The Complex Hierarchy of the China Trade Relative to the Chinese Export Silver Trade


“View of Hoppo Returning,” a late 18th-century depiction by unknown Chinese artist. When the Hoppo arrived for inspection visits, the merchants and local officials turned out to receive him

Chinese Export Silver was very much a product of the China Trade, but the period between 1757-1842 is now known as the “Old China Trade.” Despite frenetic attempts by the Emperor to restrict European merchants, citizens and their trading to Macau, business began to spread throughout China. The Canton System was devised to control trade with the West within China. As with all things Chinese, there was a structure and a hierarchy, with the Emperor at the top of the pyramid. Equally Chinese, if a system was devised and imposed to curb any activity that was essentially money-making in intent, the Chinese would find a way to circumvent it.

The Canton System had at its very foundation the Hong merchants; no foreign traders could operate independently and were obliged to conduct any trade solely with the Cohong, the collective name for the guild of Hongs. Any trade, whether it import or export, that was conducted via the Hong had a tax imposed upon it by the Hoppo (Imperial customs and excise agents). While in theory the system had a sound basis, it had an inherent flaw—namely the devious minds of both the Hong and the Western merchants. Certainly for the greater part of the first 80 years of the China Trade, it was the British who controlled any two-way trade with and from China by way of the British East India Company, which was almost always referred to as “The Honorable Company.” During those 80 years, the key British figures in Canton had developed a very keen British version of the Chinese mindset.

The Cohong were focused on trade in around Canton, so gradually Chinese country merchants began to connect with the Country Trade, which had the effect of funneling trade between the European merchants and Chinese civilians. This trade kept growing and it was to eventually reach proportions that became an Imperial nightmare, since it undermined the whole purpose of the Canton system.

The word “hoppo” has passed into English slang but it is derived from the Chinese word hubu, meaning Treasury; the yuehaiguanbu was the Canton Customs Office. Merchants were not allowed access or dialogue with the Emperor; the Hoppo and the Cohong were the effective Canton representatives of the Qing Court. The Chinese Hong merchants developed close relations with their Western counterparts, instructing them carefully on how to conduct their business without antagonizing the Chinese bureaucracy. This was the Cohong creating the ultimate opportunistic situation. The whole scenario is (and was) a recipe for organized chaos and corruption, which somehow also provided the Emperor with sufficient taxes to appease him (or most of the time!). We should not lose sight of the fact that was a huge amount of trading being carried out on a tiny area of land in and around Canton and the Pearl River.

Three of the Cohong circa 1830 (left to right): Houqua, the most powerful Hong merchant, Mouqua and Enqua, all of them to become vastly wealthy; Howqua to become the wealthiest man in the world.

The British were eventually joined by the Americans. Several other European trading nations gained varying degrees of a foothold. Some of the established British merchants managed to be appointed as consuls for other European countries—a cunning ploy, since other trading countries would have negotiated tax-free quotas, which by a slight of hand, might be used by third party British merchants, many of whom happened to be companies also under the control of the consul! All were restricted to tiny and crowded piece of land in the harbor at Canton called “The Thirteen Factories on Shamien Island” (shameen meaning “sandbanks”). Each foreign country had its own enclave (factory) and foreign workers and crews were allowed to stay in Macau during what was known as the “off season,” which was basically when the shipping winds were not favorable. The merchants lived in cramped living quarters on the upper levels of their warehouses.

The freneticism of Old Canton can only be imagined. It was not just confined to the overcrowding of the Pearl River, with all sizes of ships and boats chaotically trying to load and unload, and it wasn’t just confined to the maze of streets and alleys that pressed upon the backs of the foreign enclaves; a maze that grew more dense, narrow and chaotic the further away they were in that hierarchy of streets. The freneticism was palpable in the air with each Hong merchant and each foreign agent plotting and scheming evermore ways to engender profit and mitigate taxes, if not avoid them altogether. Canton and the China Trade was the ultimate cash cow; it was a constant battle of wits—wits that lay in two very different cultures.

