The Longest Tea Party the World’s Ever Seen! Part 2

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A rather serene and idealistic vision of Chinese tea being brought to a junk boat that must be moored at Honam Island, with the 13 Factories buildings on Shameen Island of the foreign merchants are directly opposite.

We continue the story of the inextricable link between the China Tea Trade and Chinese Export Silver—which began last week with this article—with two images that are rather at odds with each other. The picture above paints a rather serene and idealistic vision of tea being brought to a junk boat that must be moored at Honam Island, given the 13 Factories buildings on Shameen Island of the foreign merchants are directly opposite. Apart from the highly decorated tea chests, nothing else in this picture reflects the reality of the scenes of chaos that was 19th-century Canton.

The blatant reality: two laborers each carrying 300 pounds (136 kilos) of tea. The long poles were an ingenious design to allow the coolies to “rest” en route.

On the right, though, we have the blatant reality: two “coolies” are seen each carrying 300 pounds (136 kilos) of tea. The tea tips—or more probably the maocha (roughly processed tea from the countryside)—are being carried to be finally processed, prior to being packed into the tea cases for shipping.

In the 1840s, some 19,000 tons of tea were exported from China to the West; by 1886, the total had reached 134,000 tons. This would equate to approximately 75-80 clipper ships, which in turn equates to an awfully large volume of ballast space, which was packed with tea for the return trips. Chinese Export Silver was packed into the small open spaces between the tea chests.

Coinciding with the period of 1840-1886, this is the time the volume of Chinese Export Silver and the amount of known makers and retail silversmith mushrooms significantly. It is in this period—1842 to be exact—that the Treaty of Nanking was signed between the Emperor And Queen Victoria, making Canton open to trade with foreigners without the punitive and restrictive Hong merchants. Other treaty ports followed until there was a network around the coast of China, including Hong Kong, which was now British.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1867 eventually dealt the death blow to the clipper ships as, although clippers could actually be faster than the early steamships, the latter could keep to a schedule without the vagaries of winds and weather that constantly challenged the clippers. This gradual conversion to steam-operated ships also had the drawback of less ballast room than the tea clippers, resulting in a change in the economic equation for shipping the peripheral cargoes to the tea and opium trades.

From the mid-19th century onwards, the upward momentum of the tea trade was reflected in the increased quantity of Chinese Export Silver being produced. But the amount of silver being produced wasn’t the only change; beginning in 1850 we see a whole rash of new retail silversmiths appearing and, with them, there was a dramatic switch to creating silver wares that were a fusion of Western forms decorated in the high Chinese style. 

The steamship SS Thermpolyae that was built in 1896 in Aberdeen to replace its predecessor namesake tea clipper, both having been built at the Hall, Russell & Co. Ltd. shipyard and owned by the Aberdeen Line.

This early Wang Hing teapot is an excellent example of how the neo-classical had been supplanted by what is essentially a classic shaped teapot that is lavishly decorated with traditional Chinese figural motifs yet still retains a nod to the West with its acanthus leaf base. Wang Hing was really the first Chinese retail silversmith to successfully combine quality with relatively large-scale manufacturing. It can probably be best compared to the parallel output of Mappin & Webb in Britain and Gorham in America at the same period.

The busy-ness of the decoration of this teapot also sits well with the mid-19th century Victorian love of over-decoration, as well as the Chinoiserie’s return to being in vogue. The hankering for all things “oriental” implied travel without needing necessarily to embark on it—the upper middle classes playing at being worldly. 

This is a teapot one could never tire of using; this is also Wang Hing quality at its very best.

What is not at first particularly apparent is the superbly executed spout—by inverting the image it is immediately clear that the spout emanates from a stylized dragon head; the irrepressible humor that Chinese silversmiths seemed to have by nature is deliciously expressed in this tongue-in-cheek detailing!

But this transition to the high Chinese style also brought with it the introduction of certain items that were themselves phenomena of Chinese Export Silver. Whereas late 18th- and early 19th-century items included quintessentially British items such as marrow scoops, fish slices, neo-classical tureens and lidded chafing dishes, the “new breed” of Chinese Export Silver included goblets, scholar boxes, cigarette cases and boxes and matchbox slip covers that were all made so ingeniously Chinese.

