Unusual Chinese art images 32 Empress Dowager Cixi

Empress Dowager Cixi 1903-5

This photograph of Dowager Empress Cixi was taken between 1903 and 1905. It was part of what was effectively a propaganda exercise by her advisers who were concerned at her growing (well-deserved!) reputation overseas for cruelty and treachery. Accordingly, the foreign-raised son of the former ambassador to Tokyo and Paris, Xunling, was commissioned to make a series of photographs for giving, or sending, to diplomatically-important foreign dignitaries.

A collection of 36 glass plates are held by The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M Sackler Gallery.

A biography of her has just been published in paperback by Vintage Books: Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang, author of the bestseller Wild Swans. We thoroughly recommend it as a great read and as a real insight into Cixi.


The Chinese fish vat features at Ming The Golden Empire


One of two highly-prized fish vats from the collection of The National Museum  of Scotland which feature in Ming The Golden Empire at The National Museum of Scotland. Photo Paul Harris

The very large vat seen above is one of the prizes of the NMS East Asia collection. Jiajing mark and reign (1522-66), it is an early example painted on the outside with two Imperial dragons chasing a flaming pearl. The dragons and floral motifs have been outlined and then painted between the lines with iron-rich cobalt which produces a very dark blue (so-called heaped and piled effect). Such iron-rich Imperial quality cobalt was imported at great expense from Persia and Central Asia.

Fish vats like the one above, and below, would have been used for raising fish and aquatic plants in the Imperial Palace or palace gardens. Large ones like these were difficult to manufacture because of their enormous size. Many were broken in production and those that actually went into use were often cracked or broken in the harsh winters of northern China.


A wucai (five colour) fish vat from the National Museum of Scotland collection currently to be seen at Ming The Golden Empire in Edinburgh.Lonqing mark and period (1567-73). Porcelain with under glaze blue and over glaze polychrome decoration. Despite its name, wucai, developed during the Jiajing Emperor’s reign (1522-66) is not strictly limited to five colours. Photo Paul Harris


Ming The Golden Empire continues at The National Museum of Scotland until October 19 2014

Now British Museum to show off the mighty Ming

The Ming is The Thing. In the wake of The National Museum of Scotland’s outstanding exhibition The Golden Ming, which runs through to October, the British Museum opens its own Ming event next month on September 18. Running until January 5 the British Museum will be feauring its own major exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China.

BM Ming sword

The sword of early Ming Emperor Yongle

Some outstanding and rare loans will tell the story of a critical half-century period in Chinese history (1400 – 1450) when China became a global superpower. Effectively, this was a Golden Age when China produced some of the most beautiful objects and paintings ever made. Loans are coming from 10 Chinese institutions and 21 international lenders.

To complement the exhibition the British Museum is lending an iconic blue-and-white Ming vase to four partner museums across the UK in 2014, supported by BP.

The exhibition will explore the years 1400 – 1450, a pivotal 50 year period that transformed China during the rule of the Ming dynasty. Bureaucrats replace military leaders in the hierarchy of power, the emperor’s role changes from autocrat to icon, and the decision is taken to centralise, rather than devolve, power. The exhibition will include rare loans of some of the finest objects ever made in China, shedding light on this important part of world history that is little known in Europe. China’s internal transformation and connections with the rest of the world led to a flourishing of creativity from what was, at the time, the only global superpower.

This period for China was a time of extraordinary engagement with the world and of fascinating cultural diversity. The explorer Zheng He pioneered China’s maritime history, sending treasure ships to South East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. China enjoyed a period of unprecedented global contacts from Kyoto to Mogadishu, through trade and diplomacy evidenced through gifts of gold, silver, paintings, porcelains, weapons, costume and furniture. This is the first exhibition to explore the great social and cultural changes in China that established Beijing as a capital city and the building of the Forbidden City – still the national emblem on coins and military uniforms today. As well as the imperial courts, the exhibition will focus on finds from three regional princely tombs: in Sichuan, Shandong and Hubei covering East, Southwest and Central China. Four emperors ruled China in this period. The exhibition will include the sword of the Yongle Emperor, “the Warrior”; the handwriting of the Hongxi emperor, “the bureaucrat”; the paintings of the Xuande emperor, “the aesthete”; and the portraits of the regents who ruled while the Zhengtong emperor was a boy. There will also be costumes of the princes, their gold and jewellery, and furniture. The exhibition covers court life, the military, culture, beliefs, trade and diplomacy.

The exhibition covers a period when there was unprecedented contact with the world beyond the Ming Empire, through embassies, an assertive military policy, and court-sponsored maritime expeditions. Early Ming imperial courts enjoyed an unparalleled range of contacts with other Asian rulers: the Timurids in Iran and Central Asia; the Ashikaga in Japan and Joseon Korea. Contacts extended to Bengal, Sri Lanka, Africa, and even to Mecca at the heart of the Islamic world. The exhibition aims to replace older histories of China that over-emphasise contact with Europe after 1500 by highlighting complex and longer-lasting intra-Asian connections that played a key role in the formation of the Chinese state, society and culture. At the same time, the exhibition will explore the diversity within the Ming Empire itself, and the idea that it is multiple courts, and not one single, monolithic, imperial court, that are important in this period.

BM Ming exhbn

The story of the Chinese roof featured at ‘Ming the Golden Empire’


Chinese roof details on display at The National Museum of Scotland  Back Ridge end tile in the form of a water dragon from the Bao’en Temple, Nanjing Left Roof finial in the form of a closed lotus bud, Hongwu from The Nanjing Museum  Right Ridge tile in the form of a cow-headed human figure with a dragon tile . . . all on show at Ming The Golden Empire

An interesting section of the current exhibit at The National Museum of Scotland illustrates the fact that roofs were often elaborately decorated with protective figures, zoomorphic ornaments and motifs intended to provide protection from harm or, even, evil spirits. Roofs were also, through use of colour, indications both of building function and of social status.

There were four basic types of roof structures that were used in Ancient China; the hip roof, half-hip roof, conical roof, and the gable roof.

