META-MUSEUM:CHINESE EXPORT SILVER – Discovering the New Master Silversmith of Shanghai 中國出口銀器: 發現上海的新銀匠大師

Chinese Export Silver: Discovering the New Master Silversmith of Shanghai - Ning Zhao Ji

CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: Discovering the New Master Silversmith of Shanghai

 中國出口銀器: 發現上海的新銀匠大師

Having researched Chinese Export Silver for well over three years now, I was quick to realise very early on that anything connected with Chinese history and culture is likely to be complex, to say the least. I have since realised that it is probably the only dependable constant!

Shanghai in 1880 was a very different city to the heady cosmopolitan city that was oft-likened to Paris and Berlin just forty years hence. In the engraved picture in the header of this article, we see the elegant and traditional idyll of the Shanghai Tea Gardens as it was twenty years before the end of the 19th century.  It is widely believed these tea gardens were the “inspiration” for the “Willow Pattern” we know so well in the West.

The Treaty of Nanking, signed in 1842 between the Emperor of China and Queen Victoria, not only ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British but it created five treaty ports, of which Shanghai was one. This was the beginning of Shanghai’s steep upward curve to becoming an international city that did indeed rival Paris and Berlin by the 1920’s. But back in 1880, traditional China was still to be found in abundance, amongst it some extraordinary master silversmiths that could hold their own with the best of the old-school and better-known Cantonese silversmiths. The Treaty of Nanking was also the catalyst that created a marked increase in output of silver making for the Western market as well as a marked change in the style of that silver.

Shanghai Chinese merchants circa 1800

What were to be the last vestiges of traditional China could still be seen in Shanghai as we can see from this photograph of a group of Shanghai merchants taken around 1880. They have obviously prospered from the treaty port status, but we can also sense the other-worldliness of them compared to their Western counterparts.

While the artisan silversmiths were obviously the ones who had honed their individual skills to an extraordinarily high level, within the context of the world of Chinese Export Silver they were very much governed and carefully controlled in what they could and could not create by the retail silversmiths who commissioned the silver. It is the latter that we in the West tend to know by name and it is these we loosely refer to as the “makers” – their silver marks we have come to call “makers’ marks”. At the beginning of the article I used the word “complex”; what we tend to call the makers’ marks are generally the mark of the retail silversmith, the actual artisan maker’s mark is usually accompanying that mark in Chinese characters.

Luen Wo was probably considered the best and among the most successful retail silversmiths in Shanghai. Although not as prolific as its contemporary equivalent in Canton, Wang Hing, the quality was definitely on par. As with all Chinese retail silversmiths, Luen Wo used a bewildering number of artisan silversmiths, but one that stands out in terms of exceptional quality is one Ning Zhao Ji, whose mark appears alongside the Luen Wo mark reasonably frequently, as we can see below.

Ning Zhao Ji Luen Wo silver mark

Ning Zhao Ji’s work is of exceptional quality. His mark appears alongside several retail silversmiths and, unusually, it appears in conjunction with a Western company mark, Taylor & Company, which would immediately indicate that Ning Zhao Ji was a sought after silversmith.

Quite recently I was asked to identify a piece of Chinese Export Silver that had found its way to California. It was a piece of Ning Zhao Ji silver made for Taylor & Company in the form of a reticulated tazza that is both simple and extraordinary, even by Chinese Export Silver standards.

Ning Zhao Ji Chinese Export Silver tazza

Ning Zhao Ji and Taylor & Co maker's mark

Here we have that very tazza and the silver marks as they appear on the base. Dating from circa 1895, it reaches beyond some of the more predictable boundaries that Chinese Export Silver tends to exist within. There’s a general attention to detailing, from the faux bamboo outer rim to the positioning of the crane bird with the thick bamboo stem and the significance of the detailing of the exposed root system.

Ning Zhao Ji Chinese Export Silver tazza detailing

Even though the phoenix is considered the king of the birds in Chinese culture, the crane is the top-ranking bird, symbolic of both social status and longevity – the crane is considered to live for centuries according to Chinese mythology.

