Takes a Cup of Kindness Yet: Chinese Export Silver Beakers

It is incredible to believe this piece is 1,250 years old. Classic silver techniques that are still used today have been employed and recognizable Chinese motifs appear, including the Mandarin duck.

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There are not many things the West and China had in common in the 18th and 19th centuries, but certainly one thing both cultures shared was a penchant for drinking alcohol.

Alcohol and silver have always made a good marriage; silver has been used to elevate the consumption of alcohol to a higher plain of social nicety and acceptability since ancient times. The Romans were doing just that in parallel to other ancient civilizations; the Chinese being one of them.

Chinese Export Silver managed to create an emphasis on certain silver objects during its 155 year life span that other silver categories failed to do; the silver drinking beaker was one such object. While beakers existed through various Western silver making periods, Chinese Export Silver beakers can be said to have been a proliferation in comparison.

In Chinese culture, the beaker is a derivative of a vessel known as a g?; originally a bronze drinking vessel that dates back to the Shang and Zhou Dynasties (1600-256 B.C. collectively).

On the left we have a mid-Shang Dynasty bronze g? that sits proudly today in the ShangHai Museum, making this particular object around 3,300 years old.

If one takes the upper half from the double-ribbed banding in the middle of the g? (left), we basically have the traditional beaker shape. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), silver gilt drinking cups as we see below right proliferated, silvermaking from Sassania (modern-day Iran) being the main influence. This particular small cup was sold at auction in 2010 for a staggering $22,500.

By the late Tang period we already see masterfully created silver beakers as we would recognize them today.

Small cups and beakers were the preferred drinking vessels for Chinese báiji?—literally “white liquor.” It is incredibly potent by Western standards (40 to 60 percent proof) and to its Japanese and Korean counterparts.

As I write this article in Glasgow, a city where a “wee dram” is considered an almost compulsory social nicety, I can but think of the sheer joy of those first 18th-century pioneer Scottish merchants who made their base in Canton, having travelled 9,000 kilometers to find themselves in a city that had its own kindred spirit—literally! It’s no wonder that Jardine and Matheson never left.

Chinese Export Silver, as an integral part of the China Trade, spawned a number of Chinese specialty objects; the silver beaker was one such item. As with all Chinese Export Silver, artistic license soon gave way to some extraordinary bursts of the creative minds of Chinese silversmiths.

Here we have a circa 1890 beaker by the Hong Kong-based retail silversmith Cum Wo. Made from particularly heavy gauge silver, it is decorated in a repoussé bamboo foliate motif against a finely planished ground. But we can see from the engraved initial on the shield-shaped cartouche that this has been made for a Westerner.

Chinese Export Silver created three forms of drinking vessel; the tankard the goblet and the beaker. All began life in neo-classical form and quickly evolved into a strange fusion of Chinese and Western form and decoration that only Chinese Export Silver could produce. All three were made in huge quantities and in equally large variations of styles, but they quickly became adopted as commemorative pieces in addition to their originally intended use of as drinking vessels.

As the foreign trade concession areas in China developed, a profusion of institutions and clubs appeared, in particular in ShangHai and Hong Kong. The foreign residents soon developed a colonial lifestyle that had Chinese influences, very similar to the contemporary lifestyle the British created in India. As with India, affluent locals tended to adopt Western lifestyles too. The clubs and various institutions prospered and soon a culture of celebrating virtually any type of “special occasion” or event with the presentation of silver cups grew up. Beakers became part of this as, indeed, they were adopted even as christening cups. They also became rather fanciful novelty souvenirs of the exotic orient to distribute to friends back home. The Chinese silversmiths rose to the challenge with their usual zest.

Chinese dragons adore a nice silver beaker to swirl around and here we have two different examples of late 19th century beakers from the Tianjin silversmith Lao Tian Bao. The left-hand beaker is particularly outstanding because of its classical Chinese meander border top and bottom and the ubiquitous fearsome dragon applied with glorious detailing against a very finely planished background.

