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CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: A COMPLEX COMPOSITE – A HYBRID
With my research now well into its 8th year, not only has so much additional information been amassed but it has dramatically changed my understanding of the complexities that make up the silver category we have come to know as Chinese Export Silver. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a well-used proverb but in the context of my own familiarity with Chinese Export Silver nothing could be further from the truth – it has allowed me to have a more intuitive understanding of its complexities.
It will be clear to anyone perusing the catalogued entries in my latest book that the collective Chinese Export Silver repertoire was a highly diverse one; for this reason the book opens with the word:
Only when one sees the vast array of the singularity each silversmith manifested can one realise that this silver category is by far the most multifarious that has ever existed. Spending most of my waking day researching, writing or talking about Chinese history – a sinologist, if you will – I am quite possibly the first person to say out loud that anything Chinese by default has to be complex. That in no way is intended to be derogatory; on the contrary, it is intended as a compliment to one of the oldest civilisations on earth.
My research has highlighted that the perception, appreciation and understanding of Chinese Export Silver is quite different in the West to that in China. All the preceding historical research into this silver category failed to consider that a Western mindset might interpret Chinese culture differently to how the Chinese themselves perceive it; they are two totally different mindsets, after all. This failure [and I have been equally to blame at times] and the realisation that a failure has occurred concerns me; it displays what could be construed as a remnant of that all too ugly colonialist mindset that many Westerners had towards anything that was regarded as alien culture. ‘Alien’ does not have a default meaning of being inferior; it is simply ‘other’ and often it is ‘superior’.
So a reassessment of this silver category is necessary because the prevalent perception of it is, in the main, wrong from both the Western and the Chinese points of view.
One of the most noticeable differences between how China and the West approaches Chinese Export Silver has to be in how identification is established. For over 50 years Western experts have almost exclusively focused on the English silver marks, while any Chinese marks are largely ignored or simply referred to as being “Chinese character marks”. For over 50 years, Western descriptions refer to the English marks as being those of the “maker”. Almost without exception, the English mark will refer to the name of the retail silversmith, in most cases not an actual person’s name but a manufactured trading name intended to be auspicious rather than informative.
The Chinese character mark will invariably be the mark of the actual artisan silversmith and is frequently accompanied by a statement of silver purity. In the absence of any formal assay system in China, such purity marks exist on the whim of the artisan or retail silversmith. However, it is a whim formulated from their knowledge that raw silver was derived from mainly melted psych ingots or silver trade dollars.
The Chinese mark is therefore the most relevant and because of this Chinese collectors and dealers use it not only to identify a piece but also to judge its merit. The same benchmark exists for other world silver categories – the fact an item might carry the mark of Paul Storr, for example, tells us of its supreme quality, the fact it may also carry marks for Garrard the London court retail jeweller and silversmith is simply a further endorsement of quality.
Frustratingly, much of the earlier Chinese Export Silver of the late 18th and early 19th century that was made in Canton carries so-called pseudo-hallmarks and invariably excludes any reference to the artisan silversmith. It is frustrating because some of the finest example of the skill of Chinese silversmiths are to be found in this early neo-classical silver. The absence of any Chinese mark and the style much of this silver took is why the majority of Chinese collectors have yet to discover its uniqueness and its sheer genius. For a Cantonese silversmith who most likely never ever left the confines of the alleys of the silver district of old Canton to be able to produce silver of a quality and style that rivals the finest London or Birmingham silversmiths should be a testament to the supreme artistry of these silversmiths. That alone should make it worthy of having a place of honour in Chinese cultural history since it is no mean feat.
Canton, however, was not the only silver making centre in China; Shanghai, Jiujang, Tianjin [Tienstin] and Beijing had established working silversmiths, many of whom could trace the existence of their workshops back to at least the 17th century. An Imperial city could not have existed without silversmiths and Beijing was no exception. The style of silver created there during the Chinese Export Silver years was often quite different to items created anywhere else in China, often incorporating another traditionally Beijing art – enamel work. It is only in recent years have we begun to become reacquainted with the highly skilled masters of their art. Collectively, their silver exclusively carried Chinese character marks and was certainly of equal quality of workmanship to their Canton counterparts and it is only recently that Western auction houses and dealers have begun to understand this. Yet this silver which carries only Chinese marks is considered to be Chinese Export Silver. None of this silver took a blatantly classical Western style and prior to 1842 Shanghai, Jiujiang, Beijing and Tianjin had no direct connection with the China Trade. Knowing this, Westerners would do well to question the wisdom of imposing a title on a silver category that is not wholly befitting and the Chinese would do well to throw off the shackles of the stigma which has arisen as a result of the silver title they had no part in creating.
It was partially the dynamic of East meeting West during what we now term the ‘China Trade’ period that gave birth to the phenomenon of what we have come to call ‘Chinese Export Silver’.
Chinese Export Silver is probably the most inappropriate name that could have ever been tagged to this silver category for reasons this book will explain in detail; it is a title conferred upon it by American researchers in the 1960s in the context of Chinese silver that happened to be in America as a direct result of American merchants’ involvement in the China Trade. Chinese Export Silver actually never exclusively did what it says on the can. There is, however, Chinese silver that was made with the export market in mind just as there was Chinese silver that found its way to the West through other circumstances. The same silversmiths made all Chinese silver and the same centuries of inherited expertise was applied to make it. But the phenomenon that gave birth to Chinese Export Silver is far more complex than just its connection with the China Trade.
To state that Chinese Export Silver did not happen overnight is a good starting point. China has always been the most populous country on earth and this presented its own unique problems that other empires and nations did not have to face, namely creating a viable economic system that could sustain and service such a large population. The result is that China was the only nation to continually use silver as the foundation of its economy, using silver ingots as a medium for exchange since the Han Dynasty and only abandoning it as late as 1935 along with Hong Kong. The Chinese word for “bank” is 銀行 – literally meaning “silver house” – there lies the clue.
The amount of silver pouring into the Ming treasury was in the region of $190 billion in today’s values. The Ming dynasty was responsible for over 30% of the entire world’s GDP.
While China, under the Ming Dynasty, was virtually inundated with silver, we see a decline in the amount of important silver objects being produced, but it was the Qing Dynasty that brought the centuries of Chinese silver making to a new level of refinement and the phenomenon we know today as Chinese Export Silver.
China’s centuries-old constancy in declaring its self-sufficiency, it seems at odds with its dependency on vast supplies of silver from South America. Between 1780-1820, Mexico was producing almost 80% of the world’s silver and the lion’s share of this was always destined for China. It is not by coincidence that the Chinese Export Silver manufacturing period began in 1785. However, between the years 1810-1820, there was a serious decline in Mexican output amounting to a drop of over 50% in the amount of mined silver; the cause was the civil chaos resulting from the strive for independence in Mexico. This not only reduced the amount of silver available for China to acquire but it had serious implications on established trades other nations had with China, for example the tea and silk trade that Britain generated. Britain now had far less silver available to fulfil its needs. Less silver in Britain drove up the price of fine silver wares produced by English and Scottish silversmiths and the ripple effect of this caused a steep rise in demand for silver wares from Canton. Despite its own shortages, China had far more available bullion than Britain or any other country on earth, Chinese silversmiths demanded a fraction of the price of a London or Birmingham silversmith and the quality of Canton craftsmanship was on a par with the best in Britain. With Chinese silversmiths demanding only a fraction of the price asked by London or Birmingham silversmiths, the economic reasons for the rise in Chinese production of neo-classical “Georgian” silver wares is clear.
British merchants in Canton knew this, so did the ever-wily sea captains. This, therefore, is the main reason why we are aware of so much Chinese silver made in this period in the neo-classical “Georgian” style. It is this combined dynamic that caused such an outpouring of pseudo-English silver from Canton to Britain and to Massachusetts Bay in America.
However, this reality was not necessarily how it was portrayed in China. While the decline in South American raw silver production did have a negative effect on the imbalance of payments, there was also the parallel phenomenon of a steep rise in the “requirement” of opium in China. As a result, opium presented a convenient scapegoat for the Imperial court to blame for all its woes. The Qing Dynasty was trying desperately against all odds to stay in power yet the Emperor was increasingly more helpless and embarrassed at the fast declining economy. The Qing court had an underlying fault line that plagued the entire period of the dynasty. While China’s population grew exponentially, the size of the governing court had always been unrealistically small; 1834 saw China’s population edge past the 400 million mark. The Qing did not have an effective administrative infrastructure to manage its population and the geographical remoteness of its northern capital left it six weeks arduous journey away from where the China Trade was actually happening in the south at Canton.
The ‘fanqui’ [foreign devils] presented the Qing with a perfect scapegoat. The resultant splits within the Imperial Court, the incessant pressure from the British government and a Chinese navy that was unfit for purpose against what was then a state-of-the-art British fleet culminated in defeat for China in the first Opium War.
The resultant Treaty of Nanking in 1842 changed the trading landscape of China forever and brought shame on the Chinese nation. The Qing retaliated by laying the blame solely on opium; the diminished silver equation was conveniently eradicated from the annals of Chinese history.
The dynamic didn’t end there, though. From 1855 onwards, the supply of silver bullion began a speedy recovery and from 1856 and over the next 30 years, the Chinese economy was firmly back in the black despite an unprecedented rise in demand for opium – a fact that should have placed a question mark over the plausibility of laying blame solely on opium.
The “shame” factor was a reaction that highlighted the significant cultural difference between the West and China as well as its differing mindsets. Miànzi 面子 is almost impossible to fully translate into English; many words such as ‘honour’, ‘self-respect’, ‘reputation’ and ‘social-standing’ relate to it. Unlike its nearest Western counterpart, miànzi in China is not simply ‘saving face’; it is a complex sociological and psychological science that most Westerners fail to grasp due to its alien concept and the emotions it engenders. Miànzi is an integral and essential part of Chinese etiquette to the point where it could be said to be part of China’s DNA. A Westerner would automatically place a total emphasis on the literal meaning of spoken words whereas in China one would expect an intuitive sensitivity to what was precisely intended or implied.
‘A man has his face just as a tree has its bark; a man has a sense of shame’ is one of many Chinese idioms that reflect on miànzi. It demonstrates that in Chinese culture, miànzi is regarded as a physical entity. It is, if you will, a middle layer between the inner soul and the outer manifestation of self – using the analogy of a tree, a mediating or reconciling layer that sits just below the bark and above the sap.
Words and actions in China, therefore, have an additional dynamic which is tantamount to being an extra sense that Westerners lack. Blaming opium and the fanqui have become the de facto reason due to the way history has been portrayed rather than its original intention or implication; we have all simply got used to that without really questioning it.
The 1842 treaty, the change in the silver fortunes of the Qing Dynasty and the rapid shift in the focus of trade from Canton to Hong Kong and Shanghai created the combined engine that drove a new era of the Chinese economy. This, as always, manifested itself in the silver wares that were produced – a new era of Western forms “in the Chinese style”. The 1842 treaty not only changed China and the China Trade forever but it also fuelled a new-found pride in the West for all things “oriental” to celebrate and commemorate their perceived victory. It also fuelled a whole new momentum in the growth in number of affluent Chinese, particularly in Hong Kong and Shanghai, most of whom felt embracing a Western lifestyle was an appropriate way of demonstrating their affluence.
Shanghai before the treaty was a port city that had evolved over 1000 years alongside mudflats on the Huangpu [Wangpoo] River. As part of the treaty, 183 acres of hitherto undeveloped riverfront land were given over to the autonomous control of the British who were then allowed to broker and manage that land as they saw fit. The Shanghai Municipal Council was the eventual result of what was known as the “International Settlement”.
As with the term ‘Chinese Export Silver’, ‘International Settlement’ implies one thing whilst the reality was something quite other; despite a huge initial rush, foreigners never counted for more than 4% of Shanghai’s population. The real catalyst that lit the touch paper of and caused the rapid expansion of affluent Shanghai to occur came 11 years after the signing of the treaty that created it – the Taiping Rebellion in 1853 and the capture of old Shanghai caused a vast influx of wealthy Chinese into the International Settlement because of the protection it afforded. Although never intended as such, many Chinese stayed and made their home their. Whereas in 1852, land in the settlement area sold for £50 an acre, 10 years later the same land was selling for £10,000 an acre. Fortunes were made in land and property development and speculation.
By 1911, the original 183 acre site had expanded to 5,583 acres. The neighbouring French Concession had expanded by almost 16 times its original size to 2520 acres. Vast new wealth was generated in these areas, much of it by the ascendant and fast-expanding Chinese middle class.
In Hong Kong, although driven by vastly different factors than those of Shanghai, the city grew at an alarmingly fast pace and the same wealth-generating machine created an unprecedented growth in affluence.
The rate of wealth generation in Shanghai and Hong Kong could not be readily known about or even understood in established European and American cities unless it had been witnessed at first hand. The sheer volume of affluence and the lifestyles it promulgated have largely gone under the radar or been forgotten over the course of time. Throughout this time period we can see through the stylistic changes in Chinese silver wares that the demand was locally generated and a direct consequence of the rising levels of affluence. Instead of the early 19th century pseudo-Georgian silver that came out of Canton for export, a somewhat parochial pseudo-Chinese style quickly evolved that manifested as cocktail shakers sets and tea sets that serviced the local nouveau-riche rather than their Western counterparts.
While the Western world is well aware of the late 19th/early 20th century rise of the department store, few would know that the Chinese Wing On Company and Sincere are contemporaries of Harrods, Galeries Layfayette, Selfridges, Macy’s, Bloomingdales, David Jones and Kaufhaus des Westens [KaDeWe]. Early 20th century Hong Kong and Shanghai had sufficiently large affluent sections of society to sustain not only these two stores, large even by Western standards, but several others as well. Shanghai and Hong Kong had significantly large affluent middle class populations that spent money as freely as any Western capital city, if not more.
One must also factor into this complex equation the demise of the clipper sailing ships and the introduction of steam ships. Whereas clipper ships required physical ballast that mainly consisted of small cargoes, steamships required water as ballast. Within the context of the China Trade, silver wares were always a ballast cargo and as such it theoretically travelled free of charge. The phased introduction of steamships coincided with the opening of the Suez Canal which reduced the physical journey length to Britain by 7000 kilometres. These two phenomena occurring in parallel to the rise of the Chinese affluent middle class were responsible for significant changes in the silver style being produced in China.
Bearing this in mind, realigns our perspective of where much of the silver wares manufactured in China from 1890-1930 were sold and for whom they were intended. My own view is that had the word “export” not been applied in the 1960’s, this unique silver category would be perceived entirely differently today, particularly so in China.
In China, since the inception of the Cultural Revolution, many artefacts connected with the Qing Dynasty are not officially considered important items of historical heritage. To Westerners this probably seems strange and in fact the reality is that it is, but for well over half a century, this official mindset has had a drip-down effect on the collective perception of an entire nation. The amount of silver items produced in China in the 155 year manufacturing period of Chinese Export Silver was vast, yet a visit to the National Museum in Beijing yields not one example of late 18th, 19th or 20th century Chinese silver! What is effectively a conscious censorship of artistic and creative heritage items will eventually take its toll on the nation’s collective awareness.
Chinese silver from the latter half of the 19th century was, more often than not, decorated with traditional Chinese motifs, however it is important to remember that what might be perceived as being “exotic” in the West is imbued with rich allegorical meaning when seen through Chinese eyes. It is this fusion of two cultures and two hemispheres that makes Chinese Export Silver so special; it reveals an intricate cultural history as well as a frozen snapshot in time of the period each particular silver item was made.
No other silver category delivers this.
Knowing this, one surely needs to think more seriously about who this silver was created for. If all this silver was supposedly made for export, why was such care taken to preserve the integrity of the allegorical decorative motifs and scenes when the meaning would have been unapparent to a Westerner.
Putting all this into the context of Chinese Export Silver, the Chinese generally know little about it and if they do it is quite likely they perceive it with a degree of resentment because it might come with reminders of past history they would rather not remember. This is further exacerbated by the title “Chinese Export Silver”; which conveys a message to many Chinese that it was never intended for them and therefore they feel no affinity with it.
It is my hope that over the next few years will shall see a renewed Chinese awareness of a very important part of its heritage and history. The Chinese generally have not been subjected to the fact that silver-making is as integral to Chinese cultural history as the porcelain they are very aware of; both having their roots in the Han Dynasty. Unlike Chinese ceramics, silverwares evolved in China due to centuries of outside influences that entered via the Silk Road, making for a far more complex primordial soup which eventually gave birth to an immediately recognisable and fully-formed Chinese style.
Despite the noticeable growth in awareness of Chinese Export Silver over the past three years, there is still some reluctance by auction houses in the West accepting that the 155-year production of this silver was vast. Production could even have rivalled in size that of the British Georgian silver-making era. Whilst I have respect for most auction houses, some continue in a state of denial over the size and significance of Chinese silver that survived the turbulent years of history, which I regard as tantamount to an ‘ostrich in the sand’ attitude.
It is estimated that there could be as many as 50,000 artisans who worked over the 155 years that span the Chinese Export Silver period and it is these artisans, their styles and their respective silver marks which form the next stage of my research and which, unlike the majority of work that went into this volume, will be carried out in China. The emerging results of this new research will be a huge but necessary database; the new database promises to reveal many new fascinating facts and stories of life in China and the world of silver in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Focusing on the numbers, this represents an extraordinary outpouring of creativity, so much so that it would be in order to regard the entire manufacturing period as a Chinese Renaissance.
In the West the phoenix is symbolic of regeneration and renewal. The Chinese have the fènghuáng which although it may resemble a phoenix to a Western eye, has a far more complex allegorical meaning. It is a symbol of high virtue and grace and also symbolises the union of yin and yang. Each part of the fenghuang’s body symbolises a word, the head represents virtue [德], the wing represents duty [義], the back represents propriety [禮], the abdomen says credibility [信] and the chest represents mercy [仁]. Having been associated with the Chinese for over 8000 years, one could say it represents the collective soul of the Chinese even though in times past it was the symbol of the Imperial house. Dynasties fall; the Chinese soul doesn’t.
Described as a compound of many birds that includes the head of a golden pheasant, the body of a mandarin duck, the tail of a peacock, the legs of a crane, the mouth of a parrot, and the wings of a swallow, in this respect it can be likened to Chinese Export Silver; a complex composite – a hybrid.
In the 21st century, the world is changing fast. While Western nations, whether singly or collectively, still often behave as if they are superior powers capable of being in the driving seat, China has quietly turned itself around in the most dramatic way; a way that could not have been achieved in or by the West. Anyone who has ever carried out historical research into China will know that 21st century China is simply mirroring 18th and 19th century China and the highly innovative Sung Dynasty period.
Chinese Export Silver always adapted to the realities of Chinese history; it was, after all, a product of that history. No other important silver category has been created as a direct result of political history and national protectionism.
Chinese Export Silver is an excellent indicator of the history of the times in which it was created. In that respect it has an affinity with earlier Chinese silver from the Tang and Sung Dynasties where the external influences are clearly manifested in the silver that was produced until what we would recognise as a definitive Chinese style had fully evolved.
One cannot adequately research Chinese Export Silver in isolation of the complex history of the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries in China. That history is made all the more convoluted because of the relentless succession of foreign influences and pressures that were brought to bear on China’s shoulders. There are further complications that come into play because of the difference between the culture of China and that of Western countries which between themselves also differ somewhat; in no stretch of the imagination can it be said the culture of Russia or Germany are the same as that of America. The culture of all three at the that time was in different place than today, not withstanding Germany and Russia were both empires.
It has often been said that the Chinese approach to life has similarities with Chinese opera. Perhaps the same could be said of Chinese silver, given its almost perpetual complex history is played out in the silver.
An item of Chinese Export Silver is never just a piece of silver; it is a rich cultural narrative!
Written by Adrien von Ferscht, January 2016
Honorary Research Fellow, Scottish Centre for China Research, University of Glasgow
Senior Researcher, Tsinghua University, Department of History, Institute of Humanities
Academic Committee Member, Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture, Beijing Normal UniversityClick here for reuse options!
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