The Ultimate Tea Ceremony: How the Custom of Taking Tea Influenced Silver Tea Sets

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It was Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, who invented the act of taking afternoon tea at the beginning of the 19th century

Chinese Export Silver was very much a product of the China Trade, which in itself was a phenomenon born out of the long-established silk and tea trades between China and the West. Tea, like silver, is very much embedded into the Chinese psyche. Unlike in China, tea in the West in the 18th century was still very much a luxury. It was Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, who invented the act of taking afternoon tea at the beginning of the 19th century; an invention that was to embed tea into the psyche of the English forever.

In the 18th century—when it was customary to only take two meals a day—the incredible gap between breakfast and dinner was unbelievably long, given it was customary in grand households to be seated for dinner at 8:30 or 9 p.m. An extra meal called luncheon had been created to fill the midday gap between breakfast and dinner by the late 18th century, but as this new meal was very light, the long afternoon with no refreshment at all left people feeling hungry. The duchess found a light meal of tea (usually Darjeeling) and cakes or sandwiches was the perfect balance.

The Duchess found taking an afternoon snack to be such a perfect refreshment that she soon began inviting her friends to join her. Afternoon tea quickly became an established and convivial repast in many middle and upper class households. A light snack at 4 p.m. seems obvious to us today but in a society bound by rules and traditions, Her Grace’s innovation was at first earth-shattering, yet among high society the custom soon developed into an “At Home”—essentially an extension of the afternoon tea which involved inviting relatives and friends for tea and sometimes entertainment—though more often just simple conversation and idle gossip. On every day at least one was held somewhere. The hostess remained home all day to receive guests, serve tea, cakes, sandwiches and other niceties and protocol demanded upon receiving an “At Home” notice that, unless regrets were sent, invitees were expected to attend. As with most habits high society adopted, it gradually trickled down to the masses.  

Here we have the piece that took my breath away; it is a samovar—a heated metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water—cunningly made in the shape of an elongated tea caddy and encrusted with almost every Chinese decorative motif imaginable. The samovar is unusual as a Chinese silver object and even as a samovar.

The silversmith, Sheng Yuan, is also somewhat unusual as far as Chinese Export Silver makers go. The people who commissioned the piece, Sophus Black and Minna Dich were also unusual, but being Danish, they would have been used to samovars. The large central oval cartouche is engraved with the text of a classical Chinese poem, and even the ring handles are attached to Pekingese dog (Lion Dog) faces.

The British were always trying to discover ways to ease the crippling trade imbalance many of the export trades from China caused them; tea among them. You will note the duchess’s penchant for taking Darjeeling, not China tea. The British East India Company had eventually managed to smuggle tea bushes out of China and found that Darjeeling had a perfect climate to create tea plantations. The teas that were developed there were much more suited to the Western palate.

The act of taking tea in China and in the West had but one similarity; that it was a ceremony. Both practices had a formal solemnity attached to them; there was a prescribed way it had to be done. Since in the West it began in the upper echelons of society, making it formal had to involve the use of silver. How tea was served was and from what were the key factors that made a long-lasting impression.

You may be slightly perplexed by the Beijing address of Sheng Yuan from the advertisement above; Peiping is simply one of the accepted Romanization forms of the Manadarin word for Beijing at the time. “Sheng Yuen Lou” literally means the shop of Sheng Yuen (Yuan), which was the name that appeared on the firm’s ShangHai maker’s marks.

The Peking maker’s mark for Sheng Yuan is above left, while the ShangHai maker’s mark for Sheng Yuan Lou is above right.

The Chinese Export Silver phenomenon coincided with the rise in popularity of taking tea in both England and in America. The Boston merchants were the conduit for tea and silverwares to come from China into America, so it was perfectly natural that English and American merchants capitalized on the mania for tea by purchasing finest quality silver teawares in Canton in order to make great profit from a society that craved them. As for the Chinese silversmiths, they were in their element when creating teapots and tea sets, whether it was in the neo-classical Georgian style or later in the Victorian wedding cake confections they dreamt up in the high Chinese style. The West adored them.

While I still get excited at seeing some of the extraordinary Chinese Export Silver teaware that is brought to my attention, nothing could have prepared me for the quite extraordinary item that I was alerted to me this week: a samovar—a heated metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water—cunningly made in the shape of an elongated tea caddy and encrusted with almost every Chinese decorative motif imaginable.

The samovar has an accompanying tray and octagonal bowl, which demonstrated the care that Black and Dich had gone in specifying the amalgamation of so many traditional Chinese motifs into this combined set of three objects; this was obviously intended as an object to encapsulate their passion for China and its art culture. Even what might appear as a traditional Greek key meander frieze in the open fretwork around the samovar body is actually a traditional Chinese motif that has no connection with its classical Greek counterpart.