This tazza, simple as it might appear to an innocent observer, is overflowing with auspicious allegorical messages to the cognoscenti of Chinese visual imagery.

Because the crane is considered the number one bird, it was used as Imperial China’s highest distinction of court status – its inclusion on the badge of an Imperial official’s robes signified the wearer was of the highest possible rank. Often depicted alone, as in this tazza, signifies peerlessness. A lone crane standing upon a rock or a mound represents having attained the highest civil rank and to have achieved it by one’s own efforts.

It is highly likely this tazza contains a rebus that is telling us [or the original recipient] a highly auspicious message. Bamboo, or the Chinese “zhu” is a homophone for “to congratulate”. Bamboo, like the crane, is also symbolic of longevity. So one can safely assume this tazza is congratulating someone on reaching a significant age. The revealed root system of the bamboo  is representative of the virtuous qualities of a Confucian gentleman. The thick bamboo stem, because of its hollow centre, is indicative of a pure heart.

This tazza is particularly remarkable not only for its quality and the story its combined decorative treatment can tell, but also for the fact it was made for Taylor & Co. This was a company  that in its own way was remarkable; it also allows us to realise how much history and back story a piece of Chinese Export Silver is capable of carrying.

Taylor and Company was created in Tientsin in 1896 as a seemingly unlikely partnership between a Philadelphia man by the name of F.W.Sutterlee and an Austrian Jew by the name of Louis Spitzer who was a British citizen. The two men could be best described as entrepreneurial rogues; Sutterlee was manager of Kern,Sutterlee & Co in Philadelphia, who in January 1896, after the failure of the firm, sold thrice over by means of forged warehouse certificates, the same large stock of wool, then fled with the proceeds to Tientsin! Our Mr Spitzer, had been in trouble with the British police for being in possession of goods known to be stolen and likewise fled to Tientsin – it is unclear if the two sets of malpractice were connected. The two created the firm Taylor & Co in Tientsin and with them was a third man Baker, alias Parker, alias Taylor, who had been the warehouse clerk whose forgery of the certificates enabled Sutterlee to effect his swindle.

The signing of the Treaty Of Tientsin, 6th June 1859 - making Tientsin a treaty port

The Signing of the Treaty of Tientsin, 6th June 1859 – making Tientsin a treaty port

The two expert swindlers were subsequently joined by a third “expert”, a man called Leonard Etzel who was actually the brother of Spitzer – Etzel went to Hong Kong and Manila and engaged in the rather lucrative trade of selling arms to the Philippine insurgents after the outbreak of war between Spain and the United States in collusion with the American Consul in Singapore. This convoluted story is the stuff of movies but very much the reality of how Taylor & Co were to do business over the next 30 years and thrive as only a movie script could dictate!

So on the surface, Taylor & Co had set themselves up as the Western equivalent of a compradore – agents who negotiated on behalf of foreign firms doing business in the East. Within the context of the China Trade, compradores could become very powerful and immensely wealthy people – in the late 19th century Robert Hotung was chief compradore for Jardine, Matheson & Co and was believed to be the wealthiest man in Hong Kong by the time he was 35.

As for Taylor & Co, they were obviously very skilled at passing strategic brown envelopes under tables as they managed to procure incredibly substantial contracts including entire railroads, orders for warships for the Chinese and were even agents for some of the largest British and American banks and insurance companies in the East. In a Consular Report of the United States Consul General in Tientsin in 1897 there appears: “Messrs. Taylor & Co. have recently established themselves in Shanghai and Tientsin and their partners at this port have already gained a reputation for business integrity and sagacity”. It seems that Taylor & Co. had a way of winning the confidences of Consul Generals!

Ning Zhao Ji and Taylor & Co Chinese Export Silver bowl

And the silver? – it was probably a pet love of one of the rogues and it was sold at retail silversmiths in Singapore, Hong Kong and America. I know of no other silver category that can carry such a story, and this is not an isolated instance. What this says about Ning Zhao Ji is best left as a matter of conjecture, but it certainly shows signs of being a convoluted situation that might appeal to a fertile Chinese business mind. We can see that Taylor & Co had established themselves in Shanghai too – the home of Ning Zhao Ji.

