Some Comments of Chinese Silver in 1757 to 1948

There were some confusion on Chinese Export Silver (CES, or Chinese Trade Silver) and Straits Chinese Silver. The introduction of a new phrase, Chinese Domestic Silver, makes things more unclear for some people. I now try to clarify some situations about the gold, silver and jewelry industry in China during middle 18c to 1940s.

1. Commercial gangs / factionalist economy in neoteric China

Ancient China is a typical agrarian society. For different reasons, some people had to leave their hometowns and acted as merchants. They would help their countrymen each other when they went to other cities to peddle goods etc. As the result, regional commercial gangs formed. Although they are called “gangs”, they actually were incompact commercial groups.

In neoteric China, there are two most important commercial gangs, one was made up by the Canton (Guangdong) merchants, and the other was made up by the business men came from Ningbo, Zhejiang. They worked all over the China, and some also went abroad to do their business.

The Canton gang appeared at early Ming dynasty, their noontide is 1760s to 1840s. After the Opium Wars, Shanghai become the largest commercial port, in about 1856, the goods imported and exported through Shanghai increased to 6.8 times as what traded in Canton. The Canton gang became less and less important from then on.

Most Canton merchants were only traders. They forced on selling goods, but didn’t attempt to found factories. But the members of Ningbo-gang are mainly industrialists. This gang formed in later Ming dynasty, became the most important business men group in later 19c to mid 20c. Their businesses involved water carriage, manufacture, financial and even entertainment industries.

2. Gold & silver manufacture industry during 18c to middle 20c

The neoteric gold, silver & jewelry firms in China appeared in middle 18c. Most of the earliest ones were set up by Ningbo merchants in Zhejiang and Jiangsu including Shanghai, namely in the regions south of the Yangtze RiverThe climax was during the end of 19c to 1930s, thousands firms were founded in that period. At that time, over a half of important firms were still under the control of the Ningbo merchants or managers. Local merchants also imitated or at less referred Ningbo people’s firms to set up theirs in their hometown. Some were registered as “Companies Limited” to the Republic China government during 1920s to 1930s.

This kind of gold, silver & jewelry firms/companies generally have four independent departments - a store or show shop, a workshop, a storehouse and a accountant's office, though they generally shared the same building. In the workshop there were a headman, some engaged workers and apprentices. Some large firms had more than one groups of silversmiths in the workshop, each group had a leader. The group leader may have an assistant and a vice assistant, they were all skillful craftsmen, to help him organize production. In some workshops, there was even a group of people producing wrapper boxes or wooden parts. A few larger companies also had a couple of affiliated workshops which had exclusive contracts to work for them.

The marks struck on an item were typically the town name, the firm name (generally made up of a brand name and a branch name), a fineness mark (in most case, it's a word meaning pure silver or gold), and may also one or two separated marks implying the silversmith group (has one or two characters) and the year the piece was made (it's a single-character mark). For an item outsourced to another workshop or silversmith (less to see, but independent workshops did exist in some cities), it might be stamped a maker’s mark instead of the internal craftsmen group mark.


Some silver companies use all of these marks, though most of them only beared a part of these marks onto their products. For example, leading comanies in Shanghai generally didn't stamped a "pure silver" mark on any silverware and silver  jewelry. Items sold by small stores only had a mark of the brand name (store name).


Most items manufactured by these companies are bracelets, different kinds of hair pins, finger rings, ear pins, neck pendants, lock-shaped pendants, hat ornaments etc. These kind of traditional jewelries were very popular with domestic customers. A large amount of them were made and sold. They are the main products of most companies, especially hair ornaments. After the starting of the New Life Movement in 1934, many women in large cities cut short their hair. As the result, the revenue of some companies decrease a lot, a few leading companies had to close.


Hollowware and cutleries were only a small part of their products, and mainly made in port cities between the end of 19c to ca.1947. A majority of these non-jewelry silverware are western-type items such as tea service sets,  trophies, flatware, napkin rings, shields, tazzas, comports, center pieces and a great deal of spoons in western type. A large part of western-type items were sold to foreigners came to China, or presented to them as gifts. From some people's point of view, they were a part of Chinese Export Silver.


These companies also made some traditional utensils for local residents, especially after 1934, including some traditional types of spoons, tongue scrapers, tradition-style teapots, wine warmer, vases, tea cups, powder bowls, censers, figures of Buddha and so on. Though a few traditional vases and teapots were also bought by or presented to foreigners - they were familiar with these types of items since China export porcelains have had the same kind of things for a long time. Traditional types of silverware is less and that's why they are far expensive than western type items. A part of traditional jewelries and utensils were gathered and resold to western countries to obtain foreign exchange during 1972~1990s. But now, Chinese collectors are taking over 10 times of money to purchase them back.

3. CES and western-style items made in Canton

When foreign traders, missionaries etc. came to China, they brought some silverware. A part China export porcelains also referred to these silver items. Neoteric silver firms have not sprung up in Canton. The main products made by the silver workshops in Canton and nearly places should be traditional jewelries. They might also produce some hollowware such as bowls, vases, censers and teapots for rich people.