The Thirteen Factories: Canton in 1780 showing the different “factory” enclave of each trading nation.

Two-Way Trade
There is a misconception that trade, apart from the burgeoning opium trade, was very much a one-way affair. Firstly, there was a trade from China to Britain that was known as the “Drug Trade” that began as early as 1800. What were known as “drugs” were surprisingly the following: cassia, camphor and rhubarb. The trade was so substantial that a “Drug Concern” was established in London—a partnership that handled and controlled the operation in Britain. In return, certain goods, despite a general belief the Chinese wanted nothing from the West, were sent to China that included lead, tin, Prussian blue and cochineal.

In addition, there was a rather strange commodity that wealthy Chinese had an addiction for; it was known by the Chinese as “singsongs.” Singsongs, a pidgin word, were automatons—musical clocks and musical boxes! The Chinese couldn’t get enough of them and would pay anything to own British versions of them. In the region of £100,000 worth of musical clocks and musical boxes were dispatched to Canton each year for the first decade of the 19th century. This had a “street value” of around £1 million in China; a relatively small but highly lucrative trade. The Drug Trade and the singsong trade were all handled by private traders and the East India Company hated this trading so much company officials tried every way possible to make life hard for all concerned in it.

But things became even more bizarre; the Drug Trade and the singsong trade was so significant that forward-trading bills were issued in London and traded as a commodity until, sadly, the bottom fell out of the market—and many fingers were burned in the demise.

If you are wondering why the demand for singsongs dwindled, it should be remembered that rule number one in trading a commodity with China is not to trade in anything the Chinese can learn to copy and make themselves! While owning a British clock had once been aspirational, once the Chinese had mastered the art of clock-making in the British style, this created a dilemma with the Chinese elite, since it also goes against the grain of the Chinese psyche to pay an outrageous price for something that can be bought in China at a fraction of the cost. The clockwork makers of Clerkenwell in London and Birmingham were not amused.

A typical “singsong” ormolu clock, circa 1780, in the form of an Asian elephant supporting a canopied howdah enclosing a figure of Atlas supporting an armillary sphere, the pagoda surmounted by a foliate and painted finial supporting a bejeweled counter-rotating “Catherine wheel” topped with a pineapple, the elephant, finely chased, in two sections, enclosing one movement, its back draped with a blanket hung with jeweled pearl fringes, the elephant stands upon a finely worked rockwork base, mounted with flowers and rosette form covers enclose the winding apertures, inset to the front with an enamel clock dial with roman numerals and a red and clear jeweled bezel, the reverse set with another dial for selecting one of the six tunes (Gavot, Song, Jigg, Gavot, Minuet and Dance). The mechanism for selecting the tunes is enclosed in the lower section, which is painted on metal with landscapes and mounted with ormolu rockwork, bridges, pavilions, pagodas and windmills with turning elements and enclosing glass “waterfall” rods to all sides, with trophy panels to the canted angles and a burnished and leaf-cast plinth with pierced Chinese fret and anthemia aprons, supported to the corners by seated Chinese figures. Such a clock would have sold in Canton in its day for circa £60,000. This particular clock was sold at Sotheby’s, London in 2012 for £1.61million.

Singsongs were not the only trade taken to China. Nankeen was a sturdy cotton cloth that was used for making Chinese trousers, among other things. It was not uncommon for the cotton harvest to be poor for the making of Nankeen. At the Manchester cotton mills, a similar fabric was made from cotton brought in from the British colony of India and this was made in the same yellowish buff color of Chinese Nankeen and exported to China, where it was readily bought. Nankeen was also used to make summer-weight trousers for the well-dressed Regency gentleman. The reason why dusting cloths are yellow today are because in the late Georgian and Victorian periods, old Nankeen garments were cut up and used as polishing cloths! Nankeen was sent to China in huge quantities; one House of Lords journal for the year 1813 relates some 800,000 bales were sent to Canton.

