Standing on Ceremony: Huabiao Pillars reworked as Amazing Silver Columns

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These silver huabiao are the first I’ve ever encountered. They were made by a Beijing silversmith by the name of Bao Xiang, a silversmith I have to say I’ve never previously encountered, yet obviously a silversmith of significant skill.

Chinese culture is so enriched with allegorical imagery that one could almost say it is its very foundation. As with any world culture, it is an osmotic accumulation of influences from outside and within China over the millennia, manifesting itself in ceremonial and decorative objects in combinations that are themselves often wonders in their own right.

One particular object is the result of a virtual metamorphosis of usages, beliefs, superstitions and myths; as an object it literally stands out of the crowd of symbolic phenomena.

The huabiao is an ornamental totemic pillar that today we might see made of stone or marble. It is certainly not how it began life and it was never conceived to be made of silver, yet to my surprise, I was confronted with a pair of Chinese Export Silver huabiao recently; certainly the only silver huabiao I’ve ever encountered. They were made by a Beijing silversmith by the name of Bao Xiang; a silversmith I have to say I’ve never previously encountered, and not to be confused with Bao Xing of Canton and with Bao Xing of Nanjing. This Bao Xiang was obviously a silversmith of significant skill.

These huabiao columns tell a story in themselves; one can take a stroll through the allegorical imagery and almost get lost, but to fully understand that collective meaning, it is important to discover how the huabiao developed over thousands of years and what it came to represent.

Having said that, it is actually difficult to determine exactly when and why these pillars originated. If we would rely on legend, then we need to travel back 4,000 years to the reigns of Emperors Yao and Shun; the era when China’s moral and ethical codes of conduct were formulated. Then, huabiao were made of wood and served as landmarks and it is believed their shape and form are derived from an ancient dagger. As landmarks, they were used to show soldiers on the march the direction to go. They then evolved another use when common people were encouraged to post comments and suggestions for their ruler on the posts. In this guise, the posts were known as feibang zhi mu (wood of direct speech) or bangmu, for short. The creation of the feudal system in the Zhou dynasty, a little more than 3,000 years ago, put an end to this practice when suggestions from the commoners were replaced with carvings of dragons, the symbol of Imperial power.

Another school of thought believes huabiao originated 2,600 years ago as an ancient instrument of measurement; a pole would have been driven into the ground where a proposed building was to be erected. The pole, known as a “Biao,” cast a shadow that aided designers to determine appropriate directions.

As their use changed over the centuries, so did their appearance. They became more ornate—marble or stone was the preferred materials—the base was typically either circular or octagonal surrounded by an ornate balustrade or railings.

Huabiao often come in pairs, yet probably the most famous huabiao in China are to be found in Beijing by Tian’anmen (The Gate of Heavenly Peace) at the entrance to the Forbidden City. These columns were created in the Qing Dynasty and, as with all huabiao, they have a majestic looking beast known as “Denlong” or “Hou” perched on top.

The mythical dragon had nine children, according to legend; the Hou is one of them. It is purported to have the habit of watching the sky; its specific role in life as guardian atop a huabiao is to communicate the mood of the people below to the heavens above. The hou maintains order in the cosmos and also represents power and good fortune.

Here we can compare the hou atop one of the Tian’anmen columns to the Bao Xiang version. The latter is a very stylized interpretation of the more intricate classical hou we are more likely to encounter in stone. But even though Bao Xiang is a Beijing silversmith, his silver columns are clearly not faithful copies of the more famous Beijing huabiao.

The Tian’anmen four are particularly regal, The pair guarding the entrance to the palace have the hou looking away out to the distance, demonstrating the people’s longing for the Emperor’s return should he travel out of the palace. This was also meant to remind rulers not to become infatuated with the beauty of the landscapes of their domain and to return in a timely fashion to continue running affairs of state. These pillars are given the name of wangjungui (looking forward to the Emperor’s return).

The pair inside the gate, looking inwards, reminding the Emperor they were expected not to be beguiled by the sensual pleasures of the palace, but to leave the palace in order to have a better understanding of the common people and their needs, hopes and aspirations. These pillars are given the name wangyunchu (expecting his Majesty to go on an inspection). Whereas they once kept rulers mindful of their role, today one could say they are a warning to the ruled.