Sets of beakers soon developed and these in turn became willing accoutrements to the burgeoning mania for cocktails in the early 20th century in the West and also ShangHai and Hong Kong, where it almost reached a point of becoming a national past time.

This set of six beakers—the creation of the Tianjin silversmith Wu Heng—is typical.

These four beakers below are by the ShangHai silversmith Zee Wo and are part of a bridge set created in the Art Deco style that ShangHai was obsessed with.

By the 1920s, beakers had become a partner of the cocktail shaker in ShangHai and Hong Kong and as the fashion for Chinese style took hold in the Jazz Age in London, New York, Paris and Berlin, these Chinese Export Silver drinking accessories appeared in abundance in the West as the need for this “must-have” took hold.

This complete cocktail set below complete with its beakers was created by the ShangHai silversmith C.J.&Co. (China Jewelry Company) in the very early 1900s, when the Edwardian era had already shed the shackles of the preceding Victorians.

Here we have a rather fabulous beaker by Wang Hing, gloriously decorated in applied high-relief foliate and floral motif with attending butterfly. It’s a fine example of how Chinese silversmith had this capability to take a relatively small and mundane object and transform it into a vibrant explosion of Chinese motifs. I’m hard pressed to think of another silver category that had the same capability for free-flowing asymmetrical creativity in the round.

China has a whole etiquette attached to drinking. It is the result of an historical evolvement over many centuries and has no real comparison in the West. But the bottom line is dignity and integrity and whether this inspired Chinese silversmiths to creating drinking vessels, be they be goblets, tankards or beakers, I doubt if we shall ever really know, but all three types are a joy to behold and wonder at.

The drinking of alcohol in China goes back more than 7,000 years, much of it having an underlying belief that it was actually prescribed by heaven to do so. Drinking has been an important part of Chinese entertaining for a very long time and is considered both a social lubricant and a social glue

As one turns this lovely beaker, a beautiful pastoral scene is revealed.

Two of the most powerful of the four celestial animals are the dragon and phoenix, which represent the perfect couple in Feng Shui. Dragon is “yang” while Phoenix is “yin,” and they complement each other in creating yin-yang balance to harvest successful matrimonial bliss. This celestial couple is the symbol of everlasting love and they being together is the ultimate symbol of marital happiness. It symbolizes that the man and spouse will stay together through thick and thin, and that love and passion will last till the end. They ensure that a newlywed couple will be blessed with both patriarchal and matriarchal luck, outstanding achievement in life and great fortune and prosperity with many filial offspring.

We can assume, based on the Feng Shui of the Dragon and the Phoenix, this Chinese Export Silver beaker by Wang Hing is connected in some way to a wedding or marriage.

Dragons don’t have exclusive rights to the beaker. Any decorative motif that can swirl will find its way as with this pair of beakers by the ShangHai silversmith Luen Wo simply but stunningly decorated with applied high relief prunus blossom. All Chinese decorative motifs are highly symbolic, but prunus is particularly appropriate for decorating a beaker since it symbolizes longevity.

Beakers, as with tankards and goblets, have become highly collectable Chinese Export Silver items. Depending on which country they are being offered for auction, they appear under various guises, often known as julep cups or tot cups in America and cordial cups and simply beakers in Britain. The word “julep” is actually an interesting term to apply to a beaker. Although Americans will know the word from the southern drink, the Mint Julep, which, incidentally, should be traditionally served in a frosted silver beaker, the word julep is derived from the Persian word “gul?b” which in turn is derived from gul which means rose, and ?b meaning water. Sassania, the precursor to Persia, was the original influence that brought the beaker to China in the first place!

 “Here’s to alcohol, the rose colored glasses of life.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

“I drink to make other people more interesting.”

— Ernest Hemingway

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

— Dorothy Parker

Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; Thanks to: S&J Stodel, London; Bonham’s, London; ShangHai Museum; The British Museum, London; Sloans & Kenyon, USA

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 avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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