Sunday, January 28, 2018

Collecting Chinese Pewter

Recently I wrote about the use of pewter in Chinese tea caddies, which led me to examine some of the other pewter articles I have accumulated over the years. Before I came to Taiwan, pewter from America, Britain and Europe evoked such iconic objects as plates, spoons, teapots, tankards and measures. Indeed an old-time or historic interior seems incomplete without the sheen of pewter. Chinese pewter was similarly worked into a wide range of objects, many of them replete with Chinese symbolism or incorporating Chinese methods of decoration.

This wonderful bright object is a hanging wall shelf in the shape of a bat. It is difficult to know what it was definitely for, but likely some religious use rather than a strictly household one. Chopsticks and incense usually had tubular or boxlike wall holders. The bat, lucky in itself,  is holding a disc in which is cut a lucky two-joined-coins symbol (representing prosperity) just above the tray with its scalloped edge. The base is formed of a large engraved vase flanked by patriotic flags. It is decorated with lively glass “jewels” including the black eyes of the bat, and even the ears were made separately and fixed in place—a nice touch.

The back view gives some clues to the construction, and shows how the gems were set so that light could shine through them.

Above is a delightful small cloud-shaped box. If it had a specific use it is a mystery—perhaps it once held a fancy cake of ink. The shape somewhat resembles a bat, so the ink could have been molded in that form, but in that case I would have expected the matching box to be shaped and engraved accurately.

The box opened—what could have been inside?

Pewter is a soft metal, easily worked by many methods, such as casting, stamping, or engraving, as show below. The graying metal shows off the elaborate floral engraving in the center, surrounded by a fretwork border made by a stamp.

The side of this box has already been seen here.

Opened up, we see that this is a cosmetics case with mirror and small drawer. Note the odd-shaped reservoir that lies flat under the mirror, presumably for trinkets, which would not be visible or accessible when the mirror was shut.

The cosmetics case has a clear, round hall mark.

Below is a small incense burner, with a pierced lid which includes five lucky bats surrounding a longevity symbol.

A side view discloses the thickness of the box, as well as the tab feet to keep the heat from delicate surfaces. Although it doesn’t show in the photo, the box rests securely on three of these feet, equally spaced.

Some pewter objects highlight the workability and ease of decoration of the pewter, while others, like this deep box, emphasize the beauty and sheen of the metal itself. The decoration is limited to one very thin line inscribed around the edge of the lid, which is very slightly rounded or domed, as had been seen previously in one of the tea canisters.

A side view shows the notable depth of the box.

Removing the top reveals all. This box contained the red ink paste used for Chinese seals or chops. The two unequally-sized compartments are presumably for different grades of ink. This box is quite large for ordinary personal seals, and considering its quality it was probably used by some important official or artist to accommodate the large seals used for documents and paintings. Someone made an attempt to scrape out the old ink, which had probably seen better days. Luckily, they did not clean it completely, but notice how the soft pewter was scratched when the ink was gouged out from the bottom.

The above small charming box, perhaps meant for face powder, is very delicate in its workmanship. About three inches across, it shows the refinement that can be built into pewter. The top has been inlaid with brass or copper in a pattern of birds resting on flowering plum branches. 

A close-up of the top shows that the brass has been further engraved for more detail, and that the eyes of the birds and the centers of the flowers have been in turn inlaid with more pewter or perhaps silver.

The inside shows the incredible patina, as well as the gently curving sides of the box.

The fitted wooden box shows that some collector prized and protected this delightful pewter object.

I purposely enlarged the photograph of this spectacular pewter dragon knife with base to give some idea of its large size, about two feet long. It is splendid in the boldness of its modeling. Many gods and heroes carried these halberd- or glaive-like weapons with the knives mounted at the end of long shafts. This model knife was meant to come out of its base, and be attached to a long pole for use in religious parades, which often include giant figures of the god or gods being honored.

Although probably used in parades, this knife was for show only. The metal is much too soft to be actually used, even for a martial-arts demonstration. The round bosses or studs on the blade are perhaps bronze, which would have given it a dressy look when new. Note also the wooden collar where it fits into the base, and the blue material that will allow it to come out easily.

This is the same photo, but reduced so you can see the shape all at once. Among the Chinese names I have found for this type of weapon are qing long dao (青龍刀, green dragon knife), guan dao (關刀,knife of Guan Yu), and yan yue dao  (偃月刀,reclining moon knife), but classification of Chinese arms can be complicated. Large knives mounted on long spears are collectively called da dao (大刀, or simply “big knives”).

Here is an old-fashioned square hallmark from a compartmented pewter box.

Finally, we come to a most remarkable object, one so delicate and complicated that it is surprising that it has survived so long undamaged. It reminds me of those intricate Mediaeval European wood or ivory carvings. The decoration is built up in registers or layers, a technique encountered frequently in ancient art (although this pewter object is “merely” antique).

At the bottom, there is a panel of old-fashioned Chinese characters, Tian Zuo Zhi He (天作之合) meaning “a match made in heaven,” indicating that this was likely a wedding gift. Above this is a band of naturalistic-looking branches, enhanced with three bosses. Directly above this, at the narrow waist of the object, is a simple rectangular grid.

The next panel up shows two Chinese coins, probably indicating prosperity for the new couple. We might expect these coins to be joined as are those in the Bat shelf, showing that two individuals now make one combined unit, but these coins are separated. Perhaps they are meant to underscore the individual importance of the two participants, or if we read this as a story, up from the base, they have not been married yet.

The actual ceremony seems to be taking place in the next and main panel, showing the happy couple individually framed but with hands joined. They are flanked by diamond-shaped geometrical panels with central bosses. Above this is a row of three large bosses, separating the next panel of geometric stars (with central bosses), which, in honor of my British readers, look like Union Jacks. The crowning decoration is a row of nine bosses.

Why so many bosses, especially on the upper part of this object? The bosses are smoother than the surrounding metal, indicating that they had originally been polished. When this was new and the pewter was bright, the bosses would have sparkled like jewels, making quite a remarkable sight, although it is perhaps just as well that it has toned itself down over the years.

A top view tells us that this is an offering stand. Although it looks specifically meant for eggs, it was more likely for any small offerings to be placed on the altar. I have seen wooden versions of these stands with the cups much shallower, in which eggs could not easily stand. Since eggs carry such symbolism, I additionally asked my married friend Wen if eggs played any part in the marriage ceremony, but he thought not—at least not at his wedding. Notice how each cup has been crafted separately and then carefully soldered into the top. 

Pewter certainly played an important part in Chinese art and craftsmanship. The items illustrated here are all very different in scale, complexity, and use, but let me know if you have a favorite, or if you have any pewter objects of your own (not necessarily Chinese) that you treasure.

All photos and original objects illustrated are property of the author.