Chinese Export Silver goblets were blank canvases that Chinese silversmiths could not only work their magic on with such obvious relish, but they also found highly imaginative ways to incorporate traditional Chinese elements and motifs. The use of triple-stemmed bamboo to support the goblet cup was widely used, yet retained degrees of individuality. In Chinese culture, it is perfectly logical to have bamboo growing from a mound of revealed root system as a support; roots fascinate the Chinese and symbolize not only the vital forces of nature but also longevity. Bamboo is also a metaphor for youth and suppleness; strength and endurance; humility and a pure heart. The combination of bamboo and rocks represents the virtuous qualities of a Confucian gentleman; for the Confucian, bamboo represents integrity. The ingenious combination of allegorical motifs in these goblets could be read like an open book by the Chinese and Westerners who had absorbed sufficient Chinese culture to understand them; leaving the majority of Westerners drawn to them because they were simply exotic oriental objects.

The three goblets pictured here date between 1860 and1890 and, from left to right, are made by Cum Shing of Canton, the Cantonese retail silversmith we know as Gothic K, and the Shanghai retail silversmith Luen Wo.

The Hankow Customs Club, circa 1873, located on the Yangtze riverfront section of the foreign settlement area of Hankow.

Chinese Export Silver goblets became popular as presentation objects for sport events, wedding and christening gifts as well as being popular with the many colonial-style institutional clubs that proliferated in Hong Kong and the treaty ports. The Luen Wo goblet (above right) bears an inscription from the Hankow Customs Club, which was located on the Yangtze riverfront section of the foreign settlement area of Hankow.

Chinese Export Silver jardinières appear often in the latter half of the 19th century. The Chinese took the cultivation of plants and flowers very seriously, so the jardinière should not be a particularly strange item for Chinese silversmiths to create. This example below by Wang Hing is again this typical fusion of Chinese decorative motifs applied to a Western form.

Although Chinese cities and large towns tended to appear to the Western eye as being densely built and chaotic, plants always had a place of honor in the most unusual places. Rivers tended to be crowded with all manner of small craft, yet roofs of cabins were often adorned with stunning floral displays while the rest of the boat, and often the river itself, could be a riot of untidiness.

This scene is a fairly realistic view of the river in front of the “13 Factories” foreign concession area. The river is a veritable floating bridge of houseboats—it is believed that some hundred thousand Chinese Cantonese lived in this way. We should also note the coolies in the foreground carrying tea chests to be loaded onto small craft which would then deliver them to a clipper waiting downriver. We are lucky to have a painter who depicts Canton nearer to reality than most painters were wont to do.

This is a very idealized visions of the river bank, probably at Honam Island, opposite the scene pictured above. This peaceful idyllic scene is far removed from the hubbub of practically anywhere in Canton, especially near the river.

But plants and Chinese Export Silver were to have an even closer relationship during the tea trade era. While foreigners were not allowed to enter China beyond the foreign trading area of Canton, a rather unexpected yet steady trade went on by British and American horticulturalists coming to Macau and Canton to find exotic plants that were native to China and, for once, this grew into a two-way trade, since the Chinese love of plants had them eager for new species and a willingness to pay handsomely for that privilege. Many of the plants we take for granted have their origins in China; more than 600 examples of rhododendron, azalea, some 150 varieties of primula, lilac, wisteria, chrysanthemum, buddleias, irises, hollyhock, asters, japonica, hydrangea and camellias are just some of the many plants we think of today as belonging to the quintessential English garden. Meanwhile, the Chinese benefitted from enterprising horticulturalists and even some seamen from plants such as the antirrhinum (snapdragon).

Since it was forbidden for foreigners to enter China beyond the confines of the Canton trade area, we have to wonder how and where botanists were able to find such a divers amount of species and specimens to take home. Some botanist had, with difficulty, set up relationships with Jesuit missionaries that had been allowed into the interior.

The famous 19th-century Scottish botanist Robert Fortune on his quest for new species of plants in China. He was responsible for being the first person to successfully bring Camelia Sinensis (a.k.a. the tea plant) to India… the rest is history.

