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.


  1. Pewter was clearly a desirable material because, as you note, it was a soft metal, easily worked by as casting, stamping or engraving. Plus the greying metal showed off the elaborate floral engraving. But I wonder why, apart from the cost of the raw materials, pewter was chosen over silver. Do you think the pewter objects emphasise the beauty of the materials and decorations better?

    My favourite object is definitely the egg offering stand because the gorgeous decoration is built up in registers.

    1. Hello Hels, There certainly was silver in old China, but except for jewelry and small boxes, it didn't seem to take hold in the same way as it did in Western countries. I can think of dozens of silver items in my house in the U.S. when I was growing up, and we didn't even have a particularly showy selection. In Chinese homes, on the other hand, except for the aforementioned jewelry, I rarely see any silver at all. Also, silver-plating was not big here either (although it does exist), possibly showing that most people were not dying for cheap alternatives to solid silver.

      Your question raises lots of others, such as did people prefer to keep their pewter objects polished like silver, and did the Emperor's palace also contain objects of pewter in addition to silver and gold?

      I too love the offering stand, with its decorative scheme that obviously goes back centuries, if not millennia!--Jim

  2. Hello Jim - pewter in the UK stands to have come in and out of fashion at different periods. I tend to acquaint pewter with old inns and hostelries where it was used for tankards and plates. The next period I think about was the Art Nouveau along with the Arts and Crafts period when many pieces were made from pewter which were decorated with repousse work and then inset with semi precious stones.
    All of your peices are very interesting and especially so with your skilled interpretation of the designs and what they mean.
    I too like the last piece but I think that my favourite is the little box inlaid with brass or copper in a pattern of birds resting on flowering plum branches along with its own little wooden box.
    With all of your bats and longevity symbols it looks as if you are in for a very long and lucky life.

    1. Hello Rosemary, I have also seen the Arts and Crafts type of pewter, and in fact that style was popular in China, even in later periods. Perhaps the bat shelf belongs to that genre. I also have a fragment, a broken pewter strap or inlaid with gemstones and with what looks like half of a jade bangle for a handle.

      I agree that the small round box is very special. The wooden outer box looks like the boxes used to protect many Japanese antiques, and I investigated the possibility that this may be Japanese without coming to any definite conclusions, but somehow the decoration seems more Chinese to me. --Jim

  3. I agree with Hels. The egg stand is special and would look right at home in the Cloisters Museum in NYC. Is there a significance to the the number five because the stand holds five eggs? Does it fit both chicken and duck eggs? As you know, the Chinese are fond of duck eggs.
    KL Gaylin

    1. Hello K.L. Gaylin, I have seen the hexagonal type of stand with either four or five compartments. The larger rectangular type usually has six or eight section, so I am guessing that the number of divisions is a function of the shape and size.

      The stand would accommodate duck eggs, but as I mentioned I think that other foods could be offered as well as eggs. I love the duck eggs here, either the salted kind, whose yolks are also used in the centers of pastries, and the pi-dan, or 100-year eggs, that are very traditional. I think that the salted-egg-yolk idea could be extended to certain Western pastries with profit. --Jim

  4. Hello Jim, Thanks to your showing us the word 天作之合, I added one important成語into my dictionary. The last one is especially great. I do not know the reason of decorating eggs. I just imagine they are round and this shape 圓 can be associated with being complete or 無缺完善的幸福.

    1. Hello rtc, 天作之合 is still current--my friends here all know it. Sometimes the words on antiques are a bit obsolete or mystifying. You make an important point about the symbolism of perfection in the round shape. Note, however, that only a few of these stands have round holes. Most of them are rectangular. Perhaps the round-holed ones were more fitting for certain occasions, such as weddings. Time for more research! --Jim

  5. LOVE THE CLOUD BOX as YOU refer to it!
    I never got INTO PEWTER but had a COUSIN who collected it back in the 1970's.
    SO, much detail.............
    The BAT SYMBOLIZES LONGEVITY? I need to go back as I think you mentioned it!
    THANK YOU for sending as per the norm I did not receive it!!!!!!