The hip roof consisted of five ridges and was very large in scale. It was characterized by its inward curve and upturned corners. Sometimes the hip roof had a flat top. The hip roof was used for important buildings only.

Second, was a half-hip roof consisting of nine ridges and also being very large in scale. The half-hip was made up of a hip roof with a peristyle and at the end of each gable was an eave board with a hanging fish symbolizing happiness. It was also used only for important buildings.

Third, was the conical roof which was spherical in shape. This unique roof could be placed on any compact symmetrical structure such as a square, hexagonal, octagonal, or circular form. The conical could be transformed into a pyramid with gables to all four directions. The pyramid or conical roof sometimes were flattened at the top so as to have a cross ridge.

Fourth, was the gable style, having one main ridge at the top of the gable. There are two types; one where there is an overhang and two where the overhang is flush with the end wall and sometimes the walls would be raised above the roof like a parapet. This style is the simplest in construction and was widely used for less important buildings such as houses for common people.

Roof structures are the first thing you might see and admire when you look at classical Chinese architecture. Since the beginning of time, the large roof over thin wooden columns and the beams resting upon a podium are the primary architectural characteristics of Chinese architecture. They are practical and functional\; roofs serving many purposes such as protection from rain, snow, sun and whatever the weather might bring. The eaves are another important feature of the roof. Depending on the type of the building, the eaves have a wide overhang. This feature protects the building from the sun in the hot summer months and allows the sun to penetrate in the winter months. They also protect the exterior building walls and columns from the rain.


Symbolic decoration. Roof at the Imperial Palace, Shenyang. Photo Paul Harris

Symbolism has been part of the Chinese culture, and was embedded into architecture, for centuries thereby creating a dialogue between man and architecture. Architecture’s symbolic language has been developed to represent the character, spirit, feelings and ideas of both the builder and beholder. Sociology, art and philosophy are what shaped the form and character of Chinese buildings. In some cases, the roof may have been a representation of heaven; the yang (the light and upper principle). The Chinese worshipped heaven, assuming that the large roof was a symbol of respect to the “Son of Heaven.” The house was a model of Chinese private life.

Chinese architecture brought with it artistic characteristics such as harmony, which emphasized the feel of the material and unity between materials and structure.

Post and beam construction was used most often in classical Chinese architecture. The roof structures were based on a series of beams set in parallel tiers. The post and beam gave the interior an open floor plan having the weight of the structure on the posts rather than the walls making the walls non-load bearing.

There are two main types of framework used. The first was a post and beam: it was used in the north for important buildings. It has two posts supporting a horizontal beam on which short vertical posts and struts are placed to lift another beam. On these are fitted purlins that define the shape of the roof and across were the rafters are laid. Small buildings have four pillars and the large buildings have additional sets of pillars added to the four. The outer pillars are typically inclined inwards and may taper towards the top to achieve visual balance.

The post and tie beam is most commonly used in southern China. The horizontal beam rests directly on notched posts, instead of on beams or struts. This method crowds the interior space with columns and so the post and tie beam is used only in the gable and post and beam frame is used in the middle of the building.

In important buildings a group of cantilevered components called “bracket sets” or puzuo or dou-gong, are placed atop the posts to help support the beams or overhang eaves. They are consisted of block and supporting arms. Bracket sets, are classified by the number and complexity of their horizontal, vertical and diagonal elements. The brackets helped the roof fluctuate during an earthquake. The brackets usually gave good decoration.

Wood was abundant in olden time. Classical Chinese architecture was constructed mainly from wood. Wood as a building material was natural and had many advantages: it was lightweight, easy to obtain, easy to work with, easy to transport, and most importantly, easy to standardize. The Chinese sensed the advantages of wood construction. The span of a wooden beam is wider and the plan freer and more flexible.

Important buildings such as Imperial buildings, have colorful glazed tiles, or even gilded tiles, as roofing materials making them attractive to the eye under the bright sun.

Ceramic roof tiles in rust, yellow, green, or blue are secured to rafters by fasteners with decorative animal motifs. On temples and important public buildings, these motifs symbolize authority, protection from evil spirits, and the blessing of the gods.

These colors are based on the importance of buildings. Colors are strong and bright because pigments are seldom mixed. The palette includes red (for fire, symbolizing happiness on doors or buildings), yellow (earth), gold, green (prosperity), and blue (heaven). Walls, columns, doors, and window frames may be red. Color and gilding may highlight details and motifs

article roof Shenyang swan ceramic (2) lr

Roofs old and new: view over the Imperial Palace roof, Shenyang  Photo Paul Harris

article roof Shenyang swan ceramic (1) lr

Building ceramics used at The Imperial Palace, Shenyang  Photo Paul Harris

Ming The Golden Empire continues at The National Museum of Scotland until October 19 2014


Unusual Chinese art images 30 The Opium Smokers

SONY DSC An unusual watercolour of opium smokers in Shanghai dating from the mid-1930s and painted by the wife of British Director of Public Health there, Eleanor Moore Robertson. She went to live in the city in 1925 and was evacuated in 1937 with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. The subject matter is highly unusual for a refined British lady who visited the low-life of 30s Shanghai to capture her subjects. Her daughter, the art critic Ailsa Tanner, observed that her watercolours ‘offer a lively and valuable record of life in China seen from a foreigner’s eyes.’ This painting was exhibited at Kilmarnock Art Gallery in the early 1970s and subsequently illustrated in The Dictionary of Scottish Painters (five editions 1988-2014). For sale at www.chineseartinscotland.co.uk. See it at http://www.chineseartinscotland.co.uk/the-opium-smokers-by-eleanor-moore-robertson/

‘Chicken fat’ glaze on display at the National Museum of Scotland


From the National Museum of Scotland exhibition lent by the Nanjing Museum Ming The Golden Empire  Photo Paul Harris

The jar on the right of this picture was produced at the Chinese Imperial kilns in Jingdezhen and was designed for use at the Imperial Court. The fine quality of the yellow glazes produced by these kilns during the Hongzhi period were described variously as ‘chicken fat yellow’ or ‘tender yellow’. A piece of this quality is likely to have been used for ritual purposes at Imperial ceremonies held at The Altar to the Earth (Ditan) northeast of the Forbidden City.