Ning Zhao Ji and Taylor & Co Chinese Export Silver silvermark

Here [above] we have a typical and somewhat traditional late 19th century Chinese Export Silver bowl; typical in terms of the style but it does have exceptional qualities that other makers of similar bowls might lack. The fine hammer work of the planished ground is particularly good and the crispness of the repoussé chrysanthemum bloom and foliate motif make it stand out from the crowd as it were – the close-up image below gives a particularly clear view of the planished finish. Interestingly, this is another example of Ning Zhao Ji’s work for Taylor & Co.

The chrysanthemum is a member of the grouping of plants known as the Four Gentleman [sìjūnzì], Four Princely Plants and the Four Plants of Virtue. The chrysanthemum in combination with the prunus, orchid and bamboo, as is the case on the combined decorative motifs of this bowl, represent the four seasons of the year.

Ning Zhao Ji Chinese Export Silver bowl decoration

Chinese culture is almost obsessed with order and hierarchy and this results in an equal fascination bordering on the obsessive with numbers, with even numbers being considered  yīn, the feminine, as written in the Book of Changes [Yi Jing]. The four seasons is one of the most represented numeric combinations in Chinese art and any grouping of four is considered to be ideal for a balanced depiction.

Ning Zhao Ji Chinese Export Silver trophy goblet

The tradition of “four” was so powerful and strong in China that even Maoist China acknowledged its importance in its treatise the “Four Olds” [sìjìū] – old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits. They also instilled the importance of the “Four Kinds of Elements” – landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries and bad elements.

Another superlative example of Ning Zhao Ji’s work is this fine goblet [left], dated for 1884. This is a large goblet made as a presentation trophy for a bowling tournament held in Amoy [Xiamen], another treaty port, in 1884. But as Chinese silver goblets go, this displays a huge attention to detail and the silversmith’s love of his art, having successfully   created a fusion between Chinese traditional allegorical motifs and the high Victorian style. The chased dragon artfully entwined around the acanthus stem, the second dragon emerging from the clouds on the base and the copious work of the goblet cup are a testament to Ning Zhao Ji’s mastery not only of his art but also of his creative mind.

This goblet is also a piece of history of the China Trade. As a trophy, it was presented to T.G. Harkness. Thomas George Harkness worked for the Scottish merchant company Boyd & Company in Amoy as their accountant. A Scot from Dumfries in Scotland, Harkness was destined to have an exemplary  career in the China Trade, leaving Boyd & Co in 1889 and becoming the chief accountant for the giant of the China Trade, Jardine, Matheson, in Hong Kong.Chinese Export Silver: Boyd & Co. Amoy logo

Jardine, Matheson was a company built by Scottish merchants and Thomas Harkness may well have been known to the Jardine family since Sir William Jardine its co-founder also came from Dumfries and was the 7th Baronet of Applegirth, Dumfriesshire.Thomas Harkness, in later life, returned to Scotland and was appointed a Sheriff of Dumfries .

Ning Zhao Ji trophy goblet

Here, on the left, we have another example of Ning Zhao Ji’s “art of the goblet” in this 1884 cup also awarded to the very same Thomas Harkness for bowling, this time the place being Takao [in the South West of Taiwan, known as Kaohsiung today].

Boyd & Company were particularly active on Formosa, the former name of today’s Taiwan, where it is recorded as trading in opium and sugar. Boyd & Company were connected with several of the more dubious trades connected with the China Trade period, apart from opium the most odious must have been what was known as “the Coolie trade” – thousands of coolie workers were shipped to California and Australia as they were deemed to have “possessed the best temperament to work long hard hours without complaint”. We know that thousands of Chinese labourers were employed on the building of the Central Pacific Railroad because of their hard working reputation. Which brings is back to our friends, Taylor & Co. – was their sudden high profile involvement in the railroad business anything to do with Boyd & Co given their shared penchant for dubious transactions?

Here [below] we have another example of Ning Zhao Ji’s work for Luen Wo in this rather dramatic photograph frame that surfaced in Leipzig of all places. One could almost be forgiven for thinking this exuberant design might have been opium-induced, but yet again we are presented with an allegorical combination – prunus and bamboo together is known as the “double happiness of bamboo and plum – zhú méi shuāngxĭ”], so here we have a frame designed specifically for a marriage photograph. While this frame does suit the gentleman in the picture, it was certainly not originally destined to be for him even though his flamboyance is well-matched by the frame!

Ning Zhao Ji Chinese Export Silver Photograph Frame

And yet again in collaboration with Luen Wo, we have this simple but fine rose bowl [below] which is rendered particularly unusual by the fretwork treatment to the base frieze which normally one would expect to either be plain or at most be inclined outwards towards the bottom as with the previously illustrated bowl for Taylor & Co.

Ning Zhao Ji for Luen Wo Chinese Export Silver Rose Bowl

Lastly, we have this utterly superb large bowl [below] created by Ning Zhao Ji for Luen Wo in the late 19th century – all the signature work we have seen previously is there with the addition of the exceptionally skilful tooling of the areas of the design that represent water. Although governed strictly by the terms of commission briefs, one can see this silversmith’s sense of theatricality and creativity will always shine through. His work is made for the Occident yet it remains quintessentially Chinese and loses none of the subtle sub-plots of allegorical meaning. Ning Zhao Ji successfully walks the tightrope between east and west without losing his balance.

Ning Zhao Ji for Luen Wo Large Chinese Export Silver bowl on stand

In England, in the 18th century, there was a landscape gardener who created what we now consider to be the most quintessential English landscapes, albeit it in a totally fabricated idealistic way – carefully staged sets of a non-existent idyll. His landscapes were so brilliantly conceived that his obituary read: “Such, however, was the effect of his genius that when he was the happiest man, he will be least remembered; so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken” while Sir Horace Walpole [aka Earl of Orford] wrote of his passing to Lady Ossory “Your dryads must go into black gloves, Madam, their father-in-law, Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead!”. We are talking of Capability Brown, his given name being Lancelot Brown. The word “capability” is one that admirably suits Ning Zhao Ji. What fun it would be to have Mr Ning and Mr Brown as dinner guests with possibly Messrs. Spitzer and Sutterlee to add some extra spice and Horace Walpole to appropriately hold court and mix the spices!

Chinese Export Silver: The Analects of Confucius quote

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University of Glasgow

Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research


This article was written to be published simultaneously and exclusively with WorthPoint

Adrien von Ferscht is the Worthologist expert for Chinese Export Silver

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Adrien von Ferscht’s website is the largest online information #ChineseExportSilver Chinese Export Silver Guide to Collecting & Makers' Marksresource for Chinese Export Silver:

His Catalogue of Chinese Export Silver Makers’ Marks [1785-1940] is the largest collector’s guide for Chinese Export Silver available, with information on 200 makers and 250 pages of in-depth history. It is updated every 6-8 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. The Catalogue is available at:

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Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills. To Jeffrey Herman at Jeffrey Herman Silver Restoration & Conservation, Rhode Island and to Trevor Downes at for their help with research into Taylor & Co.

Getty Images; Christie’s, South Kensington, London; Barbara Darracq, California, Pushkin Antiques, London; Danny Cheng, Hong Kong

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the archive which is managed by Christopher Hunter at


Jardine, Matheson Archive, University of Cambridge Library, UK

Aviva plc Historical Archive for General Accident Insurance, China

The Takao Club Archive, Taiwan

The Correspondence of G.E.Morrison, 1895-1912, Cambridge University Press

United States Consular Reports, 1898; Leland Stanford Junior University Library

The China Directory, 1862

The Edinburgh Gazette, December 2nd, 1918

The Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie 1911-1937, Marie Claire Bergère, Cambridge University Press

The Turning Point in China’s Compradore System, 1912-1925

The Letters of Horace Walpole: Earl of Orford, Walpole, Horace (1861). Bohn’s English Gentleman’s Library  

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