A Very Chinese Purim Spiel: Chinese Export Silver Megillot
This photograph is titles “A Purim Party, Shanghai, 1910”, and is courtesy of Yad Va’Shem, Jerusalem.
To many people, it will seem incongruous that a 19th-century Chinese silversmith in Canton would have created a megillah, but it’s not as strange as it initially appears. Albeit that Chinese megillot are rare, they come with what any megillah has—a long story. But this time it’s not just the scroll contained inside; the Jewish connection with China is long and complex, as is the Jewish connection with silversmithing in China.
Our story begins with this example of a megillah made in Canton, circa 1860, that carries the marks of the well-known retail silversmith who, sadly, we only know of today as “Gothic K”—a name that’s stuck over the years because of the font form of the mark.
This megillah was made in Canton, circa 1860, and carries the marks of the well-known retail silversmith who, sadly, we only know of today as “Gothic K.”
Examples of the so-termed “Gothic K” maker’s mark.
While my research has not discovered the real identity behind the mark, I have come to believe that the “K” almost certainly doesn’t represent the name of the retail silversmith or artisan maker, but it is a symbol, or trademark, if you will, that stood for Kanton; the accepted transliteration for the city in the mid-19th century we know better as Canton (Guangzhou).
The scroll case is hexagonal in form and is decorated in alternating prunus and bamboo motifs executed in exquisite blue and green champlevé enamel work against a matted ground topped by a matching dome with berry finial. The handle is fashioned as a bamboo stem; the inner scroll is of parchment and hand written. The overall length is 22 centimeters.
To give it its correct name, “Megillat Esther”—the scroll of Esther—is by tradition read at the spring festival of Purim. It is the biblical Book of Esther; the story of the Jewish Queen Esther who was married to the Persian King Ahasueras, probably better known as Xerxes the Great (in Hebrew: אֲחַשְׁוֵרשׁ). The story is a rather ironic, yet dramatic tale of how Esther reveals the treachery of Haman against her people to Xerxes that results in deliverance for the Jews from the Persian Empire.
Although rare, most Chinese Export Silver Judaica I have ever seen has always been overtly Chinese in decoration, whereas Chinese Export Silver of the period when this particular megillah was made is often faithful copies of Western silver. It is reasonable to deduce that this megillah was either made as a commissioned piece for a Sephardi or Mizrachi Jewish client, probably from Baghdad or Calcutta, or it was made for an affluent Jewish family actually living or trading in China, of which there were quite a few. In the mid-19th century we have the Sassoons, Khadoories, Hardoons, Dangoors and other affluent Jewish merchant families living or trading in Hong Kong or China.
So, here we have an item of 19th-century Judaica that has a very specific ritual usage yet takes a pure Chinese form and was made in Canton; as I’ve previously mentioned, this isn’t as incongruous as it might appear. In fact, the use of Chinese motifs and cloissoné is both highly relevant and appropriate, albeit the main blue enamel color used is traditionally Persian, representing lapis lazuli and the celestial sphere.
With an octagonal case engraved with scrolling flowers and foliage, the engraved domed top surmounted by a red stone finial, the turned and shaped cylindrical revolving handle, this megillah is also almost identical the to the previous example.
Now, here we have another silver gilt megillah of exactly the same period as the first example that is uncannily similar in many ways (above). With an octagonal case engraved with scrolling flowers and foliage, the engraved domed top surmounted by a red stone finial, the turned and shaped cylindrical revolving handle also almost identical the to the previous megillah. The matching thumb-piece is decorated similarly, and it is inscribed on the lower part A.S.D. This is where the plot thickens somewhat; this megillah is unmarked yet through the known provenance we know that the initials A.S.D. stand for Avraham Shalom David (Sassoon). Although originally from Baghdad, the Sassoons by 1850 were firmly entrenched in Calcutta and were the most prominent and successful Indian merchants working on behalf of the East India Company for the procurement and shipping to China of opium. In fact, by 1850, the Sassoons had their own family members already residing in Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong heading their large offices.
The hand-painted pen and black ink and tempura on vellum scroll consists of five hand-stitched membranes that carry the text of not only the entire Book of Esther, but also shows the perceived genealogical lineage of the two male proponents of the story, Mordechai and Haman; Mordechai’s line is traced through Jacob to Abraham, while the “villain” Haman flows from the wayward Esau. The illuminated manuscript is attributed to the Jewish scribe Isaac Meir Chayyim Moses Gabbai from Baghdad.