Nankeen gentleman’s trousers, circa 1818 (left) and a gentlewoman’s summer nankeen dress circa 1814.

A Chinese watchman in Canton dressed in nankeen clothing, circa 1810.

A whole variety of other goods were brought into China either by the Honorable Company or the Country Trade, goods including cutch (an astringent medicinal resin from the Indian Acacia), olibanum (frankincense), myrrh, elephant ivory, sharks’ fins, coromandel wood, ebony, sandalwood, coral, amber, mother of pearl, tortoiseshell, copper, bêche de mer (sea cucumber—used smoked or dried in soups), betel nuts, rattan and peppercorns. Sealskins, otter skins and furs were brought in from North America in vast volume initially via Britain and later in the 19th century by American merchants themselves. This trade was highly profitable, making the German emigré American John Jacob Astor (born in Waldorf in Germany Johan Jakob Astor) a $20-million profit (equivalent to an astonishing $1.3 billion today) by the time he died in 1848. Astor was the first multi-millionaire in American history and was also one of the main importers of Chinese silks into America.

Johann Jakob Astor, circa 1794.

The late 18th and early 19th century saw relatively few Chinese silversmiths manufacturing Chinese Export Silver. As a silver trade, and later as a silver category in its own right, it was substantial, but in the wider context of the Chinese Trade as a whole, it was always a trade that helped fill the open spaces on clipper ships carrying tea, nankeen and various silks—not to mention opium—back to the West. It was clear from the outset of the China Trade that the Chinese silversmiths could produce silver as fine as the best Georgian silversmiths and the raw silver, as a commodity, was cheaper and the labor was a fraction of the cost compared to English and American silevrsmiths. However, initially any purchasing has to be via the auspices of the Hong merchants.

The combination of the chaotic system and the sheer volumes of trade allowed for devious minds and varying degrees of greed to eventually take its toll on the Hong merchants themselves. By far, the shrewdest was Houqua, who was also a master of networking. He was becoming vastly wealthy and relatively immune to the knocks and shocks of voluminous trading, much of which was speculative. The other Hong merchants did not fare so well, many going deeply into debt.

It was in the interest of the British and the Hong to maintain the status quo for the time being. The British government actually passed Acts of Parliament that created substantial loans to help keep the Hong solvent. Houqua himself also contributed and the balance required was raised by the Parsi Indian merchants working in parallel to the East India Company. The Parsi merchants were to remain very much part of the equation in the China Trade until the eventual Treaty of Nanking created the various treaty ports; the Parsi merchant dynasties of the Banajis, the Dadiseths, the Kamas and the wonderfully named family, the Readymoneys, were all headed by Sir Jamshedji Jijibhai. After the Treaty, they were replaced by the Bombay and Calcutta Jewish merchant families; the Khadoories, the Hardoons and the Sassoons, with David Sassoon being titular head. The Parsis took advantage of the American Civil War and concentrated their energies on the cotton and cloth trades with Manchester in Britain.

The entrance to Old China Street from the foreign factory area in 1811.

The bailing out of the Hong merchants put them in an unenviable weak position with the British initially, but devious minds are often the mother of invention; it is best to say that some highly ingenious ways were found that were beneficial to all parties involved, except for the Imperial Court. Houqua remained virtually the only Hong merchant to stay solvent, attaining the eventual status of “the wealthiest man in the world.” Another reason it was deemed necessary to keep the incumbent Hong merchants’ heads above water was the practice of the Imperial Court to banish bankrupt merchants to a solitary life of poverty. It was a case of the “devil you know rather than the devil you don’t know” for the British and even Houqua.

It was between 1840 and 1850 that we begin to see more Chinese silversmiths operating in Canton and making only Chinese Export Silver. Until this time, all trade by the foreign merchants, whether it import or export, had to be conducted through the Hong merchants. The fact that almost all of the Hongs were now beholden to the British and Houqua created a crack in the iron curtain that forbade foreigners from entering China proper. The Country Traders and the ships’ captains now ventured into the nearby streets—Old China Street, New China Street and the alleys that lead from them—and they bought directly from the silversmiths. This had the added benefit of purchases being exempt from the Hoppo taxes. This new status quo attracted new silversmiths to appear near to the foreign “factories” that were keen to take advantage of what was essentially a new form of trade, albeit technically illicit.

