The Curious Phenomenon of 19th-Century Chinese Export Silver Bosun’s Whistles

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Here we have a late 19th-century Chinese Export Silver bosun’s whistle that is similar to one that was featured and written of in the famous Chait Collection in 1985 by John Devereux Kernan. This particular item was sold at Christie’s, New York, for $813 in 2008. Today it would be worth considerably more, especially since it is decorated in the high Chinese style.

What we know as the China Trade began in 1757 when, by Imperial edict, a set of stringent regulations were implemented in order to try to control the non-Chinese merchant sea traders trying to set anchor in Chinese ports. An area at the mouth of the Pearl River was designated as foreign quarters; significantly this was just outside of the city wall around Canton, but the ships themselves were not allowed to sail beyond Macao. Each approved trading country had its own trading enclosure in a complex of long, low storage buildings that collectively were known as The Thirteen Hongs or Co-hong. Merchants were allowed to stay within their enclosure, while any women that accompanied them had to stay in Macao. The carrying of any firearm was strictly forbidden.

This convoluted system was tolerated but generally disliked. One person it particularly riled was King George III of Great Britain for reasons that were equally as calculated as the reasons why the Emperor of China was trying to keep his country hermetically sealed to the outside world. After 85 years and the First Opium War, in 1842, the Treaty of Nanking granted indemnity to Britain. Five treaty ports and cession of Hong Kong Island finally ended the trading monopoly of the old Canton system. The failure of the treaty to satisfy British goals of improved trade and diplomatic relations led to the Second Opium War (1856–60). This war is now considered in China as the beginning of modern Chinese history.

What I have compressed into a nutshell was, in reality, an incredibly busy and frenetic trading period carried out at all odds and under duress. But the common thread through all these years is shipping and, although 1842 saw a sea change in trading possibilities with China that favored the British, it was the British and American sea merchants who held pole positions. None of this could be done, however, without a highly convoluted and corrupt system between the Western merchants, their own agents based in Canton and the Chinese Cohong. 

Canton Harbor and factories with foreign flags, circa 1805 (Peabody Essex Museum)

Many of the merchant adventurers were family controlled. There were the Massachusetts Bay merchant families (a.k.a. The Boston Clan) and there were British merchants based in London, Hull, Glasgow, Dundee and Calcutta (the home of the British East India Company). In fact, many of the British ships were actually built in Calcutta. In just under 100 years, the number of foreign traders at Canton rose from a few thousand to tens of thousands. A vast number of merchant ships and their crews were a permanent fixture at Canton; Canton itself must have resembled Bedlem to our modern ordered eyes.

It was the intensity of shipping and trade that gave birth to Chinese Export Silver. Without the trade treaties, silvermaking in China most probably would have remained a highly Chinese phenomenon, created mostly for the privileged classes and the Imperial Court. Most importantly, it was the ships’ captains and heads of the family trading companies, many of whom were extremely young (at one time, the great Perkins & Co. was run by a mere 19-year-old). Another factor helped boost the Chinese Export Silver production: namely, greed. The plain truth of the matter was that silver, as a raw commodity, was significantly cheaper in Canton than in the West. Labor was also much cheaper, yet the skill standards were extremely high and, in many cases, more inventive than their Western counterparts.

A Chinese Export Silver bosun’s whistle, circa 1890, by a rare Canton maker, Zheng Li. It is also rare for Chinese Export Silver makers to employ wriggle work motifs, most probably a direct copy of an English or American whistle.

The extremely rare maker’s mark of Zheng Li who operated in Canton, circa 1860-1900.

With the merchant naval trades in controlling positions, it was only natural that maritime-related items began to be made in Canton. Georgian and early Victorian silver bosun’s (boatswain’s) whistles were already a requisite of any high-ranking master seaman of note, so it was only a short time after the trading treaties came into force that Chinese Export Silver bosun’s whistles became de rigueur—Georgian in style with a quirky Chinese twist.

