Chinese Export Silver: The 19th-Century Phenomenon Equivalent to the iPad!

This silver gilt cup is Chinese, straddling the Sung and Tang dynastic periods. While there are some recognizably Chinese decorative motifs, the overwhelming influences are still veering more towards the Sassania. But the important fact of this particular object is that it was made in China and the silver technique is clearly influenced by Sassania; this expertise would have been “offloaded” almost without doubt in Chang’an. This is a clear indication of expertise entering and then staying in China and gradually becoming Chinese.

The 1842 Treaty of Nanking broke the habit of a lifetime; after more than 2,500 years, China could no longer be the closely guarded introspective nation it had been. But even with the enforced opening of the fortress-like doors, the treaty was in reality more of a fissure rather the hoped-for wide open gateway that was expected by the British.

China, by nature, had always been an inventive nation. It has a default gene that has always allowed it to absorb the very best of the outside world and either make it something uniquely Chinese or incorporate it as a component part. Since the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. -220 A.D.), the Silk Route—the only open highway in and out of China—attracted foreign merchants, many of whom had artisan skills which they readily shared with the Chinese. The Silk Route acted as an extremely effective blotting paper of skills the Chinese did not inherently have. The “blots” that remained were quickly adapted to the benefit of the Chinese. On the other hand, while the Chinese grew to become a highly resourceful nation, most of the inventions stayed within the confines of China and never filtered out; quite the opposite of the European Renaissance.

By the Sung Dynasty, the capital Chang’an (Xi’an) had become the first truly cosmopolitan, multi-cultural and worldly city of one million souls, compared with 800,000 in Baghdad and 40,000 in London at the same period. It became a hotbed of trade and invention; Chang’an was the 12th-century equivalent of Silicon Valley and, equally, one can say that Silicon Valley can be likened to 12th-century Chang’an. How so? Both act and acted as magnets for the ingathering of new technologies and where expertise that was not necessarily home-grown was welcomed. Chang’an was a gateway where ingenuity could become a profitable commodity. Where Silicon Valley has become a metonym for 21st-century innovation, we would not be amiss to assume Chang’an was the 12th-century equivalent.

Chang’an, was also known as the “land of abundance.” By the time of the Han, Shu brocade had become an important export for China along what was known as the Southern Silk Road; the route leading to the Middle/Near East.

This typically Sung-era brocade does not have pure Chinese origins.

This is a Sassanian silk twill textile that is contemporary to the previous Chang’an brocade. It depicts the simurgh; a Sassanian mythical flying beast that was adopted as the Sassanian royal symbol that finds its etymological roots in the eagle. This emblem and silk cloth is to be found even in Andaluz culture where the Sassanian influences were also felt.

This slightly later, but nevertheless Sung Dynasty era, child’s silk jacket is in the Sassanian style.

It is important, though, to always have in mind this “melting pot” phenomenon that was Chang’an when looking back through history. One of the most potent “outside” influences upon what we today would regard as a Chinese style was Sassania; one of the seven great monarchies of the ancient Eastern world, Sassanian merchants were considered to be one of the most active on the Silk Route. These merchants were also highly entrepreneurial and their distinct influences on all forms of Chinese decorative arts are plain to see, gradually becoming integral to an eventual definitive Chinese style. They achieved this by finding ways to share their expertise in various decorative manufacturing techniques that were at the time superior to those in China, finding ways to do so that were profitable to both the Sassanians and the Chinese; in short, there appears to have always been an ulterior motive to sharing.

While sericulture is intrinsically of Chinese origins, Sassanian merchants imported the raw silk along the Silk Route where it was then dyed and woven into twills and brocades.

But what the entrepreneurial Sassanians did was to then export finished textiles back along the Silk Route, much of it ending its journey in China (what the English would call “selling coals to Newcastle”). We are witnessing how skills became a transportable commodity and how the borders begin to become blurred on the origin of skills, materials and decorative motifs.

Similarly, there is no doubt about the fact that Chinese silver making was greatly influenced by the Sassanians, both in terms of the technique of silver making itself and the decorative motifs used.

This blurring of the borders of origins is clearly seen in this Tang Dynasty Chinese silver cup on the left and the lobed Sassanian silver bowl below. Both objects display the same techniques and share almost identical decorative motifs with only more “localized” motifs defining Chinese and Sassanian origins; the Mandarin duck on the Tang piece and hunting quarry animal figures on the Sassanian bowl. Since the Sassanian object pre-dates the Tang, Sassania was obviously the influence.