Understanding any Chinese phenomenon is complex. The consensus of opinion today, particularly by the Chinese, is that the makers’ marks we find on Chinese Export Silver are actually the names of retail silversmith shops. My own research—particularly into the English journals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries—paints a slightly different picture. Take the maker Cutshing, for example. Cutshing was an old house that was famous for producing fine luxury items of silver, silver gilt, carved ivory, lacquer wares and jade. But Cutshing and comparable contemporaries, such as Lin Chong, were actually manufacturing their own items in their own workshops. The House of Carl Fabergé in St Petersburg would be a good comparable—Fabergé maintained a showroom at the front of the premises at 24 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa. Behind and above the showroom were the workshops where regular clients could enter and discuss new commissions with the actual artisans; this was the same model that Cutshing operated at his New China Street and his later Old China Street premises.

A New China Street silver shop, circa 1825.

However, the mushrooming of so-called silversmiths taking advantage of the foreign buyers infiltrating the previously out-of-bounds streets created a new situation. This is the beginning of the period where we see names such as Wang Hing appearing. These establishments were retail showrooms that were supplied by separate workshops populated by artisan silversmiths. A house name such as Wang Hing would develop a style and a level of quality that was synonymous with that house, the quality control being exercised strictly by the main house. In certain instances, some of the workshops were also owned exclusively by the house, while others were either independent or may have been family relatives of the house proprietor. A few workshops were actually owned by Hong merchants or partnerships of Hong and foreign merchants—a way for the Hong merchants to be compensated for not receiving commission payment on transactions. It was not uncommon for workshops to rent bench space to itinerant artisan silversmiths. The artisan silversmiths stamped their own chopmark on pieces they were responsible for and it was not an uncommon sight for the same artisan and chopmark to appear on pieces under different house names, indicating that some artisans worked benches in several workshops for different houses. The artisans were all master silversmiths as the West would recognize, working incredibly hard and being paid relatively low for highly skilled work. This was the accepted system.

All this was a product of highly complex corruption. It was chaotic, unpredictable and multi-layered—yet it was a system of sorts and it worked for all concerned, the Emperor excluded. Foreign traders had to factor all this in to an ever changing equation. Not only were there known payments and taxes to be paid, but there were payments that had to be made in order to turn a blind eye, as it were. These were known collectively as cumshaws—a pidgin phrase derived loosely from the “right to land on Chinese soil”—or “come ashore”—gân xiè in Chinese, meaning “grateful thanks.” As an example, in 1807, a ship of 300 tons with a crew of 30 that stayed for three months on shore paid in the region of $2,600 for cumshaw. It was only the lucrative export trades from China that made the whole system worthwhile for all concerned. Chinese Export Silver may have been small, relative to the tea and silk trades, but it was immensely profitable. It also filled gaps in the ships’ holds that would otherwise have returned empty. One could best refer to it as “economic ballast.”

This remained the status quo until the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 threw open the doors to Canton. This eventually resulted in Shamien Island being leased to the British, who in turn auctioned leases for the valuable parceled trading sites to various nations, America being the largest second the Britain. The British profited well from this initiative in terms of real estate, but it also was the beginning of an unequal treaty that was for the first time unfavorable for the Chinese. This was the new status quo:

The Government of China, having compelled the British Merchants trading at Canton to deal exclusively with certain Merchants called Hong merchants (or Cohong) who have been licensed by the Chinese Government for that purpose, the Emperor of China agrees to abolish that practice in future at all Ports where British Merchants may reside, and to permit them to carry on their mercantile transactions with whatever persons they please, and His Imperial Majesty further agrees to pay the British Government Three Millions of Dollars on account of Debts due to British Subjects by the said Hong Merchants who have become insolvent, and who owe very large sums of money to Subjects of Her Britannic Majesty.