This is a family photo of the male Sassoons, dated 1850; the seated gentleman being Avraham Shalom David Sassoon, His son, Elias David, is on the far left, Albert (Abdullah) is next to him and Sassoon David on the right. David was sent to be based in Canton where he was the first Jewish trader among 24 Parsi Indian rivals.
The second megillah could well be Chinese; the similarities are so obvious. Or it could have been made in Baghdad, where a silversmith used as the Gothic K piece as a model.
Silversmithing was an art Jews particularly excelled at for millennia. The work of Jewish silversmiths was highly prized by the Romans and we also know that Sephardi silversmiths were operating in Carthage in the 7th century A.D. Sassania had a significant Mizrachi Jewish population, silversmithing and minting being professions Jews were allowed to follow and one where they came to be regarded as highly skilled. Jews also had built up a tradition of being travelling merchants on the Silk Route and the Spice Route, making it highly likely the Sassanian silver that was popular with the Tang Dynasty was brought to China by Jewish merchants; some of it also probably made by Jewish silversmiths. Sassania encompasses modern-day Iran and is mentioned in the Book of Esther as Shushan, the then capital.
Here we have two Tang Dynasty terracotta figures of Jewish merchant travelers; they are particularly interesting figures as they portray Radhanite (רדהנים) Jews. Radhanim were medieval Jewish merchants from the Sassanian area who traded between the Christian and Islamic worlds and who plied not only the Silk Route but also most of the trade routes established by the Roman Empire—a trade network covering much of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of India and China.
The Persian geographer ibn Khordadbeh, in his most noted book “Kitab al-Masalik wal-Mamalik” (The Book of Roads and Kingdoms), describes the Radhanim as being sophisticated and multi-lingual. He describes in detail the four main trade routes the Radhanim plied, including China and a land east of there he names as Waqwaq, which is believed to have been either Sarandip (Sri Lanka) or one of the Indonesian islands. Ibn Kordadbeh’s writing is contemporary to the Tang Dynasty.
A Tang Dynasty figure of a travelling Jewish merchant riding a camel (Photo: Shanghai Museum)
Chinese silver of the Tang Dynasty has very particular Persian influences, as we can see in this circa 8th-century silver and silver gilt box (below). China had no history, per se, of fine metalworking. It therefore had to have been acquired and the Silk Road was how they achieved that. This ever-open trading artery brought vast numbers of merchants; it also brought artisans. Some of the merchants were also the artisan, among them were the Sassanian Jewish silvermakers.
Chinese silver of the Tang Dynasty has very particular Persian influences, as we can see in this circa 8th-century silver and silver gilt box. (Photo: Christie’s New York and Spink & Son, London)
It is highly likely the eclectic aesthetics of designs that emanate from the Tang period can be put down to the fact that Chang’an—the Tang capital—became an extremely wealthy and cosmopolitan city, inhabited by Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians and Nestorians. This multiculturalism was reflected in the objects artisans created and is indicative of how such an introspective nation could at the same time be tolerant to other beliefs and cultures. This introspection acted like a blotting paper, absorbing the best of everywhere and molding it to something uniquely Chinese.
It is during the early Northern Sung Dynasty that we see a noticeable change in the style of silver the Chinese created; it begins to be distinctively Chinese in feel and veers away from its Sassanian and Mediterranean influences.
This 11th-century silver gilt tazza is decorated completely in motifs that we now associate with Chinese culture—the two figures in the center are playing a game of weiqi; a game we would recognize as the game of golf!
This late Sung Dynasty lotus petal-shaped cup is both decorated and takes a form that we would recognize today as being totally Chinese; the transition to a definitive Chinese style has occurred.
It is also at this time that a significant number of Jews migrated, purchased land in Kaifeng and built a synagogue there and thrived. Stelae found in Kaifeng show the Jews there wrote Hebrew in the Palmyrian style, making it highly likely they came from Sassania, where there was a long-established Jewish population that had begun to be harassed. It would be reasonable to assume that Jews who regularly traded within China on the Silk Route would have identified Kaifeng as a suitable place for them to relocate. More importantly, it was a place where they could feasibly thrive; meaning they could ply their various trades—the most prominent trades being silversmithing and cotton cloth.