These dishes were also produced at the Imperial kilns in Jingdezhen. The extraordinary quality of the yellow glazes produced during the early-mid Ming period were often described as ‘chicken fat’. Nanjing Museum from Ming The Golden Empire at the NMS. Photo Paul Harris

Items completely glazed in yellow, such as these dishes, were used as table wares reserved for the Emperor, Empress or Dowager Empress.

Ming The Golden Empire continues at The National Museum of Scotland until October 19 2014

Young Chinese sculptor Shi Zhongying visits UK

Chinese sculptor Shi Zhongying (born Yunnan 1975) is currently in London on an overseas research fellowship funded by the China Artists Association. He has exhibited extensively both in China and overseas and is represented by Beijing’s Red Gate Gallery.


He is said to be ‘contemplating the relationship between sculpture and landscape in preparation for his new body of work’. Shi is Professor of Art and Design at Beijing Forestry University The research fellowship, now in its fifth year, will enable Shi 1to expose his Chinese artistic perspective to the broader international art scene’.

Working predominantly in metals, Shi takes inspiration from Buddhist teachings and Chinese philosophy in the context of contemporary life.  The gridded or meshed surfaces of his sculptures capture “non-existent” abstract forms of objects which once existed, immortalizing the memory of their physical presence. In this way, Shi’s work reflects upon the Buddhist objective of the ultimate elimination of self, a concept which he believes is meaningful for contemporary society.

Shi Zhongying, The Three Lives of Buddha, 2013, Stainless Steel, 92 x 72 x 65 cm

Shi Zhonying The Three Lives of Buddha (2013) stainless steel

The UK research fellowship is intended to inspire a new evolution in Shi’s practice, which he sees as moving in the direction of symbolic representations of landscape. His research will take in some of the UK’s well known sculpture parks and museums. Shi is represented by Red Gate Gallery, one of China’s active promoters of Chinese contemporary art. His works have been exhibited at the National Art Museum of China and also internationally. Shi’s most recent body of work will be on display in an upcoming solo exhibition at Red Gate Gallery, Beijing, in October 2014. He will be in the UK until 27 September.

Shi Zhongying, Buddha, 2013, Stainless Steel, Dimensions variable

Shi Zhonying Buddha (2013) stainless steel

If you want to be in touch, you can contact Mr. Brian Wallace, founder and director of Red Gate Gallery, at brian@redgategallery.com. RedgateGallery is located at Dongbianmen Watchtower, 9 Chongwenmen Dongdajie, Dongcheng District, Beijing

NMS Exhibition highlights role of women under the Ming


National Museum of Scotland   Photo Paul Harris

We wrote last week at some length about the opening of the magnificent new exhibition at The National Museum of Scotland Ming The Golden Empire. In the coming weeks, we shall have a look in more detail and with pictures at some fascinating aspects of the new exhibition.

Several exhibits relate to the role of women in Ming society. As may be discerned from the quotation below from Dong Qichang, incorporated in the exhibition signage, women’s liberation, let alone political correctness, had, in the early days at least, made virtually no impression on Ming society.


Today, this would hardly be described as politically correct! From National Museum of Scotland exhibition Ming The Golden Empire

 Traditional Confucian thinking defined women in terms of The Four Virtues: womanly work, womanly speech, womanly virtue and womanly deportment. Fair enough! But Confucian ethics also viewed a woman as subordinate to her father before marriage, to her husband during marriage, and to her son after her husband’s death. The lives of elite wives and concubines tended to be highly restricted and they were largely confined with the women’s quarters.

But things improved somewhat by the late Ming. The domestic, social and public role of women had seen some expansion, with greater access to education and social opportunity. Women of the gentry learnt to read classical Chinese and books were even produced specifically for them. They formed literary and, even, religious groups, and began to participate in cultural activities as musicians, writers, poets and painters.


The piece of cloisonné in the foreground was designed for the dressing table of a Ming lady. Such pieces of frippery were not regarded as being nearly substantial or interesting enough for the male of the species. From The National Museum of Scotland exhibition Ming The Golden Empire. Photograph Paul Harris

Fiorentini Collection porcelain gallops home at Bonhams Edinburgh

Twenty-nine lots of porcelain from the Fiorentini Collection were sold July 2 by Bonhams Edinburgh for a well above estimate £105,000, inclusive of 25% premium. They were offered for sale by the executors of the estate of Ruth Fiorentini. She, and her late husband, ran an advertising agency in the West End of London with Cartier among their A List clients.

They spent much of their spare time attending auctions from the post-war period through to the 1980s. Chinese porcelain gradually became their main interest. Their interest led to a close friendship with the well known collector E G Kostalany and they purchased a number of pieces from him. One of the attractive purchases from him, in March 1981, was a fine famille verte brushpot (bitong) which bears labels from previous owners, including the City of Manchester Art Gallery (illustrated below). It went for a very respectable hammer price of £5,500 (estimate £3-5,000)..

fio brush pot fio brushpot labels various labels to base £5,500 hammer

There were also a number of good blanc-de-chine pieces, most also from Kostolany,  including a tripod incense burner similar to one in the Percival David foundation of Chinese Art (no. 424). It achieved  on the hammer £4,800 (estimate £1,200-500).

fio blancdechine incense burner

However, the highest price in the sale was achieved by a very pretty, unassuming,  finely potted, lobed small saucer dish which bore a Yongzheng mark to the base and featured a shaped lotus flower to the interior. Against an estimate of £600-800, it made a premium inclusive £13,750.

123 sold £13750

The second highest price of £11,250 went to a sang-de-boeuf bowl estimated at £2,000-3,000. It opened on a commission bid at £5,000.

fio sangdeboeuf bowl

Lot 129 A sang-de-boeuf glazed bowl with Quianlong seal mark. Diameter 15cm.

The prices set the dealers in the room tut-tutting. One prominent London dealer had great difficulty getting in amongst the competition from telephone and internet. An Edinburgh Asian dealer observed, “Most of these pieces, if they hadn’t had the cachet of the Fiorentini Collection, would probably have sold here for half the price.”

