Passing the Salt for 8,000 Years in Chinese Export Silver Style
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A pair of circa 1830 silver and parcel gilded salts by Cutshing of Canton in the neo-classical Georgian style.
To many of us, we might be aware of the connotations that salt has with monarchy—a substance of high value and denoting high status. We might also be aware of the connections of salt with the Romans; the very word “salary” being a derivative that traces its roots to the Latin word “salarium”—money given to Roman soldiers to buy salt. Greek slave traders often bartered salt for slaves, giving rise to the expression that someone was “worth his salt” or not.
Going further back in history, salt was very much connected to the ancient Persians, the ancient Egyptians and, before them, the biblical Hebrews—there are more than 30 references to salt in the Bible. The ancient Israelites included salt with all offerings, and the two Jewish temples included a salt chamber. On the Sabbath, Jews still sprinkle their bread with salt as a remembrance of those very offerings.
And bread and salt is a welcome greeting ceremony in many central and eastern European cultures.
Realistically, one could say that salt has a continuous history of around 3,500 years. But we would be wrong. The Chinese have a known historical connection to salt for 8,000 years. One of the earliest verifiable salt works was in prehistoric China in the northern province of Shanxi. It was at Lake Yincheng in a mountainous and desert area. Chinese historians believe that by 6,000 B.C., people gathered crystals of salt found in tropical climate areas and at summer’s end. These were probably on the edges of lakes and other saline water sources.
Chinese folklore credits the mythological phoenix with the discovery of salt. In 2,200 B.C., the Chinese Emperor Hsia Yu levied one of the first known taxes by taxing salt. He was to start a tradition that would last thousands of years. British monarchs imposed salt taxes, and French kings developed a salt monopoly, giving exclusive rights to produce it to a favored few. In the late 1700s, when hogs and cattle began dying in Britain for lack of salt due to the high taxes, angry mobs rioted until Parliament finally abolished the tax. Many believe the monopoly practiced by the French royalty directly contributed to the French Revolution. The new Assembly ended the salt tax in France 1790, making salt affordable. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi undertook his 200-mile march to the sea in protest of Britain’s salt tax and the prohibition against gathering sea salt.
A 13th century silver ingot “sycee” inscribed: “The Salt Bureau. A receipt for the payment of Salt Tax, Silver 49 Taels and 7 mace by the tax payer Shi Shun.”
In China about 4,700 years ago, a document called the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu was published and a section of the writing described 40 kinds of salt, including a discussion of two methods of extracting and processing salt that are similar to those used today. This was, in effect, the earliest known treatise on pharmacology.
While doubts abounded for many years whether Marco Polo had actually been in China, it transpired that one of the most profound sources of verifiable proof was found in Marco Polo’s description of salt production, which was accurate and unique. He lists the most important salt production centers known to him: Changlu, Lianghuai, Liangzhe and Yunnan, as well as the authorities administering them. His report of the methods used to make salt in Changlu concurs with Chinese documents of the Yuan era. Salt in the Venetian monopoly was produced in a different way. This, and other information—the accuracy of which has not yet been fully appreciated—all indicate that Marco Polo really did serve the Great Khan. Chinese sources show that he was not the only young man to be taken under the wing of Kublai Khan 91215-12940 and entrusted with important tasks.
Salt, therefore, has been held as being special for more than eight millennia. Many cultures and nations have celebrated the status of salt by creating varying degrees of elaborate silver vessels; the Chinese were no exception to this; in fact, given the long unbroken history China has with silver for more than 2,000 years, it is unsurprising that salt and silver followed parallel paths. With the advent of Chinese Export Silver in the late 18th century, while English and European silversmiths were creating superb and wondrous silver and silver-gilt vessels for salt, Chinese silversmiths took up the challenge and began creating supremely Chinese creations that were to become serious rivals to their Western counterparts.
Cutshing of Canton in the neo-classical Georgian style photo and dragon salt pot photo.
In 1830, just as Cutshing was creating this pair of pure neo-classical tribute to salt (top), the silversmith Cum Shing was creating in the very same street in Canton this singularly Chinese version of an open salt—a small vessel literally brimming with allegorical decorative motifs (above).
While we can see that the high Chinese style admirably suits the sense of the theatrical that even a small table item as a salt can warrant, we can see the combination of that style and the early Victorian love of the same theatricality come together in this superb Chinese Export Silver open salt and pepperette (below).
A Chinese Export Silver open salt and pepperette set, circa 1860. It is incredible to think that dragons so intricate as these could have survived intact after more than 150 years of use and polishing.
Twenty years later, in 1880, we have the ShangHai retail silversmith Luen Wo creating one of the most unusual pieces this silversmith ever produced (below). Firstly, it is mainly made of filigree silver, a technique Luen Wo isn’t particular known for, yet the filigree work on this piece is of outstanding quality. It is encrusted in applied layers and has a distinctly Indian feel, which is not unusual, since India was very much a market Chinese Export Silver makers catered for. In the 19th century, Maharajahs abounded in India, ruling regions of India hand-in-hand with the British, with both being very warily tolerating of each other. The style is also semi-reminiscent of traditional Imperial Russian salt thrones. It remains probably one of the most unique Chinese salts ever produced, yet its provenance is sadly lost, bestowing it with an added enigmatic layer which it wears rather well.
This is one of the most unique Chinese salts ever produced, yet its provenance is sadly lost.