Jews were also known to have been living in China from the 2nd century A.D., after the destruction of the second temple. But the fact the Sassanian Jews had never returned to Jerusalem is evident by the synagogue they built in Kaifeng. It followed exactly the footprint of the first temple—meaning they had no knowledge of the layout of the second temple. The religion they practiced was therefore pre-Hasmonean, a religion quite different from Judaism as we know it today. Pre-Hasmonean Jews did not celebrate the festival of Chanukah because it is related to the destruction of the second temple, a temple the Sassanian Jews had no knowledge of.
A photo of 19th-century Jews from Kai Fung Fu (Kaifeng).
The Emperor regarded this form of Judaism as being akin to Confucianism and Kaifeng’s Jews found it easy to adhere to Confucianism, since it didn’t require the recognition of a new Messiah or prophet and there was no need to give up the rules of keeping kosher or observing holydays. The Jews were the only non-Sino people that were allowed to intermarry and, most importantly, with the Imperial family and court.
It is reasonable to assume that such a sea-change in the look and feel of silver being produced in the early Song Dynasty was caused by a catalyst. It could well be that catalyst was the arrival in Kaifeng of the Jewish Sassanian silversmiths. Those silversmiths and their work would have been recognized by the Court and encouraged and patronized. The Jews in Kaifeng did flourish and they could only have done so from artisan work or trade. We also know from records that the Kaifeng Jews were allowed to intermarry, so apart from actually teaching the art of silversmithing to Chinese artisans, intermarrying could also have allowed the “family” skill to be passed to future non-Jewish generations.
The Chinese way is for generations to hand down artisan skills through the family line. The Chinese were adept at accumulating expertise, honing it and excelling at it.
During the early to mid-19th century, there was a wave of Jews who either settled in Shanghai or in Hong Kong, understanding the opportunities open to them as a result of the Treaty of Nanking. Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews arrived in China as a result of the Opium War and the subsequent upsurge of trade with Britain. Coming to China from British-controlled places, such as Baghdad, Bombay and Singapore, most of them were merchants and businessmen with British citizenship. Originally from Baghdad, the Sassoon family first shifted their operations eastward to India and then went on to become the first Jews to establish firms and engage in business in Hong Kong (1841) and Shanghai (1845). In the wake of the Sassoons, other Sephardi merchants originally from Baghdad, such as Hardoons and Kadoories, came to China to seek their fortunes.
As external trade centers open to foreign countries, Hong Kong and Shanghai became their leading bases for business. They soon revealed their commercial talents, taking advantage of their traditional contacts with various British dependencies as well as the favorable geographic location of Shanghai and Hong Kong to develop a thriving import-export trade from which they quickly amassed a vast amount of wealth.
In the years I have been carrying out research into both Chinese Export Silver and the history of the Jews in China—two separate research subjects that cross paths constantly—I have never seen a Chinese Export Silver menorah. Could this have been a throwback to the fact Sassanian Jews probably did not know of the festival of Chanukah, given they were pre-Hasmonean Jews and would have been hard-pressed to know of the building of the second temple in Jerusalem, let alone its destruction?
This particular Chinese Export Silver megillah may well be unique and must surely have been produced at the direct request of Ezra Ezekiel Ezra (d. circa 1920), who we know was the great grandfather of the owner who entered this piece into auction in Hong Kong in 2005. The maker is even more surprising; master silversmith Wang Hing!
Ezra Ezekiel Ezra was an Iraqi Sephardic Jew from Baghdad who worked in China in the second half of the 19th century as a spice and silk merchant. Several members of the Ezra family were scribes and widely travelled and possibly one of them may have well have supplied the scroll. It is known, through family provenance, this megillah was acquired by Ezra Ezekiel Ezra in the second half of the 19th century. This does not necessarily mean he had commissioned the item; it could well have been made for Jews living in China and is probably a very early Wang Hing piece.
The megillah handle is formed as a bamboo stem, the hexagonal case champlevé enameled in light green and deep blue with alternate panels of prunus and bamboo foliage, the handle to the scroll with ring pull and two hinged clasps, the domed terminal with crenelated border similar to the “Sassoon” megillah and enameled with further blue and green foliage and with ball finial. The internal scroll is ink on vellum, written in Sephardic Hebrew square script, vellum 5.5-cm high, text 4.1-cm high, with 15 lines per column. The overall length of the case is 17.5 cm.
