The Complex Hierarchy of The China Trade Relative to the Chinese Export Silver Trade
by Adrien Von Ferscht
Chinese Export Silver was very much a product of the China Trade, but the period between 1757-1842 is now known as the Old China Trade. Despite frenetic attempts by the Emperor to restrict European merchants, citizens and their trade to Macau, it began to spread throughout China. The Canton System was devised to control trade with the West within China. As with all things Chinese, there was a structure and a hierarchy, with the Emperor at the top of the pyramid. Equally Chinese, if a system was devised and imposed to curb any activity that was essentially money-making in intent, the Chinese would always find a way to circumvent it.
There is a misconception that trade, apart from the burgeoning opium trade, was very much a one-way affair. Firstly, there was a trade from China to Britain that was known as the “Drug Trade” that began as early as 1800. What were known as “drugs” were surprisingly the following: cassia, camphor and rhubarb - they were all considered as medicinal in their day. The trade was so substantial that a “Drug Concern” was established in London - a partnership that handled and controlled the operation in Britain. In return, certain goods, despite a general belief the Chinese wanted nothing from the West, were sent to China that included: lead, tin, Prussian blue and cochineal. In addition there was a rather strange commodity that wealthy Chinese had an addiction for; it was known by the Chinese as “singsongs”. Singsongs, a pidgin word, were automatons, musical clocks and musical boxes! The Chinese couldn’t get enough of them and would pay anything to own British versions of them. In the region of £100,000 worth were dispatched to Canton each year for the first decade of the 19th century. This had a “street value” of around £1 million in China; a relatively small but highly lucrative trade. The Drug Trade and the singsong trade were all handled by private traders and the East India Company hated this trading so much it tried every way possible to make life hard for all concerned in it.
But things became even more bizarre; the Drug Trade and the singsong trade was so significant that forward trading bills were issued in London and traded as a commodity until sadly the bottom fell out of the market - many fingers were burned in the demise.
The late 18th century and early 19th century saw relatively few Chinese silversmiths manufacturing Chinese Export Silver. As a silver trade, and later as a silver category in its own right, it was substantial, but in the wider context of the Chinese Trade as a whole, it was always a trade that helped fill the clipper ships carrying tea, nankeen and various silks, not to mention opium. It was clear from the outset of the China Trade that the Chinese silversmiths could produce silver as fine as the best Georgian silversmiths and silver, as a commodity, was cheaper; the labour being a fraction of the cost. However, initially any purchasing has to be via the auspices of the Hong merchants.
The combination of the freneticism and the sheer volumes of trade in the context of devious minds and varying degrees of greed eventually began to take its toll on the Hong merchants themselves, By far the most shrewd was Houqua; he was also a master of networking. He was becoming vastly wealthy and relatively immune to the knocks and shocks of voluminous trading, much of which was speculative. The other Hong merchants did not fare so well, many getting severely into debt. It was in the interest of the British and the Hong that the status quo for the time being be maintained. The British government actually passed Acts of Parliament that created substantial loans to help keep the Hong solvent. Houqua himself also contributed and the balance required was raised by the Parsi Indian merchants working in parallel to the East India Company. The Parsi merchants were to remain very much part of the equation in the China Trade until the eventual Treaty of Nanking created the various treaty ports; the Parsi merchant dynasties of the Banajis, the Dadiseths, the Kamas and the wonderfully named family, the Readymoneys, were all headed by Sir Jamshedji Jijibhai. After the Treaty, they were replaced by the Bombay and Calcutta Jewish merchant families; the Khadoories, the Hardoons and the Sassoons, with David Sassoon being titular head. The Parsis took advantage of the American Civil War and concentrated their energies on the cotton and cloth trades with Manchester in Britain.
The bailing out of the Hong merchants put the latter in an unenviable weak position with the British initially, but devious minds are often the mother of invention - it is best to say that some highly ingenious ways were found that were beneficial to all parties involved, except for the Imperial Court! Houqua remained virtually the only Hong merchant to stay solvent, attaining the eventual status of “the wealthiest man in the world”. Another reason it was deemed necessary to keep the incumbent Hong merchants’ heads above water was the practice of the Imperial Court to banish bankrupt merchants to a solitary life of poverty. It was a case of the “devil you know rather than the devil you don’t know” for the British and even Houqua.