But the more we move into the latter part of the 19th century, the innate humor Chinese silversmiths seem to have possessed begins to manifest. Traditional Chinese everyday objects begin to find themselves used as the inspiration for what became known as “novelty” cruets sets.
Although essentially not a salt, pepperettes were very much part of a cruet team and the pagoda was a natural subject. While 19th-century British aristocracy and upper classes were certainly faithful to the open salt and would never dream of having used a pepperette as a salt cellar, the burgeoning merchant class would not have though twice of committing such an act of sacrilegious table manners. Elsewhere in Europe—and quite probably in America—table etiquette was not as rigid.
Here we have a wonderful collection of pepperettes: three pagodas and one traditional garden lantern. They are all from the 1890’s and (from left to right) were made by Sing Fat, Wang Hing, Zee Wo and Wang Hing. The detailing on the pagodas is quite extraordinary, given the tallest is only 8 centimeters high. Pagoda pepperettes were incredibly popular and in the main were not made as part of a cruet set, per se. They were very much a novelty conversation piece for the table.
On the European continent, it was acceptable to have a salt cellar with multiple perforations, a fact that has often been a bone of contention with British upholders of correct etiquette who insist that a salt cellar should have only one hole and a pepper several. Also, on the continent and in America, rice grains were added to salt cellars to prevent caking from humidity. British Victorians did not approve of this at all and, in fact, closed salt cellars were not considered de rigueur at all and were thought to be “common.”
Here we have a matching pair of what are essentially pepperettes by Wang Hing that were quite probably made specifically for a salt and a pepper.
But then we move on to the epitome of table fun when the rickshaw joins the table and any caution that might have existed gets thrown to the wind; we can almost feel the silversmith having such fun creating more and more bizarre cruet sets.
Here we have a gloriously fun rickshaw cruet by Wang Hing made circa 1895. One can almost feel the delight the silversmith must have taken in creating the various gourd forms of the three cruets; each vessel also being parcel gilded.
These rickshaw cruets and driver were usually fully mechanical—a very Victorian must-have, ironically rivaling the fad for all things mechanical as a result of the industrial revolution, when steam engine cruets, some even complete with rails to run on, graced many a successful merchant family’s table. The word rickshaw is “pigeon” for the Japanese word “jirinkisha.” The puller was commonly known as a “coolie” by Westerners.
Here we have a similar version to the Wang Hing piece by the Nanking silversmith Bao Xing made roughly at the same time, although with slightly less attention to detailing.
Then we have this delightfully droll (perhaps not for the carriers!) sedan cruet, the three vessels being piled seemingly haphazardly on the wicker chair, the two carriers probably thankful for being mounted upon fully functioning wheels. This particular piece is by the ShangHai retail silversmith Hung Chong and was made circa 1895, but the sheer character that the carriers have imbued with is a joy.
This particular piece is by the ShangHai retail silversmith Hung Chong and was made circa 1895, but the sheer character that the carriers have imbued with is a joy.
This equally amusing, albeit somewhat tarnished, coolie pushing a handcart laden with gourd and basket form cruet pieces is by C.J. Company (China Jewelry Company), a ShangHai retail silversmith. The piece dates to circa 1900.
The obvious attention to detail was not confined to cruet sets. This circa 1900 cruet, essentially a pepperette but probably used as a salt cellar, was made by Kwan Wo.
That “small is beautiful” is proven by this minute 5-centimeter-tall pair of Cum Wo shakers, circa 1870, stunningly crafted in quatrefoil form decorated with four panels of alternating high relief foliate motifs.
These egg-shaped cruets were a perennial favorite with Chinese silversmiths. On the left we have a highly decorated circa 1890 Tuck Chang shaker. It is incredible that five different band motifs could be employed on a 6-centimeter-high object and then to place it firmly on three downward looking duck heads as feet. On the right, we have a pair of plain egg-shaped bodies supported on cross-tripod faux bamboo stems by Wang Hing, circa 1900.
This three-piece cruet set by the Hong Kong retail silversmith Chi Cheong (pictured front, left, and back, right), circa 1900, is fashioned in what is a traditional Chinese allegorical form of a prunus tree trunk section with a strip bared of its bark, symbolic of the strength of the rhythm of life. Again, the fine detailing of the decorative motifs and the tiny precision hinged lid of the mustard pot are testament not only to the skill of Chinese silversmiths but also the palpable joy they took in making these extraordinary objects that have brought a smile to dining tables for over a century.
A fitting conclusion to a 155 year window into the celebration of 8,000 years history of salt in China is this stunning pair of open salts which are essentially pure Regency in design, form and date (below). Bearing the so-called pseudo-hallmark of a Canton maker we sadly only know as “P,” they are attributable to circa 1815.
These pieces feature rectangular basins form with rounded corners, curved everted rims with a combination foliate and tongue and dart borders, splayed acanthus leaf capitals to the claw feet. An almost identical pair by WE WE WC—a Canton-based contemporary workshop—is in the collection of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London. The salts would probably have originally had parcel gilded interiors to the bowls instead of glass liners.
“Business is the salt of life.”
“Is not birth, beauty, good shape, discourse, gentleness, good learning, liberality, manhood and such like, the spice and salt that season a man.”
– WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; Also to: S&J Stodel, London; Lyon & Turnbull, Edinburgh; Auctionata; Tenga House, Duarte, California; Michael Pashby Antiques, Park Avenue, New York
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 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 email@example.com.
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