The thirtieth lot, a rather modest collection of a couple of dozen of Ruth Fiorentini’s reference books, with some wooden stands thrown in, got a surprising £1,375, inclusive of premium.

Adrien von Ferscht article on Triads, Chinese art and decadent Shanghai

With the permission of the author, Adrien von Ferscht, Glasgow academic and inter alia Dreweatts & Bloomsbury’s Chinese silver expert, we are reproducing his newly completed study of the links between Chinese art, the Triads and decadent Shanghai. Normally, we do not reproduce articles in this way but this seems to us to something of such sparkling originality that we would like to share it with our readers! Do look at Adrien’s website www.chinese-export-silver.com which is packed with unique information.

1920s Shanghai




Style, the demand for style and the supply of style is an extremely fine-tuned, complex equation that only requires a small weakness in one element and the equation is compromised. Style icons are also an essential factor in creating a momentum for style to evolve. 

In the context of early 20th century China and Hong Kong, this was a period of tumultuous change. Beneath the hood of the engine that powered the creation of wealth in such vast quantities in a relatively short space of time were the Triads. In China they were highly visible, while in Hong Kong they were an enigmatic presence. Many of the charismatic Chinese political leaders and style icons of the time were indirect products of the Triads or the Triads were their lifeline.

The decorative arts of the time reflected a new brashness and identity, so one can say without exaggeration that the Triads wielded a considerable influence on what are now relics of those heady times and somewhat notorious cities.


The very concept of Triads having any influence on the decorative arts would appear incongruous to most people; it is nevertheless a reality that had considerable momentum in the late 19th century and early 20th century. To fully comprehend it as a phenomenon, one first has to understand the original concept of the Triads and then trace its evolution, probably proving along the way that a leopard is capable of changing its spots.

In the 21st century the term “Triads”, taken within the general context of China but through Western eyes, would almost certainly conjure up an image of organised crime and violence, with possibly a degree of martial arts thrown in for good measure. To define the term accurately is probably nigh impossible since its evolution during a period spanning well over three centuries has caused changes and distortions that render the original notion unrecognisable. To define the term in simplistic terms is in itself somewhat of an oxymoron for it is best imagined as layers of swirling mist; each layer being a stratum of either supernatural, religious or secular beliefs and goals that somehow come together to form an organisation of singular intent, brotherhood being its catalyst  – yet it is a fraternity that is very much hierarchical that in itself tends to cause dissonance.

Probably the nearest equivalent in Western culture would be Freemasonry, but just as freemasonry means different things to all those who join, the same can be said for the Triads, or at least their original intention; coercion has been a highly probable factor of the latter since the mid-19th century and one would at least hope it was generally absent from the former.

Triad hung symbol

The term “Triad” is a relatively modern English term that endeavours to describe the sacred symbol of the Chinese secret societies, a triangle surrounding a secret sign that is derived from the Chinese character hung [above], depicting a union of heaven, earth and man. The use of hung stems from Hung Wu [below], the royal title of the patriot Zhu Yuanzhang who founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368 CE. Hung Wu’s reign heralded a golden age of prosperity in China that was ended by the Manchu conquest in 1644. The ensuing Qing Dynasty caused the formation of principles behind the notion of the Triad.

Emperor Hung WuIn the 17th century, the Chinese triad society [Hung  Mun] was also known as Tien Tei We [Heaven & Earth Society] or San Hwo Hui  [Three United Society] in the early 19th century; all were very much a product of Southern China. Its main purpose for existing was to overthrow the new Qing Dynasty; the Manchu were seen by the majority Han people as foreigners. With a strong patriotic dogma, the Triad maintained an iron control over its blood brother members, imposing high expectations of total loyalty and righteousness. In its early purest form, the Triad maintained secrecy and its cultural integrity as well as its ceremonial paraphernalia, methods of recruitment, rituals, initiation ceremonial, sense of charity and welfare, secret codes and mode communication. In this respect, the Triad was an Eastern parallel of Western Freemasonry, but unlike the latter the Triads’ main purpose for being was to reinstate the Ming Dynasty; it also had little in common with the concept of “trinity” found in Gnosticism and Platonism – the biblical trinity is not a triad.

The integrity of the original concept remained from its inception through to the 19th century when Triads began to appear that derived income from exacting so-called protection money from peasant farmers, even formalising it by issuing receipts. In just 100 years, the populations of many of the southern China provinces doubled, greatly accelerating after the First Opium War and the signing of the Treaty of Nanking. As the population expanded, so the Triads proliferated; Triads fast became expert at seeking to thrive from any weak link in society or from insurrection. Any attempt by the Qing court to counteract insurgency was futile and this only resulted in politicising the Triads.

During this period, Triads tended to operate and proliferate in rural areas where government control was particularly weak. Large cities as well as areas that were centred around a particular artisanal industry tended to be Triad-free; there is no evidence of Triads operating in Jingdezhen, the centre of the porcelain industry, for example. Also in this period, Triad leaders tended to be uneducated or poor men from the lower strata of Chinese society; pedlars, soldiers, paupers, shopkeepers, impoverished scholars etc. The only exception to this rule were certain factions of the Heaven and Earth Society that were formed from a hierarchical lineage. What was common to all forms of Triads was the concept of “righteousness” and “brotherhood”, however the latter could often become in conflict with the former when a brother’s duty was to help another brother evade the rule of law; in Triad terms a man could only become a man of integrity through righteousness, the interpretation of which placed duty to one’s brother above duty to the law and the land. Since the vast majority of Triad members were illiterate and almost all the dogma of each Triad faction was embodied in text, the interpretation and spreading of that dogma was in the hands of the literate few who tended to seize upon the advantage they had through exaggerated theatricality. The disaffected majority were often in awe of the few; a trait that was to be repeated several times in history in the 20th century in Europe.

Of the known 96 Triads that existed in Southern China in the late 18th/early 19th century, 39 existed solely for the purpose of looting other people’s homes, 26 for mutual “protection” in “emergencies”, 15 simply for collecting initiation fees, 11 for plundering in towns, villages and cities and 5 for helping to resist arrest and to participate in communal protest.