It is between 1840 and 1850 that we begin to see more Chinese silversmiths operating in Canton and making only Chinese Export Silver. Up until this time all trade by the foreign merchants, whether it be import or export, had to be conducted through the Hong merchants. The fact that almost all of the Hongs were now beholden to the British and Houqua created a chink in the iron curtain that forbade foreigners from entering China proper. The Country Traders and the ships’ captains now ventured into the nearby streets - Old China Street, New China Street and the alleys that lead from them and they bought directly from the silversmiths. This had the added benefit of purchases being exempt from the Hoppo taxes. This new status quo attracted new silversmiths to appear near to the foreign “factories” that were keen to take advantage of what was essentially a new form of trade, albeit technically illicit.
Understanding any Chinese phenomenon is complex. The consensus of opinion today, particularly by the Chinese, is that the makers’ marks we find on Chinese Export Silver are actually the names of retail silversmith shops. My own research, particularly into the English journals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries paint a slightly different picture. Take the maker Cutshing for example. Cutshing was an old house that was famous for producing fine luxury items of silver, silver gilt, carved ivory, lacquer wares and jade. But Cutshing and comparable contemporaries such as Lin Chong were actually manufacturing their own items in their own workshops. The House of Carl Fabergé in St Petersburg would be a good comparable - Fabergé maintained a showroom at the front of the premises at 24 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa. Behind and above the showroom were the workshops where regular clients could enter and discuss new commissions with the actual artisans; this was the same model that Cutshing operated at his New China Street and his later Old China Street premises.
However, the mushrooming of so-called silversmiths taking advantage of the foreign buyers infiltrating the previously out of bounds streets created a different situation. This is the beginning of the period where we see names such as Wang Hing appearing. These establishments were retail showrooms that were supplied by separate workshops populated by artisan silversmiths. A house name such as Wang Hing would develop a style and a level of quality that was synonymous with that house, the quality control being exercised strictly by the main house. In certain instances, some of the workshops were also owned exclusively by the house, others were either independent or may have been family relatives of the house proprietor. A few workshops were actually owned by Hong merchants or partnerships of Hong and foreign merchants - a way for the Hong merchants to be compensated for not receiving commission payment on transactions. It was not uncommon for workshops to rent bench space to itinerant artisan silversmiths. The artisan silversmiths stamped their own chopmark on pieces they were responsible for and it was not an uncommon sight for the same artisan and chopmark to appear on pieces under different house names, indicating that some artisans worked benches in several workshops for different houses. The artisans were all master silversmiths as the West would recognise, working incredibly hard and being paid relatively low for highly skilled work. This was the accepted system.
All this was a product of highly complex corruption. It was chaotic, unpredictable and multi-layered - yet it was a system of sorts and it worked for all concerned, the Emperor excluded. Foreign traders had to factor all this in to an ever changing equation. Not only were there known payments and taxes to be paid, but there were payments that had to be made in order to turn a blind eye as it were. These were known collectively as cumshaws - a pidgin phrase derived loosely from the “right to land on Chinese soil” or “come ashore” - gân xiè in Chinese, meaning “grateful thanks”. As an example, in 1807, a ship of 300 tons with 30 crew that stayed for 3 months on shore paid in the region of $2600 for cumshaw. It was only the lucrative export trades from China that made the whole system worthwhile for all concerned. Chinese Export Silver may have been small relative to the tea and silk trades, but it was immensely profitable. It also filled gaps in the ships’ holds that would otherwise have returned empty. One could best refer to it as “economic ballast”.
This remained the status quo until the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 threw open the doors to Canton. This eventually resulted in Shamien Island being leased to the British who in turn auctioned leases for the valuable parceled trading sites to various nations, America being the largest second the Britain. The British profited well from this initiative in terms of real estate, but it also was the beginning of an unequal treaty that was for the first time unfavourable for the Chinese. This was the new status quo:
The Government of China, having compelled the British Merchants trading at Canton to deal exclusively with certain Merchants called Hong merchants [or Cohong] who have been licensed by the Chinese Government for that purpose, the Emperor of China agrees to abolish that practice in future at all Ports where British Merchants may reside, and to permit them to carry on their mercantile transactions with whatever persons they please, and His Imperial Majesty further agrees to pay the British Government Three Millions of Dollars on account of Debts due to British Subjects by the said Hong Merchants who have become insolvent, and who owe very large sums of money to Subjects of Her Britannic Majesty.