Lobed vessels were very much a Sassanian trait that found its way into Chinese silver and ceramic objects; a trait that was to become a signature Chinese feature to the point where it is hard for us today to imagine it ever not being Chinese.


An example of this is amply shown in this Chinese Export Silver eight-lobed bowl (top) with parcel gilded interior by Wang Hing, dated 1896. The Wang Hing bowl displays many elements of the Tang and Sung Dynasties, particularly in terms of the form of the bowl as reflected in the eight-lobed footed Tang parcel gilt and silver bowl (above) and the Sassanian lobed bowl (below).


This absorption of expertise and technique was almost exclusively a one-way phenomenon. Rarely did the countless technological innovations and discoveries that occurred in China—particularly during the Sung Dynasty, which is generally regarded as the Chinese renaissance—find their way outside of China. What these discoveries did do, however, was to firmly embed a high level of capability that was to be put to use with the coming of the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century to produce ceramics, lacquerware and silver specifically for export, much of it either in the style of its end destination or in a style that mirrored an idealistic perception of what was thought to be Chinese by the West.

The ability of Chinese artisans to create high-quality items across a spectrum of media for specific foreign end-users is quite remarkable and is one that drew on the ingrained skills that had originally been assimilated from outside of China. This is probably due to the fact the Manchu rulers created two very strong foundations of its legitimacy; the bolstering of the bureaucratic institutions and, more importantly, the neo-Confucian culture from previous dynasties—a re-tuned, updated version the Manchu felt was more appropriate to its aims. The “Sacred Edict” (Sheng yu) of 1670 effectively exalted Confucian family values. Fifty years later, the Shengyu guanxun (“Amplified Instructions on the Sacred Edict”) were issued in order to make the original edict far easier to understand. These precepts held firm into the 20th century and the republic period and are still very much in the sub-conscious minds of the Chinese today.

This Kangxi (late/end 17th century) blue and white porcelain dinner plate was made specifically for export to the West and demonstrates that “copying” Western ceramics had already begun; this particular example is believed to be a copy of either Dutch or English Delft.

This 17th-century Ming Dynasty blue and white porcelain plate is pure Chinese … or is it? Firstly, this is an example of what is known as “transitional ware”—the crossover period from an old style to a new “modern” style. But back-tracking several centuries, the technique of cobalt decoration can be traced back to Sassania, the raw materials were later exported to China where, by the 14th century, mass production of fine, translucent porcelain had begun in Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of China to this day. From the 16th century, local sources of cobalt were used in China, but Persian cobalt was always considered the best and remained the most expensive.

China found itself in a new age; an age where royal and aristocratic households around the world understood the quality of Chinese porcelain which in turn fuelled a mania for vast armorial dinner services that Jingdezhen—the porcelain capital of China to this day—produced in equally vast quantities. The Chinese master painters were supplied with samples of the armorial crests and coats of arms; a more totally foreign concept could not have been presented to them, but they created these fantasy “Chinese” landscapes and motifs on porcelain in the hundreds of thousands. But it was not just the quality that fuelled the fad; it was a combination of the burgeoning China Trade and the ships that now plied the routes, with the added attraction of the relative cheapness of these high quality items.

The Chinese had turned full circle, having assimilated the expertise and made it uniquely Chinese, they had combined this with the centuries-old Confucian principles that were the bedrock of the Chinese work ethic and, thus, 17th-century export marketing was born.

This 18th-century Chinese porcelain dinner plate was produced in Jindezhen in 1743 and decorated in Canton as part of a 206-piece dinner service commissioned to be presented to Commodore George Anson by the Canton Cohong (Guild of Chinese Merchants) in gratitude for the assistance given by the crew of Anson’s ship, the HMS Centurion, in extinguishing a great fire that destroyed much of the Foreign Factories area of Canton.

The 18th-century Chinese porcelain dinner plate depicted above was produced in Jindezhen in 1743 and decorated in Canton as part of a 206-piece dinner service commissioned to be presented to Commodore George Anson by the Canton Cohong (Guild of Chinese Merchants) in gratitude for the assistance given by the crew of Anson’s ship, the HMS Centurion, in extinguishing a great fire that destroyed much of the Foreign Factories area of Canton. The service accompanied Anson back to his family seat at Shugborough, Staffordshire in England. The design in enamel and gold leaf includes seascape panels on the rims, together with a griffin’s head and the Anson coat of arms. The central design features a breadfruit tree with symbols of love, including doves and a cupids bow and quiver. On the rear is a rope and anchor motif. Interestingly, a single plate features a different design, with a gold leaf pattern on its rims, and the breadfruit tree not in bloom. The breadfruit tree was of special significance to the Centurion’s crew, as it provided them with sustenance on Tinian Island in the Pacific when they were suffering from scurvy.