Sophus Black spent 29 years of his life in China (1902-1931), arriving in Beijing in 1915, where he managed the Danish Northern Telegraph Company. He quickly became an avid Chinese art collector and just as quickly married Minna Dich, who happened to be a goldsmith. It was Minna who created the idea and the basic concept for this extraordinary piece and, having discovered the retail silversmith Sheng Yuan in Beijing, worked together to formulated the design and produce the piece. In sharp contrast to most Westerners, Sophus and Minna chose to live in a Chinese house, spoke fluent Chinese and adopted a Chinese way of life.

Sheng Yuan was a somewhat entrepreneurial retail silversmith, creating two quite distinct styles for each of his operations in ShangHai and Beijing, even to the extent of having two separate forms of maker’s marks for each. While the silver produced carried the mark of Sheng Yuan, the retail operation traded under the name of Peking Silver Temple.

Here we have a wonderful tea caddy taking the form of a bamboo stem decorated with applied bamboo foliage and a scarab (top left), made, circa 1885, by Wang Hing. Top right we have a more traditional caddy by Hung Chong & Company of Canton, circa 1890. Directly above was have a pair of square 19th-century tea boxes by Tu Mao Xing, which are quite exquisite and have subtly incorporated just a hint of the prevalent Arts and Crafts movement in the West.

A tea set made by Tu Mao Xing, in the same design as the tea boxes pictured above.

This rather exquisite and elegant lobed pumpkin-form tea kettle by Luen Wo of ShangHai incorporates an array of traditional Chinese motifs, including the faux bamboo stand. It is interesting how what is essentially a very English object can merge so comfortably with an alien culture and look perfectly natural, yet to a Chinese eye, nothing could be less Chinese than this. But then the fashion for all things Chinoiserie was essentially a fantasy concept of how the West liked to see the Orient.

This is a splendidly made tea pot by Wang Hing. The style of this pot became something unique to 19th century Chinese Export Silver and was copied by many makers. It takes the form of a piece of prunus tree trunk that has a vertical section removed to reveal the woodgrain. Sometimes the indented section is textured to resemble moss.

Here we see exactly the same design in a set created by Sing Fat of Hong Kong. The origin of this design is vague but it is believed to highlight the fact that the reality of life is likened to gnarled wood compared with the surface beauty of the delicate prunus blossom. Wang Hing is considered by many to be the master of this style but there’s actually not much in it when one looks at the Sing Fat rendering.

Tea was a serious business in China and both America and England, so silver was a natural way to almost attach a glorification to the process of taking tea. Because tea was a luxury in the West and revered in China, how it was stored had be in keeping with the position it had.

The Chinese Gongfu cha tea ceremony is not as intricate and stylized as its Japanese contemporary but it requires skill and precision to ensure that the flavor of the tea is the best possible. Close attention is paid to the ingredients and equipment. The best tea is used and spring water, bottled if they don’t have their own nearby spring. Tea is mixed in a clay pot and water boiled in either a glass or clay kettle. The ceremony should take place in a calm, peaceful place, preferably with soothing music.

These rather wonderful sugar tongs are by Sun Shing of Canton, made circa 1834. The tongs interestingly carry not only the maker’s mark of Sun Shing but the London hallmark of David Lark with the date mark for 1834. The faux bamboo motif was often used by Chinese silversmiths when making tongs.

This selection of strainers above show the makers’ ingenuity. The pleasure they gave to use was immense.

The tea accoutrements in the 19th century were important as a statement in their own right as was the quality of tea served. Every single tea accessory was incorporated into the Chinese Export Silver family of objects, including tongs and tea strainers, which were a Chinese Export Silver maker’s delight: they could run riot with their imagination since they were rarely made to match a tea set; they were an object in their own right.

But nothing quite prepares one for what must have been the ultimate Chinese Export Silver tea set ever made (below). Created by Lee Ching of Canton, it was made as a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm I on the occasion of the 25th wedding anniversary of the German Crown Prince and Princess, Jan. 25, 1883. Stunningly decorated in utmost detail, the set weighs 15,200 grams and was sold quite recently for €144,000.

Created by Lee Ching of Canton, it was made as a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm I on the occasion of the 25th wedding anniversary of the German Crown Prince and Princess, Jan. 25, 1883. Stunningly decorated in utmost detail, the set weighs 15,200 grams and was sold quite recently for €144,000

“Tea tempers the spirits and harmonizes the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thought and prevents drowsiness, lightens or refreshes the body, and clears the perceptive faculties.”

— Confucius, circa 500 B.C.

“You have filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake. I am known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far.”

— Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; and to Kunsthaus Lempertz, Cologne; IGEOR, Montreal; I.M. Chait, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles; Peter Lastre, Sweden.

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 “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

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