The three million dollars were paid in silver trade dollars to compensate keeping the various Hong Merchants afloat over the years. A further twenty one million dollars was paid to the British Government over the next 3 years in the Treaty, with 5% interest levied on late payment.
So ended the Canton System. The new treaty laid down detailed regulations for Sino-British trade and specified the terms under which Britons could reside in the newly opened ports of ShangHai, Ningbo, Xiamen, Fuzhou and Canton. While Britons were allowed to buy property in the treaty ports and reside there with their families, they were still not allowed to travel to the interior of China or carry out trade there.
What this created was a re-arrangement of the trading furniture as it were; the British became effectively the new Cohong by being granted Most Favoured Nation status not exclusively in Canton but also the other treat ports. In addition, the British now had Hong Kong.
In terms of the Chinese Export Silver trade, the already evolved system of emporia, shops and workshops in Canton spread to the other treaty ports. Most of these cities had already long established traditions of silversmithing, especially in Tientsin and ShangHai where some silversmiths dated back to the 17th century. Towards the latter part of the 19th century we see instances of individual silversmith workshops operating in multiple cities as well as workshops creating branches in different locations in the same city. It is important, however, to always remember that that silver making in China had a long tradition of 1200 years - it was not a bi-product of the China Trade; as a definitive silver category Chinese Export Silver was.
The Cohong disbanded and either retired or acted as consultant facilitators to foreign merchants except for Houqua who continued his close relationship with American merchants. Houqua’s great success was at least due in part to his friendship with the Boston clan but the Bostonians owed Houqua at least as much. Not only did he aid every family representative who came to China, he continued to favour some long after they returned home by investing money in American ventures in partnership with them. Houqua owned 10% of Russell & Company, a company that invested heavily in railroads including the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad and railroads from Chicago to the Mississippi.
Sadly, Houqua died in 1843, a year after the Treaty. A clipper ship was built in New York and named in his honour in 1844.
So we have a situation where some of the silversmiths during the early manufacturing periods of Chinese Export Silver were very much in league with the Hong Merchants who in turn were in league with the foreign merchants based in Canton as well as the sea captains themselves - we have already seen how a silver retailers’ name could be the product of a joint venture between a Hong Merchant and a foreign merchant. In the frantic world of Canton, in particular, this would have seemed both natural and inevitable. Cutshing is one such silver name that was born of such an alliance, yet early Cutshing silver is considered comparable to the finest Georgian silversmiths in Britain and America. Cutshing silver was the product of strict quality control, highly honed design and highly skilled silversmithing. It also had a deep understanding of the end user and this could only have been a product of collusion between the Western merchants and the Hong merchants.
From this, we can see more clearly how labyrinthine the trade was and, more importantly, the actual artisan silversmith that worked an item was very much at the bottom end of the food chain. There is nothing particularly different between manufacturing in China then and now - the worker may be skilled but they are relatively poorly paid for something that is highly prized in the West or by affluent Chinese; skilled artisan silversmiths had a place towards the bottom of the Chinese social hierarchy. I should counter this by saying not all the silver was destined for the West - some went to India, Arab countries, other south east Asian countries and the silver that was sent there was very much designed to suit regional and religious tastes. Some was also sought after by affluent Chinese, some of whom aspired for a more Western lifestyle which was certainly the case in ShangHai and Hong Kong.
Chinese Export Silver makers’ marks do not deliver information other silver marks might and although making sense of them can be somewhat of a minefield, it isn’t an insurmountable one. That said, the silver speaks for itself.
To complete the picture of early 19th century Cantonese shopkeepers, here’s a rather amusing account from a traveller’s journal of 1838, very probably of either Old China Street or New China Street:
Adrien von Ferscht’s website is the largest online information resource for Chinese Export Silver: www.chinese-export-silver.com 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: http://chinese-export-silver.com/catalogue-of-makers-marks/
Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for translation skills; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Hong Kong Gallery of Art; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts; Christie’s, London; The Brook Club, New York