Meta-Museum – CHINESE EXPORT SILVER – The Enigma of the Makers’ Marks

CHINESE EXPORT SILVER – THE ENIGMA OF THE MAKERS’ MARKS

Having just carried out extensive research into Chinese Export Silver makers, one word comes to mind that best describes the makers’ marks many of us have become familiar with: ENIGMA!

We glibly refer to familiar makers such as Wang Hing and Hung Chong as “he”, yet invariably there is no he. The majority of makers’ marks do not allude to the man behind the mask.  My research has also highlighted that this is not unexpected, since the Chinese culture is vastly different to that of the western world and part of that culture is to have a “trading name” or “stage name”, as it were, that evokes good luck in the venture to which that name is attached.

I think an article that appeared in The China Magazine in December 1868 is probably the best and most amusing way to describe both the nature of the culture as well as the mystery of the silversmith’s name. It is an insight into the world of the silversmith Lee Ching [Leeching] who had a retail shop at 24a Queens Road in Hong Kong and is generally understood to have operated between 1840-1880.

Right: A circa 1850 Lee Ching drinking mug

 

 

Here are excerpts; the spelling and grammar is that of the original text:
“Like the Silversmiths in other climes, our Chinese Silversmith is highly respectable and does his business in a highly respectable shop. His shop looks supremely down upon all other China shops, through a glass window. As a rule there are no glass windows to China shops—nothing but an opening, but our Silversmiths wares are valuable, and Chinese thieves have a clever knack of hooking things on to the end of a long bamboo and disappearing with them, and Lee-ching’s glass window is intended to keep temptation from such people. There is nothing in the window—no recherche articles displayed to the best advantage, with seductive price tickets loaded with superlative adjectives. If you want to see Lee-ching’s wares you must go inside the shop. Inside we go.”

“Chin chin !  says Lee-ching, under the impression that ‘ chin chin’ is English for “the top of the morning to you.” When I say Lee-ching I mean one of the shopmen, any of whom will tell you that his name is Lee-ching, that that is his shop, and that he made all the things in it, whereas Lee-ching is not a man’s name at all, any more than Great Western Railway Company is a man’s name. It is what, in Chino-English, is called the Shop name. Chinese Shop names, as a rule, give no clue whatever to the kind of business done; they are usually something nice, some fanciful idea, some moral precept.”

“When A Sing, A Lee and A Tsun set themselves up in business, they do not style themselves A Sing & Co, but the ” House of Benevolence and Love ” the “Hall of dazzling Light” the “Four points of the Compass” or some such name. Lee-ching means, Increasing profit. Fancy Harry Emanuel calling himself ” A hundred per cent,” or Swan and Edgar advertising their business as ” The Hall of domestic Felicity“! A Chinaman who could read English would discover a parallel to the custom of his own countrymen in the advertisements headed “Why give more” “Beautiful for ever” and “Do you bruise your Oats? ” which expressions he would be sure to regard as Shop-names. I scarcely think these Shop-names should be regarded as the ‘style or firm’ under which the partners carry on their business. It would seem to me to be a more exact parallel to call the Shop-name the sign of tlte house. As Will Watkyns of the old time, carried on his furriers business at the sign of the Golden horse shoe, so A Sing and A Tsun of today carry on their business at the sign of  Increasing profit.”

If we can understand this cultural anomaly we can equally understand it doesn’t alter the fat that Chinese Export Silver, in general, produced silver of extraordinary quality – the Lee Ching 1850 mug illustrated attests to that.

The early 20th century saw several large emporia and department stores opening in Shanghai and Hong Kong, among them Wing On and Sincere & Co; we know both for their silver and their familiar maker’s marks. The type of silver items Wing On produced, for example, were not dissimilar to those created by contemporary department stores of the day who also had silver made using their own maker’s marks. The fact the silver was the product of a department store should not be a reason to denigrate the quality of workmanship. At the same period we have Liberty & Co in London having silver made by the highly reputable silversmith Wm. Haseler, with Selfridge & Co and Harrods both selling silver using their own hallmark. David Jones in Sydney and Tiffany & Co in New York  had silver created for them in exactly the same manner, in fact we know the latter actually had Wang Hing making for them for some 25 years.

Wang Hing – there’s another probable enigmatic name; my on going research indicates it is highly likely there was no such person as “Mr Wang Hing”.

Above: A Wang Hing circa 1900 drinking mug

I’ve mentioned Wm. Haseler; we regard William Hair Haseler highly, just as we regard the silver created for Liberty & Co that came from that manufactory. We would probably be hard-pressed to say which is the more important to us – the fact it is silver from Liberty & Co or Wm. Haseler!  Wm. Haseler Ltd had many high quality silversmiths working for them and the same must have been for most of the Chinese Export Silver makers. We probably just need to readjust our mindset and not refer to “he” when we talk of Wang Hing and other makers; “they” might be more appropriate! In a way, the Chinese makers were probably being more honest; most makers’ marks from the latter third of the 19th century onwards incorporated a “chopmark” of the artisan silversmith who physically worked the item. Personally, I feel the enigma all adds to the richness that is Chinese Export Silver.

© 2012, Adrien von Ferscht. All rights reserved.

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