It is only in the late 19th century, when the early signs of an inevitable fall of the Qing Dynasty began to appear as a result of a succession of rebellions and general unrest, an evolutionary process began and quickly gained momentum resulting in militant and criminal elements to flourish, still under the guise of the Triad. It is only now that Triads began to display a desire to acquire political power.

That an essentially destructive construct could be presented as having the capability to provide a stable foundation for a new era of Chinese decorative arts is not as bizarre as it sounds; it is simply a matter of fact, albeit unforeseen, borne out of the fast-moving and cataclysmic period in China’s history in the early 20th century. That said, the decorative arts was far from the minds of this new age of Triad leaders and their followers, any influence that was brought to bear was unplanned and symptomatic of the chaos, violence, crime and megalomania that came to plague Chinese society.

It wasn’t until the last years of the 19th century that a highly incongruous union occurred between a Cantonese Christian convert and 3000 Triad members in Hong Kong. Born in Guangdong in 1866, Sun Wen underwent conversion and was baptised in 1884 in Hong Kong, having been educated in a succession of Christian schools including one in Hawaii; Sun Wen eventually took on an honorific name by which we all now know him as, Sun Yat-Sen, the father of the eventual first republic of China in 1911.

Sun Yat-sen 1900

That Sun Yat-Sen, a devout Christian, was to be supported by his Christian pastors and friends in Hawaii and Hong Kong his entire life is in itself not particularly surprising, but that this support continued when Sun laid the foundations of his conspiracy for an uprising in Canton against the Manchu regime, it did so under a cloud of incongruity, particularly since it was a revolt that could only be achieved in tandem with Triads.

The Qing government became aware of the plot and it was the Christian involvement they most feared since it reminded them of Hong Xiuquan and the Taiping Rebellion; the man who believed he was the brother of Jesus and who successfully founded pockets of the “Taiping Heavenly Kingdom” in Southern China with himself installed as “Heavenly King”. Hong Xiguan was his own worst enemy and it was his brutality wrought in the name of his religious fantasy on hundreds of thousands of Chinese people that eventually caused his own troops to rebel. He eventually committed suicide, described by his cousin as his having taken “manna”; it is now generally believed that Hong Xiuguan suffered from psychotic delusions which, in the context of tens of thousands of followers who would otherwise have been reconciled to a life of hunger and abject poverty, would have seemed an attractive option.

In 1904 a sect of the Heaven and Earth Society that had existed for some time was the source used by Sun Yat-Sen to leverage financial support for his quest for revolution and the founding of an eventual republic based upon his “Three Principles of the People” – nationalism, democracy and welfare that would allow the distribution of land equally among the people. To achieve this he formed the Tongmenghui. By 1908, a total of six failed uprisings had occurred. Sun’s leadership came under threat from a rival faction within Tongmenghui that accused him of trying to cause a revolution for his own profit. Sun and his loyal Tongmenghui members relocated to Penang to in an attempt to minimise anti-Sun factions.

Eventually in 1911, with Sun still in exile, what was known as the Wuchang Uprising proved successful and became the catalyst for the Xinhai Revolution that culminated with the abdication of the Last Emperor Puyi in 1912 and the transfer of power to a provisional coalition government. So ended over 2000 years of Imperial rule in China, but no matter how autocratic and fundamentally wrong that rule was, what at least it did provide was a rigid framework; the sweeping away of that framework based on whimsical ideology alone was to lead to decades of political division that at times could be called warlordism. Similar modern-day parallels may be seen in the Middle East.

The aforementioned coalition was between Sun Yat-Sen and Yuan Shikai, once an ally of the late Empress Dowager Cixi but achieved through varying degrees of scheming on his part and fired by his personal belief in the need for a constitutional monarchy based on Japan’s Meiji and Bismarck’s vision for Germany. In Yuan Shikai’s mind he saw himself as constitutional Emperor of a new China. With Sun Yat-Sen in exile at the time of the uprising, Yuan Shikai had the advantage; he was also a scheming manipulator.

Even though the revolutionaries had previously agreed and fought on the premise of Sun Yat-Sen becoming the provisional President of the Republic of China, they were militarily in a weak position. Through Yuan, they were forced to negotiate with the Qing. Yuan’s underhandedness resulted in the abdication of the child Emperor Puyi in return for him, Yuan, being granted the Presidency. Sun had no choice but to agree, but insisted the capital be in Nanjing, not Beijing. Yuan masterminded what seemed as a coup d’etat in Beijing and Tianjing, Sun had to compromise yet again and Yuan Shikai was finally elected Provisional President of the Republic of China with Beijing as its capital in February 1912.

Flag of the Chinese Republic & Yuan Shik'ai

The formation of the first republic was far from being a unifying event. Although the power was technically situated in the north, the reality of China became a fracturing of the south caused by semi autonomous factions that each had a centralised seat of power in a southern city.

In Canton, the Kuomintang was formed out of the Revolutionary Alliance by Sun Yat-Sen and Song Jiaoren; the name Kuomintang meaning the Chinese National People’s Party. Although Sung was the provisional president, his lack of military power forced him to cede the first presidency to Yuan Shikai. Yuan’s intent to reorganise China into provincial governments caused a tension between him and the Kuomintang that just grew progressively until in 1913 Sun Yat-sen fled to Japan, calling for a Second Revolution against Yuan Shikai. By 1914 China’s parliament was dissolved and a new constitutional compact was created that made Yuan Shikai effectively Emperor and, at the end of 1915, he was proclaimed Emperor of the Great Chinese Empire.

Flag of the Great Chinese Empire

Unfortunately, for Yuan Shikai, he came under such opposition that he had to delay his accession and even though he ordered with the former Imperial potters a 40,000-piece porcelain set costing 1.4 million yuan, a large jade seal, and two imperial robes costing 400,000 yuan each, he never got to become the emperor. His new empire and the Yuan Dynasty was dissolved after only 83 days and he died 6 weeks later on June 5th, 1916.

China was left without any central government, numerous warlords seized local power and the next two decades were to be an ever-increasing convolution of warlordism.

