Meta-Museum – The Art of the Chinese Dragon Late 19th Century Style

The dragon is probably the most-used symbol in all forms of Chinese art and mythology. The dragon represents the “yang’, while the phoenix [fènghuáng] represents the “ying”.

Chinese dragons traditionally symbolise potent and auspicious powers – powers that are capable of controlling water, rainfall, hurricanes and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, great strength and good luck – hence, traditionally, the dragon was used as the symbol of Imperial power.

Today, in modern China, the dragon is still revered and it is totally taboo to disfigure an image of a dragon.

It is not surprising that as Chinese Export Silver developed from being faithful copies of traditional European silver, they became more and more overtly Chinese in decoration. Here we see an impressive centerpiece made by Sing Fat, circa 1890. As late Victorian silver in the West tended, as all things Victorian, to be over-decorated as was the demands of the fashions of the day, one would be hard-pressed to imagine how any other Chinese motif could have been incorporated. Sing Fat’s master silversmithing at it’s best. The main body is awash with auspicious Chinese motifs – bamboo, prunus blossom, chrysanthemum, pheasants and other birds.

The dragon handles on this piece are typical of the 1890’s. As with parallel English silversmiths, silver workshops existed in China that created high-quality components that were incorporated by master silversmiths into stunning objects. This does not denigrate the item – far from it – the main body of this piece is supreme silver excellence and if the handles were supplied by a factor, they are of equal qulaity. This self-same dragon handle manifests itself so often in Chinese Export Silver pieces that exists today.

Here we see a teaset made by Kan Mao Hsing who operated, unlike many of the “mainstream” silversmiths of the time, in Jiujang [Kiukang]. Kan Mao Hsing’s work was always of a consistent high quality. One can’t help wondering if it was he who was the

manufacturing high quality components for the Canton and Shanghai-based master silversmiths – the handles on this teaset are uncannily similar to the Sing Fat piece. Jiujang was one of the three major tea importing centers in China and strategically situated on the Yangtse River, so transporting via Canton and Shanghai would have been relatively easy given the thousands of cargo boats that plied the river in the late 19th century.

Weighing 1815gm and measuring 45.7cm length x 26.7cm width x 19cm height, the Sing Fat centerpiece was recently sold at the acclaimed Hong Kong-based Hanlin Gallery for Oriental Art. The teaset was discovered in a storage loft in London and sold recently in an Edinburgh auction house.

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