Josiah Wedgwood

Shugborough was just 40 miles away from where Josiah Wedgwood would build his new porcelain factory at Burslem some 16 years later. Staffordshire was the heart of the English pottery industry and Wedgwood was determined to conquer the enigma that was Chinese porcelain. In 1700, a Jesuit missionary in China discovered the secret of “China-clay” at Kau Ling; China-clay became known as Kaolin in the West as a result, and various forms of porcelain and chinaware were developed in France, Germany and Cornwall in England.

Wedgwood was obsessed with finding the best Kaolin and did so by sending his agent Thomas Griffith to Cherokee Country in North Carolina in the Colonies to secure samples, quickly followed by an order of six tons that was shipped to Staffordshire. In the 1770s, Wedgwood, thanks to Cherokee Kaoilin, patented the process called “encaustic ornamentation.” Jasper ware and Josiah Wedgwood & Company never looked back. Wedgwood achieved all this, and much more, with one wooden leg and his latter-life blindness.

The Chinese remained Wedgewood’s inspiration, while the great Sèvres factory in France created its own glazed copy of Jasperware, while Meissen in Germany created its version, known as “Wedgwoodarbeit.” Wedgewood was also the grandfather of Charles Darwin, the creator of the theory of evolution.

Wedgwood had taken a scientific approach to creating English porcelain, but one has to wonder whether he also had a default Chinese gene, given his entrepreneurial skills and energy were the very parallel of his Chinese counterparts. He, like the Chinese, had a natural propensity for entrepreneurialism and, as with the Chinese, understood how to create products that were specifically geared for overseas markets.

In 1773, Wedgwood received an order for a 952-piece dinner service from Empress Catherine the Great, having three years previously made a creamware tea set for King George III and Queen Charlotte, which he immediately branded and thereafter sold as “Queen’s Ware.” Royal households across Europe followed suit. Catherine the Great’s service, now known as the “Frog Service,” was to display scenes from English estates, requiring some 1,224 illustrations.

This plate comes from a service was to be used at a “minor” country house owned by Catherine the Great called Chesme Palace—an estate she never visited, and a service she never ever used. Chesme Palace stood on the site of a “frog marsh” which gave the set its emblem.

At the same time Wedgwood was supplying the Chesme Palace “frog marsh” dinner service, the Canton silversmith Pao Ying was busy supplying an endless stream of highly intricate silver and silver gilt filigree gewgaws decorated with exquisite champlevé enamel work and inset semi-precious stones and pearls.

This tray in the form of a leaf forms part of a 36-piece toilet set that once graced the Winter Palace.

The jade-encrusted lid of the small casket displays a plethora of Chinese decorative motifs, yet redolent of many a Fabergé bejeweled piece.

The Wedgwood Frog Service and the Chinese Export Silver filigree pieces were all promotional items the makers knew would open the floodgates for orders of the dedicated followers of all things “à la mode”—and that is exactly what happened. They were the ultimate PR ploy.

For the Chinese silversmiths, having started with royalty, the only way was down. The minor royals and the aristocracy understood the importance of quality and, if that could be secured at a highly attractive price, it was a win-win situation. The exoticism of having silver grace one’s table that could be said to have come from Canton had the capacity to both inflate egos of the owners and enflame jealousies amongst the beholders. As long as The China Trade could endure in all its guises, the demand for Chinese Export Silver could only spiral upwards on its drip-down meander through the strata of Western society; that very journey making it yet another must-have for the rapidly growing upwardly mobile classes of the new 19th century.

By now, the foreign merchants and the Chinese Cohong had got to grips with each other’s needs and, with this new level of understanding and the realization of the growing demand for the luxury accoutrements that affluence demanded of Westerners, the Chinese silversmiths in Canton were confronted with a relatively new phenomenon; merchants, ships’ captains and sailors all brought silver with them from Britain and America to have faithfully copied. The silver was in the neo-classical Georgian style and totally anomalous to Chinese culture and the art of Chinese silversmiths yet, almost overnight, the Canton workshops were creating Georgian-style silver worthy of sitting beside the very best British and American master silversmiths. To achieve this, the Chinese did not even try to understand the culture that sat behind such silver—they were simply highly skilled mimics of silver wares.