Sun Yat-sen used the Triad Tiandihui [Heaven and Earth Society] to leverage his overseas travels in order to gain further financial support for his revolutions. Although many of the late 19th/early 20th century “revolutionaries” came from similar backgrounds of reasonably prosperous middle class Chinese families, this first noticeable seeking of financial support from the Triad hongmen was a precedent that would be prevalent over the next two decades or so. It should also be viewed in the context that it was during the late 19th century that the same Hongmen formed branches within Chinese communities in America, Canada and Australia; seeking overseas funding for both revolutionary and localised governance in China had a ready-made network and was a well-used one. So the man who is generally recognised as the father of the nation, Sun Yat-sen, would have been an impotent figure had it not been for Triad funding.

Late 19th century Hongmen seal CantonThe first twenty years of the 20th century were not kind to the city of Canton. It saw a continuous cycle of power struggles, each exacting excruciating taxes in various guises mainly on the poor working classes in order to fund governance, modernisation of the city and even conflicts. Merchant investors, many having “returned” from the West found this haphazard chaos fertile ground to create wealth through opportunistic redevelopment of the city; rampant capitalism with hardly any overseeing or central control.

These early republican years in Canton saw a strange melange of activities, none of which were either integrated or coordinated, some being funded by private investment, some funded directly by Triads and some funded directly from the new Soviet Union  where Lenin himself took great interest in “potential” in China for furthering communist ideals as well as personal interest in individuals such as Sun Yat-sen and his protégé Chang Kai-shek. Disparate though the sources of funding were, theySun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek collectively created what seemed like an unstoppable momentum of redevelopment that in turn created a new momentum of prosperity that shone benevolently on the already prosperous middle class and Triad hierarchy and rarely shone on the levels below.

Strange as the bedfellows were, the theoretical conflict of interests between communist ideals and capitalist goals often share a common denominator that is rarely admitted by proponents of either camp; greed. Greed almost inevitably will create wealth; wealth almost inevitably will manifest itself in the decorative arts simply because they are a fine vehicle for manifesting wealth.

The Sun-Joffe Manifesto of 1923 was an agreement between the Republic of China Kuomintang and the Soviet Union. On the insistence of Sun Yat-sen, it asserted that while the Soviet system was not suitable for China, it announced cooperation between the Soviets and the Kuomintang to unify China. It was a very thin tightrope for all to consider maintaing balance on.

Despite the damage caused in Canton by all the  political unrest and social upheaval and, not withstanding the spiralling cost of living for ordinary residents, the city centre and the Pearl River Bund witnessed a new commercial district that was carved out of streets that had been literally bulldozed to make way for them. The city also saw a vast population expansion of over 1 million from rural areas.

Canton redevelopment 1920

Some 80% of the money being invested in Canton came from returning émigrés from Japan and America. Foreign banks were loathe to loan money to indigenous entrepreneurs and Chinese owned banks resisted local investment. What would appear to many outsiders as being happenstance, Canton did see a rapid rise in prosperity through industry and development, even though it was confined to a “privileged” minority. What did happen, though, was the phenomenon particular to Canton, namely the politicisation of the workers through organised guilds and unions that often escalated into full scale strikes; a phenomenon not shared by the equally burgeoning city of Shanghai where circumstances were totally different to the point were they could even have been separate countries.

The Shanghai International Settlement was the result of the Treaty of Nanking following the so-called First Opium War where the British established a settlement on the banks of the Whangpoo River ‘for the furtherance of their commercial interests”. The French and Americans followed quickly thereafter, each creating their own self-contained area; the three creating the Shanghai Municipal Council as a joint governing body. In 1862 the French concession dropped out of this arrangement and in 1863 the Shanghai International Settlement was created between the British and the Americans. Unlike Hong Kong or WeiHeiWei, Shanghai was not British sovereign territory but the Qing government had ceded sovereignty to the British after the Taiping Rebellion in 1853. The Chinese retained control of the original walled city area. While this somewhat complex situation worked reasonably effectively, it did occasionally display bizarre consequences; in order for a bus or tram driver to complete a cross-city journey, he would require a driver’s license for three countries!

Nanking Road Canton 1920

A Shanghai tram in the British section of the city in 1920 at the junction of the Sincere department store on Nanking Road

Up until the end of the settlement in 1941after the Japanese stormed in after the shelling of Pearl Harbour, other foreign governments joined the settlement and the treaty relations. In 1843 Chiang Kai-shek signed a new treaty that effectively brought an end to the extra-territorial privileges of British and American subjects in Shanghai.

Shanghai Municipality

It is probably because of its unique governance and core population that Shanghai developed more as a parallel of Hong Kong than of Canton. What all three cities did have in common was the presence of Triads, Western-style department stores and a substantial affluent middle class and it was this potentially potent cocktail that was the engine that generated unprecedented wealth that at times crossed the borders of decency and entered the realms of decadence. Such wealth is almost always new wealth and the nouveau riche will normally create a style of its own. This certainly happened in Shanghai, which was often, in its short lifetime as an international city, compared to the decadence of Paris, Berlin and Buenos Aires. It happened to an extent in Hong Kong, although within the confines of British colonial stiff upper lip-ness and it existed in Canton, although confined to the upper echelons of Chinese society and were adept not only at spending money but also fleeing at a moment’s notice to Yokohama or Tokyo if the heat of unrest over boiled.

All new-moneyed societies require the instant gratification of frivolous retail therapy and any city that thrives upon the existence of Triad activities will generate a middle ground co-existence that sits somewhere between the Wild West and sophistication. In Shanghai there was always a feeling that tomorrow it all might end, in Hong Kong it was more permanent but they knew the date the lease ran out and in Canton the reality was that tomorrow might not even come. The “privileged” in all three cities, no matter what their time constraints were, had to have the trappings of wealth and, apart from their homes, if they could be portable, so much the better.

