the same area the Tang Dynasty box mentioned at the beginning of this article came from.

A lady’s matchbox slip by Yi Tai.

A box, by nature, will always have an element of surprise. Chinese silversmiths, not known for their bashfulness, tended to allow the boxes they created to wear the surprises on the outside. A case of “what you see, you get”?

Not always, it seems, if Catherine the Great be a good example. Oh, how she would love that! The very woman who said:

“I shall be an autocrat, that’s my trade; and the good Lord will forgive me, that’s his”

and

“A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache”


Thanks to Danny Cheng for his translation skills. Acknowledgements: Heritage Auctions, Dallas; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; Bonham’s, London; Rago Arts & Auction Center, Lambertville, New Jersey; Aspire Auctions, Cleveland & Pittsburgh; International Auction Gallery, Anaheim, California.

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“> avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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