The swirling dragon on the main column of a huabiao represent the imperial power of the Emperor, or Son of Heaven. The hou sits majestically upon a dew-collecting tray under which is a stylized cloud that is a symbol of the delineation between heaven and earth. The octagonal base plinth represents the solid foundations of the earth. Usually, crowning the balustrade or railings are small creatures known as suan ni, the fifth son of the dragon and symbolic of imperial good fortune. The whimsical horizontal element towards the top is known as the cloud board

Suan ni, the fifth son of the dragon and symbolic of imperial good fortune, usually, crown the balustrade or railings of a huabiao.

Huabiao are to be found at the entrances to palaces, bridges, imperial tombs, ceremonial gates and spirit roads—an ornate road leading to a Chinese tomb of a notable dignitary. The latter huabiao are known as shen dao zhu (spirit way columns).

We can see examples of shen dao zhu (spirit way columns) in this late 18th century watercolor painting of the Ming Tombs in Changping, about 50 kilometers from Beijing.

A modern view of the Ming Tombs in Changping. The auspicious, animal-lined avenue is the “spirit way” leading to the mausoleum complex.

But the huabiao has evolved to become such an iconic symbol that it appears on many items in China.

Huabiao can be seen on a 1999 version of the 50 Renminbi note.

Huabiao also appear on 1- and 2-ounce special 1997 silver coinage.

This official Chinese government publicity material for the Olympic Games incorporated a huabiao at the very heart of this collage of Chinese cultural imagery drawn from the centuries of Chinese history.

Here we have the superb contrast of the modern towers of Dalian city with the majestic huabiao standing in Xinghai Square. Originally a small fishing village that became a city that was occupied in the 19th century by a succession of British, Japanese and Russian occupations, Dalian is today a modern city of 3.3 million with a 19th-century district at its heart.

The Chinese equivalent of an Oscar is—yes, you’ve guessed it—a huabiao. Created originally in 1957, the award ceremony is held in Beijing and has ten versions for various Chinese film categories.

The final stop for the huabiao in its 4,000-year evolution from wooden milestone through several thousand years in imperial splendor can only be this rendition of Tian’anmen, complete with a pair of huabiao in LEGO! While it is an impressive model, one cannot help being slightly miffed at the degree of detail Lego devote to its product range in China than it does in the West!

Returning to our pair of Chinese Export Silver columns. We can only wonder why they were made. They carry no inscription, so it is doubtful they were made as a trophy piece. They are not particular faithful to their Tian’anmen cousins, so it is doubtful they might be presentation souvenirs. About the only thing we can know is that they are fairly unique, they are of superb quality and they are culturally faithful in detailing to a traditional huabiao.

One could theorize that given the hou dragons are removable, perhaps they might have been originally planned to have detachable alternative bobèche sconces so they could be used as candlesticks. The columns stand at 29.5 centimeters, so the height would be right. The columns also weigh a combined 839 gram, so they are heavy enough to be used as candlesticks, even though they have no additional loading—the amount of silver in the bases gives the weight, the columns themselves are hollow although made of heavy gauge silver.

This pair of columns are being offered as a lot in a Fine Silver & Objects of Vertu Sale on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 at Dreweatts, Donnington Priory, U.K .

During the past year, I have been keenly aware of a noticeable rise in the amount of important items of Chinese Export Silver coming to auction as well as a marked increase of interest in the lots and their eventual hammer value. This is a highly significant lot and a rare pair of Chinese Export Silver objects that are richly endowed with Chinese decorative imagery.

A photo of Tian’anmen, taken in 1901 in its natural state, with landscaping in front before it was became a concrete square.

I leave you with this nostalgic view of Tian’anmen (above), taken in 1901 in its natural state, unadorned in the red we are familiar with today, and the landscaping in front before it was became a concrete square. The huabiao stood the test of time and stand today in exactly the spot where they were first erected.

Thanks: Danny Cheng, for his translation skills and to Annamarie Sandecki & Amy McHugh at Tiffany & Co, New York. Acknowledgments: Dreweatts, U.K.; United States Library of Congress; Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China; Lego China; Peking University.

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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