Wang Hing Cocktail ShakerJewellers, silversmiths and department stores were the ubiquitous purveyors of these trappings. In the space of just 25 years, China had moved at lightning speed to distance itself from the confines of Imperialism. The merchandise that was created as a result of that transition was light years away from the merchandise created at the end of the 19th century. Quality was still present, albeit in different measure, but a brashness crept in that in many ways reflected the new order. This confirms that Chinese Export Silver never fails to mirror current history at the time of manufacture.

The cocktail shaker is often used to symbolise the decadence of the 1920’s and 30’s and while this Wang Hing shaker [left] does just that, it still retains the traditionalism of Chinese allegory as well as superb workmanship. It could be viewed as the ultimate fusion pice in what must have been a highly confusing time and place. Yet, being a quality purveyor of luxury goods, Wang Hing & Co still manages to make the full transition to modernism with this 1930’s cocktail shaker [below], totally embracing the Art Deco but refusing to jettison the quality.

Wang Hing Art Deco Cocktail Shaker

There’s almost a Georg Jensen quality to both the design and finish to this piece; certainly international and sophisticated and not what one would expect from an established Chinese luxury goods house of 80 years. This is without doubt a commissioned piece – one made by a very discerning customer.

Stylish people are always at the forefront of high society. They are the role models that in so many ways act as the pied pipers for followers of fashion and this is an age-old conundrum; followers of fashion do exactly that – follow. To be the pied piper requires style and charisma in order to create that enigmatic magnetism.

If one looks at the contemporary leaders and, more importantly, generators of style and fashion in the West of the time one will discover the underworld; in America it was the world of gangsters and the speakeasy and in Europe it was the night world of cabaret. In China and Hong Kong there was not only a frighteningly rapid move from the frozen world of tradition and Confucian values but the progenitors  of that move were all charismatic figures with a sense of style. The previously singular figure of the Empress Dowager Cixi who was the dominatrix of style in all senses of the word gave way to 20th century figures who all dominated in their own inimitable way.

Madame Chiang, the political mover and shaker wife of Chiang Kai-shek was the creator of a new Chinese style that was avidly copied by everyone who aspired to be anyone in Shanghai and Hong Kong society, copied even by Western women and Hollywood and almost single-handedly responsible for the cheongsam [qipao] becoming part of any self respecting Western couturier’s collection. As a couple, China had, for the first time, the ultimate stylish couple who graced the front covers of Western magazines, their style often making their politics an irrelevancy; they were irresistible as far as the West was concerned.

Chiang Kai shek and Madame Chang

Very much an integral part of the complex engine that fuelled style in both Shanghai and Hong Kong was the proliferation of nightclubs, most of which were owned and operated by Triad leaders. The ubiquitous cabaret of the 1930’s created their own style icons, many of whom made the transition to the silver screen through the burgeoning film studios in Shanghai.

Madame Chiang and Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong [above right] is probably one of the most famous such actresses and she had remarkable stylistic similarities to Madame Chiang [above left]. Her movie with Marlene Dietrich, Shanghai Express, was the first major Chinese-themed Western movie that also featured the Triads within the plot, having the effect of making notoriety chic. Anna May Wong and Madame Chiang became the epitome of a phenomenon known as the “modern woman” [modeng funu], with cheongsams becoming shorter and the side slit rising daringly higher – the Chinese equivalent of the gangster’s moll look. As for Madame Chiang, she was described by one American journalist as being “small, dark, fiery and photogenic” and “reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara” – Madame Chiang actually had a slight Southern twang when speaking English, having spent some of her school years in Georgia – she sounded uncannily like Vivien Leigh.

MADAME CHIANG’S ADDRESS TO US CONGRESS 1943: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61bV9-zeCrA

Shanghai Express Movie

Shanghai and Hong Kong developed in tandem a highly sophisticated and very particular advertising genre that focussed on using an idealised image of “the modern Chinese woman”, often in the most incongruous contexts. While they may not pertain exactly to the product they are advertising, they do convey the vibrance of this new age in both cities and the high-speed momentum of the emancipation of Chinese women. The Aspirin advertisement is of particular interest when taken in the context of Western medicine within a traditional Chinese remedies mindset.!

1930s Chinese Adverts

1930s Hong Kong Adverts


Du YueshengOften referred to as the Chinese sphinx, Du Yuesheng was Shanghai’s charismatic king of the underworld, better known to all by his “stage” name Big Ear Du. Du headed the powerful and infamous Green Gang [Qing Bang]. As with Chicago, New York and Berlin, the underworld was largely responsible for generating the prosperity of a city; the Green Gang and Du became the powerful facilitator of almost every successful venture in Shanghai. Due earned the name “zongshi” [grand master].

The writers W.H. Auden and Christopher Underwood were in awe of Du, ferreting often to his mesmeric “rat eyes” and his “terrifying feet” in their silk socks and pointed European boots beneath his eponymous black silk gown and silk top hat. He lived in vast lavish mansions that were always equipped with trapdoors and tunnels for an easy get away and never trusted his tailors for fear of them seeing into his expensively fitted gowns a knife.

Du was President of the Tung Wai Bank and Chung Wai Bank in Shanghai, a director of the Commercial Bank of China and a director of several corporate companies. Although his main source of income was opium, he was rather bizarrely created by Chiang Kai-shek President of the National Board of Opium Suppression Bureau; meanwhile he ran the entire opium trade openly in the French concession area in complicity with the head of police and also served as a Council member.

Du and the Green Gang had a complex relationship with Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang; Du Yuesheng was co-opted into the regime’s power structure. Sharing with the Kuomintang the profits from of trafficking opium, the Green Gang brought significant financial support to Chiang Kai-shek, who had established many links with leaders of the criminal underworld.  Chiang saw that the only way to effectively connect with the leadership of the Shanghai bourgeoisie was to have Du officially part of the political machine and equally Du saw that he would benefit from the National Party’s style of state corporatism. Du eventually fled to Hong Kong in 1949 when the Kuomintang exiled to Taiwan; remaining there until he died in 1951. His favourite expression all his life was “you have my word”; not many people argued.

In Hong Kong, the Triads were far more complex, having a conglomerate network of nine major organisations, each often being in rivalry to the others. The end result, though, was the same as in Shanghai – collectively they were the powerful “under the hood” engine without which not much of any consequence could effectively happen. Some of these, such as the 14K Triad, were started by ex-Kuomintang high ranking officials. Unlike the Green Gang, Hong Kong Triads had an international deck of cards that incorporated the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK.