This, though, was a limited and often time consuming conduit. It is recorded that a very few Westerners did manage to disguise themselves as Chinese, having first mastered the language, but this was highly dangerous in many respects. However, on Honam Island, the other side of the Pearl River opposite the foreign concession area on tiny Shameen Island, was a huge nursery known as Fa-Tee (flowered lands). This became the center of the highly significant and under-heralded trade in horticultural specimens. Botanists and horticulturalists, as well as painters who specialized in botanical depiction, carved special relationships with the Chinese gardeners at Fa-Tee.

This a fine example of the Chinese painter Sun Qua’s work, carried out circa 1830 using gouache on pith paper and clearly demonstrating the elevated place flowers and plants had in Chinese culture.

Those who hadn’t mastered Chinese either used translators or conversed in Pidgin in order to ascertain what specimens might be available from deep in the Chinese interior. It is exactly in this manner that most of the plants we now consider quintessentially British or American came to be with us. At Macau and Hong Kong, botanists were free to roam the hills and collect their own specimens—Hong Kong at this time was simply a series of tiny, insignificant fishing villages.

One has to wonder if Fa-Tee and the love of gardening was not the inspiration for this 19th century Famille Rose Canton porcelain lattice work bowl.

Shipping plants from China to Britain and America on a sailing ship was anything but easy. Horticulturalists soon discovered that plants could not be shipped unaccompanied and even when they did travel with an expert in attendance, the vagaries of stormy seas, salt water and the dearth of fresh water that sailors were often loathe to share with a plant led to specialized ships being created especially for the purpose of transporting plants. Even portable greenhouses (below) and other ingenious devices were invented to protect particularly sensitive specimens. But the most astounding fact from this extraordinary trade is that of all the exports that came from China to the West, by far the most profitable, pro rata, was not tea or silver; it was plants.

Containers created to ship plants from China to the West.

There were even portable greenhouse employed to bring the exotic flora home.

Astronomical sums were paid by wealthy American and British classes to have rare exotic species in their gardens. It was a mania that was widespread and one we would be hard-pressed to find a modern-day equivalent. It was such a specialized trade that it was singular inasmuch as being the only trade where crew were allowed to speculate, find and purchase items of their own choosing in China that they could then ship home free of charge and profit handsomely on their return.

Apart from plants themselves, Chinese Export Silver was by far the most popular extramural cargo crew members chose to invest in, many of them traveling to China armed with special orders from regular purchasers, some of whom were even retail silversmiths. For this very reason we see a considerable amount of Wang Hing silver marked with the hallmark of George Edward & Sons of Glasgow; the superior Buchanan Street retail silversmith must have been placing “special orders” with a regular Canton visitor—Glasgow being one of the major British tea ports.

A piece of Chinese Export Silver showing the Wang Hing mark, along with the hallmark of George Edward & Sons of Glasgow.

So, it is perfectly in order to say that Chinese Export Silver owes its existence specifically to horticulture, both living (plant species) and processed (tea), which would make this bowl by Hung Chong the perfect partnership—Chinese Export Silver and chrysanthemums in the high Chinese style.

This exquisite, 19th-century Chinese Export Silver spoon is probably the most perfect fusion of the best of the China Trade to the West.

Made by a rare Canton silversmith we only know as S.M., he was a silversmith who displays extraordinary skills of excellence as the detailing of the stem clearly shows.

We will leave the tea trade with this superb, mid 19th-century Chinese Export Silver teapot by the retail silversmith Lee Ching, having a body profusely embossed with scenes from the story of the prodigal son and the return of the cherished son with his father greeting him, exquisitely set off by the twisted faux bamboo spout and handle.

This equally divine circa-1870 Chinese Export Silver teapot by the incredibly talented silversmith in Tientsin Yong Xing Cheng, desperately trying to be English and Victorian and not quite shaking off its Chinese roots, thankfully, for that is the genius of this piece.


“I always fear that creation will expire before tea time.”

— Rev. Sydney Smith, 19th century

“Each cup of tea represents an imaginary voyage”

— Catherine Douzel

Thanks: Danny Cheng, for his translation skills. Acknowledgments: Harvard Business School Archive; Massachusetts Institute of Technology Visual Cultures; UK Tea Council; S&J Stodel, London; National Maritime Museum, London; The Royal Horticultural Society Archives, UK!

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the archive, managed by Christopher Hunter at

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

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