A rather indomitable character, Flora led a
colourful life in Calcutta and emerged as a
successful businesswoman in England as
well as being a famed philanthropist, hostess
and Jewish scholar.
The Ezra and Sassoon families, almost by default, had to merge at some stage. Flora (Farha) Sassoon married her cousin Solomon Sassoon (son of David) in 1876 at the tender age of 14, she being a descendant of the scribe whose work we have previously seen. Flora, later to become Lady Sassoon, bore three children, one of whom, Rachel, married David Ezra of Calcutta, a direct descendant of Ezra Ezekiel Ezra.
A rather indomitable character, Flora led a colorful life in Calcutta and emerged as a successful businesswoman in England as well as being a famed philanthropist, hostess and Jewish scholar, and spoke English, French, German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Hindustani. She and her immediate family remained loyal to the religious traditions of her family and, although well-travelled, always did so akin with her a minyan—her own quorum of 10 Jewish males so prayers could be said. She also travelled with her own personal shochet (ritual slaughterer) so she could uphold the kosher laws.
The story of Purim and the Sassoon daily could well be even closer connected. The capital of Xerxes’ empire was Shushan, or Susa. Shushan in Hebrew is שושן. Sassoon in Hebrew is ששון. It is highly conceivable the Sassoons originated from Susa, where both stories began.
Interestingly, Sabbath candlesticks by various Chinese Export Silver makers have been recorded, but more interesting is the fact Wang Hing made Sabbath candlesticks in the high-Chinese style, which were then retailed at Edwards & Son in Glasgow at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Glasgow and Edinburgh, at that time, had significant Jewish communities.
The great meal on a Saturday night (motzei Shabbat) is a particularly Eastern European Hasidic tradition where the menfolk gather at the Rabbi’s home and eat from his table, striving to partake in the remnants. If the Rabbi so much as touched a fish, the leftovers would have been considered remnants because the Torah says “all the fish of the sea—they are given unto your hand” (Genesis 9.2). This feast, bidding farewell to the Sabbath Queen, could last for hours into the small hours of the morning.
Here we have an example of an extremely rare Chinese Export Silver besamim spice box, a fully articulated box in the traditional form of a carp, by the Canton maker M.K., circa 1875. The fish form of a besamim box is believed to be more an Ashkenazi tradition rather than a Sephardi. In fact, it probably has its roots in Eastern European Hasidic tradition.
The spice box is used in the Havdalah (literally: separation) ceremony at the closing of the Sabbath, when three stars are visible in the night sky, in order to mark a distinction between the departing holy day and the incoming ordinary week. The spices are symbolic and are meant to invoke a sweet week ahead and are redolent of the Sabbath itself. Spices generally used are cloves, cinnamon, baharat or bay.
At the end of the ceremony, everyone present says in unison a wish for a good week:
It goes without saying that almost all Chinese Export Silver Judaica must have been specially commissioned.
The “Purim Greetings” image is from the 1940s Jewish War Bond—courtesy of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, The Bancroft Library, University of California [part of the Alvin I Fine papers collection, 1848-1962.
• “The Chinese Jews”, Oliver Bainbridge, National Geographic Magazine, 1907;
• “Jewish Communities in Asia”, Asia Society;
• “Jewish Diaspora in China”, Xu Xin;
• “The Jews of Kaifeng, China: History, Culture and Religion” Xu Xin, 2003;
• “Mind to Meme: Uncovering the Origins of Shared Consciousness Between Judaism and Tibetan Buddhism”, Gilah Yelin Hirsch, 2004;
• “Early Mapping of South East Asia”, Thomas Suarez.
Thanks: to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; to Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions, U.K.; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Christie’s, London; Sotheby’s, New York; Christie’s, Hong Kong; Cultural-China.com; Jewish Women Archive, USA; Sloans & Kenyon, Chevy Chase, USA; Dangoor Foundation, U.K.; The Jewish Magazine; The Jerusalem Post Archive; Shanghai Xinhong Cultural Development Co. Ltd; Long River Foreign Exchange Foundation.
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 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 email@example.com.
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