Here we have a 19th-century Chinese Export Silver bosun’s whistle, decorated on both sides with a high relief dragon chasing a flaming pearl. The whistle measures just under 16cm and was sold at auction for a staggering $5,148 in an August, 2008, sale at Northeast Auctions, New Hampshire.

Here we have a Chinese Export Silver bosun’s whistle made by Luen Hing of Shanghai, circa 1895. Again, we see the wriggle work which is hardly ever seen on Luen Hing silver, signifying this is a traditional maritime motif.

Here, for comparison, we have an English silver bosun’s whistle made in Birmingham in 1885 by Hilliard & Thomason, who were considered the masters of bosun whistle making. Traditional in shape, yet clearly decorated with wriggle work.

American traders, now with a stable foothold in Canton, were eager to sell their goods to China; the extravagant mandarins in China, in turn, were excited to buy these goods. The first item that tended to sell in China was Spanish silver bullion. Use of bullion eventually became considerable: more than $62 million worth of goods was traded to China between 1805 and 1825. The second major—and by far the most lucrative—American export to China was, surprisingly, ginseng that was grown on the plains around Pennsylvania and Virginia. Ginseng sold in China sold at more than 250 times the price it achieved in America! Furs were the third-most lucrative American export to China; sea otter pelts were highly prized. American traders soon began to focus their funds on acquiring Chinese goods—a practice that the Chinese were more willing to adopt—rather than on purchasing those of America. What resulted was the flooding of Chinese teas, cottons, silks, rhubarb, cassia, nankeen (a highly durable cloth), floor matting, lacquerwares, fans, furniture, porcelain wares and—most importantly—silver items into America. A shipload of goods from China could profit $30,000 when landed in Boston; the American merchants had finally broken the British East India Company monopoly.

Here are some of the great and good of the American merchants who established themselves in Canton (left to right): Thomas Handsyd Perkins, John Murray Forbes, Samuel Russell, Robert Bennet Forbes & Russel Sturgis.

It was John Perkins Cushing who took charge of Perkins & Co. in Canton at the tender age of 16. Known as Ku-shing by the Chinese hong merchants, he was probably the first Western merchant to realize that silver-making in Canton was of an extremely high quality at a relatively low price. He partnered with the head of the Cohong, Howqua, to form the Chinese Export Silver maker we know today as Cutshing. One should also add, in mute voice, that he and most of the above were also opium smugglers, which was a highly profitable “side line” in itself.

And lastly, we have a quite unusual Chinese Export Silver bosun’s whistle, circa 1880. The chain is probably Western as it isn’t typical of Chinese chain linking.

What revealing the labyrinthine mechanics behind the scenes of Chinese Export Silver and the China Trade in general highlights is how inextricably linked many of what are now perceived as “the great Boston families” were to trade with China and how much of their subsequent substantial investment and development in America would not have happened without it; railroads, for example. The same goes for their philanthropic works in America. This equally applies to British merchants, in particular those who hailed from Scotland. Hutchinson, Jardine and Matheson are all merchant families that made their fortunes through the China Trade

The beauty of Chinese Export Silver is the obvious flexibility of mind and skill of the silversmiths to create objects that were totally foreign to them, yet create them with great style and craftsmanship. Not only did they create these stunning bosun’s whistles, but they produced some of the most masterly Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu religious ritual objects. If we think deeply enough, we would realize that even a coffee pot would have been alien to the Chinese, yet we are blessed with many fine examples of their ingenuity.

It is also the history, cultural diversity and intrigue that come as part and parcel of the Chinese Export Silver story. No other silver category can boast this. Chinese Export Silver came into existence as a direct result of political history, 1,200 years of national protectionism and a very diverse cultural history.

Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills and to Christie’s, New York for images.

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. Adrien recently released “Catalogue of Chinese Export Makers’ Marks,” the largest reference work for makers’ marks ever published. You can e-mail Adrien at

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