Hong Kong Triads were visually far more low profile than the Green Gang; images of leaders are extremely rare even though their activities are well documented. The Triad Sun Yee On, for example, worked in conjunction with the Wo Hop To Triad but was a rival of 14K and Wo Shing Wo. Hong Kong Triads tended to be on a single ethnicity; Sun Yee on, for example, was Han Chinese – this was a typically Hong Kong situation. In Shanghai, and later across many Chinese cities, the Green Gang dominated the labour unions, while in Hong Kong it was a constant battle for the British administration to curb Triad infiltration of labour unions

Low profile the Triads may have been visually, but as with Shanghai, the extent and speed the luxury industries developed simply would not have happened without their full support and co-operation. Not only had the Chiangs understood this, but many of the heavy-weight investors and industrialists that were operating in both cities were inextricably part of this complicated web. Certainly the Hardoons and the Sassoons, both substantial landowners and developers in both Shanghai and Hong Kong could not have operated without collusion with the Green Gang and their Hong Kong counterparts; between the two families, most of the prime sites were acquired and developed, with even the site of the Kwok family’s Wing On department store in Shanghai held on a 30 year lease from Silas Hardoon at 50,000 taels of silver annually.

In the history of gangsters there has always been an unwritten glamour factor associated with it, a fascination that still grips us today through the medium of film. Glamour was also much written about of the Soong family, of whom Madame Chiang [May-ling] was one of 5 siblings. May-ling’s sister, Ching-lin married Sun Yat-sen, the father of Modern China. Her elder sister Ai-ling was married to H.H. Kung, finance minister of China, banker, economic adviser to Chiang-Kai-shek, was once the richest man in China and was 75th generation direct descendant of Confucius and a devout Christian.

The Soong Sisters

Soong Ching-lin and Sun Yat-sen [left]; Soong Ai-ling and H.H.Kung [right]

T.V. Soong [Tse-ven] was the elder brother and held posts such as Governor of the Central Bank of China, Minister of Finance, was charged with negotiations with Stalin and was Chiang Kai-shek’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was a devout Methodist. Soong Zi-an was the younger brother and shunned direct involvement in politics but served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Bank of Guangzhou.

T.V.Soong & Zhang Leyi

T.V.Soong and his wife Zhang Leyi

The Soong siblings can be likened to the Mitford sisters or the Kennedy children and like all society constructs, style icons are sought and when found become part of the hidden engine that motors the momentum of style evolution. Before the formation of the republic, the upper echelons of Chinese society aspired to replicate the Imperial court. The ending of the Qing Dynasty caused a style vacuum that, in the case of China, was filled remarkably quickly. One could even argue that Shanghai created far more style than Hong Kong, perhaps because Hong Kongers were a more fragmented society and one that was infused with the rigid framework of the British colonialist mindset; a condition that as yet had not become moribund.

Luen Hing Tea and Coffee Set

This 4-piece tea and coffee set by the Shanghai retail silversmith Luen Hing [above] is a superb example of the ingenuity of Chinese silversmiths to create a unique fusion of traditional Chinese motifs and the Art Deco style. It is so redolent of Shanghai and the heady lifestyle that reigned during the first 35 years of the 20th century. The same can be said of this Tuck Chang tea set [also a Shanghai retail silversmith] that is slightly more staid, but nevertheless using the same fusion of Chinese and the Art deco style.

Tuck Chang Tea Set

Early 20th century Shanghai and Hong Kong: two very different cities with two very different rules of law – both intent on building a vibrant, affluent modern world, expressing themselves in different ways, both with a strong Triad undercurrent – the real underground engine room that fuelled the extraordinary expressions of creativity in all its forms.

Wang Hing Art Deco Brooch

Adrien von Ferscht at University of Glasgow




Grey Space Bar

Adrien von Ferscht at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions

Adrien von Ferscht at WorthPoint

Asia Scotland Institute

Grey Space Bar

Chinese Export Silver Makers Marks New 4 Edition

Chinese Export Silver Makers Marks

Grey Space Bar


The Art of War: Ron Gluckman, AsiaWeek, March 2000

The Soong Sisters: Emily Hahn, 1943

The First Lady of China: Harry Thomas, IBM Corp, 1943

Shanghai, The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City: Stella Dong, 2000

The Last Empress – Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China: Hannah Pakula, 2009

Old Shanghai – Gangsters in Paradise: Lynn Pan, 1984

Nation, Governance and Modernity in China: Michael Tsin, Stanford University Press, 1999

The Soong Dynasty: Sterling Seagrave, 1986

China in the 1920’s – Nationalism & Revolution: Gilbert F Chan & Etzold H Tomas, 1976

The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party: Kuo-t’ao Chang, University of Kansas

The Streets of Shanghai: PB Works

East Asian History – The Origin of the Green Gang and its Rise in Shanghai 1850-1920: Brian G Martin,Australian National University, Canberra

Triads: Peter Yam Tat-wing

The Triad Myth: Tony Lee, CIA/Toronto Police

Chinese Triad Society: T Wing Lo & Sharon Ingrid Kwok

Heterodoxy in Late Imperial China: Kwang-Ching Liu & Richard Lon-Chun Shek

Secret Societies in China: Alexander Wylie, 1897

The Origins of the Tiandihui – The Chinese Triads in Legends and History: Dian Murray, 1994

The Green Gang and the Guomindang State – Du Yuesheng and the Politics of Shanghai: Brian G Martin


Tales of Old Shanghai; The World of Chinese – China Dispatch; Grand Lodge of British Columbia & Yukon; People’s Republic of China; JSTOR; Grand Central Inc, Montreal; S & J Stodel, London; Time Magazine; Paramount Pictures

Danny Cheng for his translation skills

Unless specified, all images are from the image archive of Adrien von Ferscht or his associated publications and/or academic research papers


© 2014, Adrien von Ferscht. All rights reserved.

 Copyright 2014 chinese export silver