Silver has been widely used in Chinese decorative objects, from boxes to bowls, since the 7th century. During the time of the Tang Dynasty, silver alloys of lead or tin were cast and hammered into countless shapes, and engraved floral patterns began to emerge in the Yuan dynasty. During the Ming Dynasty, which ruled China from 1368 to 1644, decorative items such as jade, lacquerware, paintings and porcelain became dominant, and it was not until the 18th century that Chinese silverware began a resurgence. Beginning in the 18th century, the exports of Chinese silver to the West started to rival those of Chinese porcelain. The name “Chinese Export Silver” refers to silverware produced in China between 1780 and 1940, however the silver was not produced exclusively for the west.
During the early China trade period in the 18th century, a large quantity of Chinese silver was produced by Canton-based workshops. The pieces were often made in British Georgian and neo-classical American styles, and included typical examples of Western tableware, such as teapots, vases, flatware and trays. The pieces are often distinguished by their high quality and exceptionally heavy weight. Some of the merchant shops that the silver was produced for become well known, and in their reproduction of Western styles, some even copied the style of British silver Hall Marks. A peculiar example of which is the Chinese mark “WE WE WC”, intended to imitate the London Hallmark of William Eley, William Fearn and William Chawner.
During the 19th century, manufacturing of silverwares multiplied, and the pieces became more fashionable and desired by the Westernised middle classes in China’s larger cities. During this key moment of trade between China and the West, Western – inspired forms were combined with traditional Chinese motifs were to create new, highly coveted art forms. The demand for “oriental” styles in Europe and America made this silver increasingly popular, and production ranged from the more everyday items such as jugs and bowls, to more elaborate trophies and presentation pieces. Many pieces of Chinese export silver were presented as gifts or prizes, and were often engraved with the recipients’ names, date and other information.
The Chinese silverware of this period was intricated decorated, a unique blend of Western form blended with Eastern iconography. Some of the most common decorative elements to be found were chrysanthemums, bamboo leaves, orchids, cranes, plums and dragons. They would also feature crowded figural and battle scenes, often featuring gods and immortals. For the Western market, such decoration is a desirable aesthetic element, to the Chinese however, every motif or combination of motifs convey a meaning. The Dragon, for example, features in many variations and with ingenuitive use in Chinese silverware. It was considered to be a symbol of power, and reference to the Emperor, and it became a recognisable signature of prolific Chinese silversmiths such as Tuck Chang, Wang Hing and Luen Wo during the late 19th and early 20th century.
Written by Zoe Grant