One day, some Canton merchants found they can order customized silverware from the local silversmiths, and sold them to those foreign merchants came to China, or export directly. The earilest export goods including silver parts made are filigee fans, card cases and boxes etc. made in 18c to middle 19c. Most of they were not beared any mark, the store names such as Cumshing were printed on the wrapper boxes which are less left. From then on, the Canton silversmiths started imitating the silverware brought by foreigners, and added Chinese elements a little later. We can imagine, duo to the large demands, more and larger workshops founded, some silversmiths coming from vicinal towns also gathered in Canton.

However, Canton merchants didn’t consider having their own workshops. They only worked as intermediate traders, and sold or exported silverware via their stores or export companies in Canchou (Guangzhou) and Hong Kong, such as Wang Hing (宏興), Wing Nam (永南), Kwan Wo (寬和) and Sing Fat (生發).

From the last half of 19c, more Canton (including Hong Kong) merchants came to Shanghai to find new chances (a few may went to other cities such as Tianjin/Tientsin). A part of them got involved with silver industry. Some jewelry stores in Canton and Hong Kong set up new benches in Shanghai, such as Hung Chong (鴻昌 or 宏昌). Some Canton merchants founded stores from scratch in Shanghai, such as Luen Wo (聯和), Luen Hing (聯興), Zee Wo (時和), Zee Sung (時昇), Yok Sang (朱煜生), Wo Shing (和勝) etc.  A couple of foreign merchants also set up this kind of stores, such as Tuck Chang (德祥). Some Canton or Hong Kong based department stores opened new benches in Shanghai as well, such as Sincere (先施百貨) and Wing On (永安百貨) selling different kinds of goods including silverware and jewelries. 

Based on the craftworks, styles and chopmarks, we can sure almost all products sold by these stores mentioned above were made by Canton-gang silversmiths. Some Canton silversmiths might come to Shanghai or near cities and provided their products to these stores. I don’t have any evidence shows that Shanghai local silversmiths or workshops_ produced for them. However, some items do show the influence of Ningbo (Zhejiang) silversmiths.

So what is CES? In the very narrow sense, only silverware (including few goldware) made by Canton-gang silversmiths and sold by Canton-gang merchants can be called CES. A big part of these silver items were transported oversea for reselling, some might be sold to foreigners who came to China and bought for themselves, a few might be sold to Chinese people as a gifts to their foreigner friends etc. It’s no way to know whether the direct customer of a specified piece was an exporter or an end user, was a foreigner or a Chinese. It’s also unnecessary. We can simply classify them as CES depending on the marks. They were generally stunk a Latin mark and a chopmark on each item, some also had marks like SILVER, STERLING, 85, 88, 90, 95, 97, and even 99% [on some Tack Hing (德興) pieces]. In this way, the scope of CES is a little too narrow but the boundary is clear.

In a broad sense, any silver piece which is a western-style item and made in main export port cites are CES. Although a few fashionable Chinese people bought this kind of silver products to use as well, I think over 80% were purchased by foreigners.

If we choose the narrow sense, some silver firms such Tu Maoxing (塗茂興) in Jiujiang, Jiangxi will be exclude from CES manufacturers. However most people including Crosby Forbes, Chait and Chan did deem that Tu Maoxing was CES related. If we choose the broad sense, hundreds of neoteric silver companies will then get involved, though a larger half of their products were made for native Chinese clients.

4. Straits Chinese Silver and CES in South Asia style

A lot of Chinese people immigrated to Southeast Asia during Ming and Qing dynasties from Fujian and Canton. Some of them were silversmith. Their products have obvious signs of Fujian and Canton craftworks. However many of them were influenced by the local culture, so that sensitive people can distinguish their products from native Chinese silver. This kind of silver items made in Malaya and Singapore are so-called Straits Chinese Silver, those made in Indonesia and nearly countries are also counted in by some people.

Straits Chinese Silver was mainly made for straits Chinese families. That’s why most were only stamped a chop mark with two or three Chinese characters without any Latin letter. A few of them might be exported to Netherlands or France, though I don’t have enough data to affirm.

In the board sense, Straits Chinese Silver also includes those silver pieces having Chinese elements made in Thailand and Indochina. There were more immigrants and merchants came from China in the long history. In Bangkok, people of Chinese origin involved almost all the commerce activities, and hold some important positions regarding to commerce and trading in the Thailand government traditionally until 20c. Vietnam has been influenced by China in culture through its whole history. Those CES-like silver pieces made in Thailand and Indochina were produced by either Chinese/half Chinese silversmith family or their imitators, but they mainly sold to local customers including foreigners came from western countries. I saw dozens of Indochina silver items stamped a French import mark, but I’m not sure whether they were made for direct export or brought to France later.

Some CES were in South Asian style (such as rosewater sprinklers), and some early pieces even had evident Indian or Arabic elements. As we known, they are no relationship with Straits Chinese Silver. The marks stamped on those items also definitely show they were sold by Canton-gang merchants and made by Canton silversmith. Comparing with Europe and U.S, India and Middle East countries were very small markets, but many Canton merchants were still active there. Canton silversmith imitated these India items as they did for the western silver. They are all CES but produced for different markets. Wynyard Wilkinson has mentioned how CES transited to India for selling there.


[本日志由 kmzs 于 2013-04-10 01:45 AM 编辑]
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