    1. Hello Contessa, The cloud box always makes me smile--I wonder why take so much trouble to craft a box in that shape?

      The bats symbolize luck, which certainly includes longevity, but here the five bats are surrounding a version of the Chinese character for longevity--indeed, as they often do.

      I wrote about bats before, but I should do a new post with more detail and with more antique examples! --Jim
      Previous bat post:

  6. Jim: This post is a masterpiece although I can tell that it's a labour of love. It must have taken you a lot of effort to collate but it is such a pleasure to learn about these things. I didn't know there were so many varieties of pewter. The materiel offers a unique range of qualities to the craftsman it seems.
    CLICK HERE for Bazza’s quidnuncic Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

    1. Hello Bazza, One of the advantages of writing about the objects that have been collected is that by thinking about them, editing the photos, and so forth, you learn so much more detail about their construction and symbolism. For example, the mirrored cosmetic box--it struck me how complicated an object this was for such a soft metal, with multiple hinges, a sliding drawer, etc. It is certainly a testament to the quality of craftsmen in those days! --Jim

  7. Dearest Jim,
    Interesting post with a lot of information.
    Personally I love the very intricate round box but also the very practical red ink paste box.
    Yes, in our home there are numerous pieces of pewter.
    Some miniatures of ancient Dutch objects that I keep in an oak wall rack, from my Paternal Grandmother and also a collection of pure 95% and also 90% tin objects that actually could be used for food purposes as it did not contain lots of the dreaded lead.
    At the time that I first married in the early 70s, pewter was still a fond gift object and sold in lots of high quality stores. Sure there always have been the heavy, lead laden pieces around but they are never as beautifully crafted.
    Sad that the ink paste got removed so harshly, leaving scratches.

    1. Hello Mariette, How nice that you have those heirlooms and wedding presents, some of them pewter. My parents were married before pewter regained its popularity as a gift, but we have acquired some vintage pieces we frequently use, such as a tea bag holder/strainer with a small tray to catch the drips. I know that a lot of that quality pewter was made in Holland.

      It is too bad that the ink box was scratched, but at least it is only on the inside, and it goes to show how careful you have to be with pewter. I would love to place that box on a table, but because of the remaining ink, nothing could be placed in it. That is ok since cleaning it out thoroughly would obscure its original use. I believe in the restoration adage, never do anything that isn't reversible. --Jim

  8. Jim - Wonderful collection! Lovely, mellow patina!! I also collect pewter but I don't have any Chinese ones. Most of mine are Swedish. I have mostly platters and chargers.

    1. Hello Loi, Your collection of Swedish chargers must be dramatic. I wonder if I have seen them in some of your photos. When I collected in Ohio, I had no antique pewter--it seems to be mostly an East Coast thing; by the time the Midwest was populated, chinaware had become more common. --Jim

  9. Hello Jim, You live in Taipei. I imagine you didn't have any damage by the earthquake. Are your friends well?

    1. Thanks, rtc. The center of the earthquakes was away from Taipei, and everyone I know is quite safe. We did feel a series of quite noticeable shocks here for several days running, but no damage in Taipei. --Jim

  10. Hello, Jim,

    My favorite item is the small face powder box. I like the shape and the dark patina, which I would never associate with pewter. Great patina!

    I'm told that my (Swiss) great-great grandmother had many pewter utensils, but that in her day they would have been considered fit for everyday use. While I would love to have even one piece, they were not especially valued by her. Of course they would not have been such original and unusual designs as you have shared, either!

    1. Hello Mark, It is too bad that none of your great-great grandmother's utensils have survived. When my great-grandmother moved to an apartment from her house, the small utensils must have been given away, because when I went over the empty house for the last time, none of that type of stuff was there, although there were some interesting finds in the attic, basement and garage. (She might have taken some things with her, but she moved in with my grandmother and they did not need double kitchen items.)

      You are right about the patina on the powder box--I have noticed that too and wondered if possibly the top was patinated when new to give it that look intentionally. It is unusual to see pewter so finely worked, so that may have justified some kind of varnish or applied patina. --Jim


I would love to know what you think. Please feel free to comment--no tricky security words required! Any difficulties or questions, email at: