Meta-Museum – A RARE CHINESE EXPORT SILVER “MEGILLAH” FIT FOR A QUEEN 中國出口銀 复杂事情 女王/王后的适合

A RARE CHINESE EXPORT SILVER “MEGILLAH” FIT FOR A QUEEN

                                                                                                                                中國出口銀 复杂事情女王/王后的适合

 

It was back in August that I wrote about a megillah made by Wang Hing that at the time I thought was unique and it’s perhaps rather ironic that I find myself writing about a megillah

that not only outshines it, but it happens to be Chanukah! The megillah in question appears in an important Judaica sale at Sotheby’s, New York this month.

To many people it will seem incongruous that a 19th century Chinese silversmith would have created such an object, but it’s not as strange as it might initially appear. But firstly we need to see this important scroll.

The scroll case is hexagonal in form and is decorated in alternate prunus and bamboo motifs executed in exquisite blue and green cloisonné against a matted ground topped by a matching dome with berry finial. The handle is fashioned as a bamboo stem; the scroll is of parchment. The overall length is 22cm. The scroll carries the mark of the Canton Chinese Export Silver maker we know as “Gothic K” who operated between 1840-1875 – documentation for the maker’s real name has never yet been found. There is an additional “chopmark” in Chinese characters of the artisan who carried out the work.

To give it its correct name “Megillat Esther” – the scroll of Esther – is by tradition read at the festival of Purim. It is the biblical Book of Esther – the story of the Jewish Queen Esther who was married the Persian King Ahasueras, probably better known as Xerxes the Great [in Hebrew  אֲחַשְׁוֵרשׁ] the story being a rather ironic, yet dramatic tale of how Esther reveals the treachery of Haman against her people to Xerxes that results in deliverance for the Jews of Persia.

So here we have an item of 19th century Judaica that has a very specific ritual usage yet takes a pure Chinese form and was made in Canton; as I’ve previously mentioned, this isn’t as incongruous as it might appear – in fact, the use of Chinese motifs and cloisonné is both highly relevant and appropriate.

Silversmithing was an art the Sephardi Jews excelled at. The work of Jewish silversmiths was highly prized by the Romans and we also know that Sephardi silversmiths were operating in Carthage in the 7th century AD. Sassania had a significant Jewish population, silversmithing and minting being professions Jews were allowed to follow and one where they became to be regarded as highly skilled. Jews also had built up a tradition of being traveling merchants on both the Silk Route and the Spice Route, making it highly likely the Sassanian silver that was popular with the Tang dynasty was brought to China by Jewish merchants; some of it also probably made by Jewish silversmiths. Sassania encompasses modern-day Iran and is mentioned in the Book of Esther as Shushan, the then capital.

Chinese silver of the Tang dynasty has particular Persian influences. China had no history, per se, of fine metalworking. It therefore had to have been acquired and the Silk Road was the answer. This ever-open trading artery brought vast numbers of merchants. It also brought artisans. Some of the merchants were also the artisans; among them were the Sassanian Jewish silvermakers.

It is highly likely the “eclectic” aesthetics of designs that emanate from the Tang period can be put down to the fact that Chang’an, the capital, became an extremely wealthy and cosmopolitan city, inhabited by Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians and Nestorians. This multi-culturalism was reflected in the objects artisans created and is indicative of how such an introspective nation could at the same time be tolerant to other beliefs and cultures. This introspection acted like a blotting paper, absorbing the best of everywhere and molding it to something uniquely Chinese.

It is during the early Song dynasty that we see a noticeable change in the style of Chinese silver created; it begins to be distinctively Chinese in feel and veers away from its Sassanian and Mediterranean influences. It is also at this time that a significant number of Jews migrate, purchase land in Kaifeng, build a synagogue there and thrive. Stelae found in Kaifeng show the Jews there wrote Hebrew in the Palmyrian style making it highly likely they came from Sassania where there was a long-established Jewish population; a population that had begun to be harassed. It would be reasonable to assume that Jews who regularly traded within China on the Silk Route would have identified Kaifeng as a place where they could relocate. More importantly, it was a place where they could feasibly thrive; meaning they could ply their various trades – the most prominent trades being silversmithing and cloth.

Jews were also known to have been living in China from the 2nd century AD after the destruction of the second temple. But the fact the Sassanian Jews had never returned to Jerusalem is evident by the synagogue they built in Kaifeng that we see here.  It followed exactly the footprint of the first temple – meaning they had no knowledge of the layout of the second temple. The religion they practiced was therefore pre-Hasmonean – a religion quite different from Judaism as we know it today. Pre-Hasmonean Jews did not celebrate the festival of Chanukah because it is related to the destruction of the 2nd temple – a temple the Sassanian Jews had no knowledge of.

The Emperor regarded this form of Judaism as akin to Confucianism and Kaifeng’s Jews found it easy to adhere to Confucianism since it didn’t require the recognition of a new Messiah or prophet and there was no need to give up the rules of keeping kosher or observing holydays.

It is reasonable to assume that such a sea-change in the look and feel of silver being produced in the early Song dynasty was caused by a catalyst. It could well be that catalyst was the arrival in Kaifeng of the Jewish Sassanian silversmiths. Those silversmiths and their work would have been recognised by the Court and encouraged and patronised. The Jews in Kaifeng did flourish and they could only have done that from artisan work or trade. We also know from records that the Kaifeng Jews were allowed to intermarry, so apart from actually teaching the art of silversmithing to Chinese artisans intermarrying could also have allowed the “family” skill to be passed to non-Jewish generations; Jews were also the only non-Sino people that were allowed to marry into the Imperial family and court.

The Chinese way is for generations to hand down artisan skills through the family line. The Chinese were adept at accumulating expertise, honing it and excelling at it.

In the years I have been carrying out research into both Chinese Export Silver and the History of the Jews in China – two separate researches that cross paths, I have never seen a Chinese Export Silver menorah. Although rare,any Chinese Export Silver I have ever seen has always been overtly Chinese in decoration, whereas Chinese Export Silver of the period this particular megillah was made is often faithful copies of Western silver. It is reasonable to deduce that this megillah was either made as a commissioned piece for a Sephardi Jewish client, probably Baghdad or Bombay, or it was made for an affluent Jewish family actually living or trading in China. We know that Chinese Jews, even though they may have become secular and assimilated, often stayed in the professions their families originally had, passing the artisan skills from generation to generation in the Chinese [and Jewish] tradition. The real identity of the person behind the Gothic K maker’s mark has never been known; it is not inconceivable the maker had Jewish roots.

During the early to mid-19th century there was a wave of Jews who either settled in Shanghai or Hong Kong, understanding the opportunities open to them as a result of the Treaty of Nanking. Sephardi Jews arrived in China as a result of the Opium War and the subsequent upsurge of trade with Britain.  Coming to China from British-controlled places such as Baghdad, Bombay, and Singapore, most of them were merchants and businessmen with British citizenship. Originally from Baghdad, the Sassoon family first shifted their operations eastward to India and then went on to become the first Jews to establish firms and engage in business in Hong Kong [1841] and Shanghai [1845].  In the wake of the Sassoons, other Sephardi merchants originally from Baghdad such as Hardoons and Kadoories came to China to seek their fortunes.  As external trade centers open to foreign countries, Hong Kong and Shanghai became their leading bases for business. They soon revealed their commercial talents, taking advantage of their traditional contacts with various British dependencies as well as the favorable geographic location of Shanghai and Hong Kong to develop a thriving import – export trade from which they quickly amassed a great amount of wealth.

 So the megillah in question is not incongruous at all. Whoever commissioned the piece had, for whatever reason, an understanding and, most probably, an appreciation of Chinese aesthetics while retaining a deep affinity to their Jewish faith and traditions. This megillah is a marriage of two styles – not dissimilar to the duality of the two cultures of the story the scroll imparts; Persian and Jewish. I feel reasonably confident in believing the commissioner of the piece could trace their roots back to Sassanian [Susa/Shushan] where the story originates. We should also be mindful of the fact that some members of the Chinese Imperial Court could also trace their roots to the very same place.

The final irony is I write this at Chanukah, a festival the Sassanian and Kaifeng Jews had no knowledge of and probably the reason I have never come across a Chinese Export Silver menorah!

Sotheby’s catalogue the piece as being late 19th century. It is more likely to be mid-19th century, given the maker, the years he operated in and the extraordinary level of craftsmanship.

The sale and catalogue link: A Rare Chinese Silver-Gilt and Enamel Esther Scroll Case, late 19th century – Sotheby’s

Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow, Scottish Centre for China Studies & School of Culture and Creative Arts – researching: “The History of Chinese Export Silver Within the Context of 1200 Years of Chinese Silvermaking”

He acts as an independent consultant to museums, auction houses, private collectors and academics around the world

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