There is absolutely nothing Chinese about this lidded sugar basin (circa 1790) in the neo-classical style by the Canton silversmith Linchong (above, left), the Bao Ying soup ladle (above, right), circa 1810, or the Cutshing lidded entree dish (below), circa 1840.


The eventual Treaty of Nanking in 1842 not only opened the flood gates for the British to trade without many of the previous impositions the Emperor saw as being appropriate, but it also created an outpouring of silver decorated with Chinese motifs; earlier works being motifs applied to what were essentially neo-classical forms, morphing later into a full-blown high Chinese style. This was not by happenstance or the whim of the Chinese silversmiths, but a fashion in Britain that quickly spread to America and Europe for all things Chinese, or at least how the Western mind perceived “Chinese” as a style, the signing of the Treaty being the catalyst that created the fashion.

The speedy transformation can be seen from the neo classical in the Khecheong lidded cup, circa 1840, (left), to the Cutshing stemmed goblet, circa 1850 (center)—a classical form embellished with subtle engraved Chinese decorative motifs—to the Cutshing goblet (right), circa 1860, which has completed the transition to the high-Chinese style in a space of 20 years.

What is interesting about mid- to late-19th century Chinese Export Silver in the high-Chinese style is that, despite the fact it was highly unlikely the end-user would have any understanding of Chinese culture, the silversmiths still created objects that were teeming with allegorical Chinese decorative motifs.

This circa 1890 tea set and accompanying tray by the retail silversmith Luen Wo is covered in messages that would be obvious to a Chinese person yet to a Westerner would probably be nothing more than a highly exotic oriental conversation piece that would imply worldliness and a much-travelled person without the need to leave one of the newly fashionable middle class London, Manchester, Boston or New York suburbs.

This circa 1900 lady’s dressing table set by Wang Hing is playing the same trick.

Chinese Export Silver was the most productive silver manufacturing period in the 1,400-year history of Chinese silver making. It demonstrates the acute sense of adaptability by the silversmiths to understand its market totally.

At the same time as Wang Hing & Company produced the dressing table set (previously pictured) for the European or American market, it was equally able to create this rosewater sprinkler for the Indian sub-continent or the Middle East.

Whatever the style and whenever period one might choose in the China Trade history, the silversmiths’ quality did not falter and they were drawing on centuries of expertise that had originally come from outside of China, becoming assimilated and molded into something uniquely Chinese. While for much of the China Trade period Canton was the name synonymous with both the trade itself and silver making, silver workshops existed across China in their thousands. We only become familiar with some of them as the treaty ports spread, not forgetting the establishment of Hong Kong as a British colony. While some Shanghai and Tientsin makers might display some subtle localized traits in their silver style, almost all had this enigmatic quality to mimic silver redolent of a nation they would never ever see.

History repeats itself time and time again and we see it now in China being the manufactory of the world. Twenty years ago, we would not have dreamt that something exacting as an iPad could be made in China to a British design for a highly demanding Californian company just as in 1800, one would not have naturally dreamt of having a silver tea service made in Canton in the high-Georgian style. As it is, both happened and the rigorous standards that were demanded were met.

As the master, Confucius, said: “Consider your job of prime importance; put the reward in second place—wouldn’t this be excellence in its exalted form.” Or, as Albert Einstein said: “You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.”


• Asia Textile Journey, Diane Gaffney;
• A Dictionary of Symbols, Juan Eduardo Cirlot;
• Encyclopedia Iranica;
•, Jan Erik Nilsson;
• Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum New York;
• Studies in Chinese Ceramics, Cheng Tek’un, Chinese University Press, Hong Kong;
• Language & Ideology in the Sacred Edict; Victor Mair, University of California Press;
• Izdanie Imperatorskoi Arkheologicheskoi Kommissii ko dniu piatidesiatiletiia eia deiatel’nosti, St Petersburg.

Thanks: to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; to Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions U.K.; The Wedgwood Museum, U.K.; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Hermitage Museum, Amsterdam’ Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek; Supershrinks Storehouse of Silver; Seattle Art Museum; Charles E Merrill Trust; Eloge de l’Art, Alain Truong; Christie’s, New York.

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the Chinese Export Silver 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

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