The $3 million were paid in silver trade dollars to compensate keeping the various Hong merchants afloat over the years. A further $21 million was paid to the British Government over the next three years in the Treaty, with a 5-percent interest levied on late payment.

New China Street, Canton, 1890.

So ended the Canton System. The new treaty laid down detailed regulations for Sino-British trade and specified the terms under which Britons could reside in the newly opened ports of ShangHai, Ningbo, Xiamen, Fuzhou and Canton. While Britons were allowed to buy property in the treaty ports and reside there with their families, they were still not allowed to travel to the interior of China or carry out trade there.

What this created was a re-arrangement of the trading furniture, as it were; the British effectively became the new Cohong by being granted Most Favored Nation status, not exclusively in Canton but also the other treat ports. In addition, the British now had Hong Kong.

In terms of the Chinese Export Silver trade, the already evolved system of emporia, shops and workshops in Canton spread to the other treaty ports. Most of these cities already had long-established traditions of silversmithing, especially in Tientsin and ShangHai, where some silversmiths dated back to the 17th century. Towards the latter part of the 19th century, we see instances of individual silversmith workshops operating in multiple cities as well as workshops creating branches in different locations in the same city. It is important, however, to always remember that that silver-making in China had a long tradition of 1,200 years—it was not a bi-product of the China Trade; as a definitive silver category Chinese Export Silver was.

The Cohong disbanded and either retired or acted as consultant facilitators to foreign merchants, except for Houqua, who continued his close relationship with American merchants. Houqua’s great success was at least due in part to his friendship with the Boston clan, but the Bostonians owed Houqua at least as much. Not only did he aid every family representative who came to China, he continued to favor some long after they returned home by investing money in American ventures in partnership with them. Houqua owned 10-percent of Russell & Company, a company that invested heavily in railroads including the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad and railroads from Chicago to the Mississippi.

Sadly, Houqua died in 1843, a year after the Treaty. A clipper ship was built in New York and named in his honor in 1844.

The 581-ton clipper ship “Houqua,” 1844.

So, we have a situation where some of the silversmiths during the early manufacturing periods of Chinese Export Silver were very much in league with the Hong Merchants who, in turn, were in league with the foreign merchants based in Canton, as well as the sea captains themselves—we have already seen how a silver retailers’ name could be the product of a joint venture between a Hong Merchant and a foreign merchant.

In the frantic world of Canton, in particular, this would have seemed both natural and inevitable. Cutshing is one such silver name that was born of such an alliance, yet early Cutshing silver is considered comparable to the finest Georgian silversmiths in Britain and America. Cutshing silver was the product of strict quality control, highly honed design and highly skilled silversmithing. It also had a deep understanding of the end user and this could only have been a product of collusion between the Western merchants and the Hong merchants.

From this, we can see more clearly how labyrinthine the trade was and, more importantly, the actual artisan silversmith that worked an item was very much at the bottom end of the food chain. There is nothing particularly different between manufacturing in China then and now—the worker may be skilled but they are relatively poorly paid for something that is highly prized in the West or by affluent Chinese. Skilled artisan silversmiths had a place towards the bottom of the Chinese social hierarchy and I have expanded upon this in earlier writings. I should counter this by saying not all the silver was destined for the West—some went to India, Arab countries, other southeast Asian countries and the silver that was sent there was very much designed to suit regional and religious tastes. Some was also sought after by affluent Chinese, some of whom aspired for a more Western lifestyle, which was certainly the case in ShangHai and Hong Kong.

Chinese Export Silver makers’ marks do not deliver information other silver marks might and although making sense of them can be somewhat of a minefield, it isn’t an insurmountable one. That said, the silver speaks for itself.

A Chinese Export Silver reticulated bowl by Hui Xing, Canton, circa 1860.

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

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