The story of east-west trade through Chinese silk exports

Illustrated packing boxes
Artistic interpretation of popular silk motifs
White silk wallpaper with hand-painted flowers & birds
Canton embroidered Catholic priest hat
Wood & silk Canton embroidered folding screen with scene of birthday greetings from the Eight Immortals
Famille-rose ceramic bowl with ploughing and weaving pattern
Silk ribbons with Canton glass beads (left) & Red Canton satin with iris pattern (right)
Satin tablecloth

A Tale of 3 Cities

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Canton, Hong Kong & Macau Ports

Maritime trade routes led to rising global interactions in the Ming and Qing dynasties as Chinese silk developed into a significant commodity. A Tale of Three Cities at the Hong Kong Museum of Art examines the development of this trade. Europeans highly coveted both raw materials and textiles for clothing and interior decoration. The ports of Canton, Hong Kong, and Macau facilitated these trades. Through them, the worldwide commodities market experienced an ever-evolving dialogue between eastern and western styles that resulted in an abundance of fresh and unique designs.

Chinese Silk Export

Admired for its sumptuous texture and unparalleled quality, silk has served as a mark of the wearer’s prestige since ancient times. The beguiling textile originated in China, the first country to make silkworm cocoon fabrics. As early as the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties, Chinese silk was considered one of the country’s most precious export commodities through overland and maritime trade routes.

Over a hundred items document the maritime trade routes that led to rising global interactions in the Ming and Qing dynasties

Spanish Silver Coins

To purchase goods from China, one needed the proper payment. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the international currency was silver coins. Over forty thousand tonnes of silver flowed into China from western countries during this period, accounting for about half of global silver production. Spanish silver coins, known in China as benyang, were minted in the Spanish Empire during the seventeenth century. These began circulating in China’s coastal regions in the mid to late eighteenth century. The reigns of Qing dynasty Emperors Daoguang and Xianfeng (1821-1861) saw benyang become the official silver coin in circulation. The dollar sign was said to be inspired by the coin’s image of pillars wrapped by ribbons.

Mexican Silver Coins

Mexican silver coins, called yingyang in China, were newly minted by Mexico in 1823 following their independence from Spain two years prior. In the mid-nineteenth century, Mexican silver coins steadily replaced their Spanish counterpart in the Chinese market to become the standard silver currency. The Mexican coin’s obverse features an eagle with a snake in its beak, an image derived from its national emblem.

Maritime Silk Road

Canton (Modern Guangzhou), Hong Kong, and Macau thrived as transit ports in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Canton attracted foreign merchants via maritime routes by purchasing large quantities of raw silk, silk textiles, and other Chinese handicrafts. Macau and Hong Kong became stopover points for merchant ships approaching China via the Maritime Silk Road, a route which saw growing western traffic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Canton Thirteen Factories

From 1757-1842, the Qing government made Canton the only Chinese port for foreign trade. From Canton, goods from all over China were exported. Conversely, imported western goods were distributed throughout China via Canton. As such, Canton’s southwestern trading district, the Thirteen Factories, became China’s most prosperous foreign trade site. Located in the southwestern suburbs of Canton City, foreign merchants stayed in buildings called “factories” through the trade season. National flags hung in front of each factory entrance. Many shops near the factories exported trade paintings and other popular Chinese art, expanding the rich heritage of Chinese art and crafts in the western consciousness.

Hong Kong Port

When Canton was the only accessible port for foreign trade, merchant ships heading there utilised Aberdeen, Hong Kong, as a stopover point for replenishment. Additionally, the harbour formed by Lamma Island, Shek Pai Wan, and Ap Lei Chau were considered an ideal anchorage for vessels. When Hong Kong opened in 1841, the area experienced a rise in trading companies, as well as Chinese and western-style residences. The following year, China’s initial dominance of foreign trade changed when the Qing government opened five treaty ports to foreign trade. Shops in China targeting the export market began to relocate to Hong Kong’s Queen’s Road. Slowly but surely, Hong Kong became a hub of international trade.

Macau Port

In the mid-sixteenth century, the Portuguese settled Macau to facilitate maritime trade. Macau’s port and city quickly rose in population and commerce between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries. In 1757, foreign merchant ships sailing to Canton had to stop and register in Macau. As the Qing government forbade foreign women from entering Canton, Macau also became a temporary home for the families of accompanying foreign merchants.

Chinese silk mania took off in Europe in the eighteenth century. In response, vast amounts of silk fabrics, clothing, accessories, and embroidered ornaments were exported from China. Chinese artists embroidered products with Rococo-style floral motifs to cater to western clientele.

China’s Silk Production in the Pearl River Delta

China’s silk production was concentrated in Jiangnan and the Pearl River Delta. These areas were the traditional and emerging areas of silk manufacturing, respectively. The process of silk production was extensive. Producers began by gathering mulberry leaves to feed silkworms. Silkworms would then be arranged on trellises, which were warmed to keep silkworms spinning their cocoons and preventing rotting. Next, silk would be reeled off and bound into threads. Afterwards, silk was wound onto spools. Threads were then prepared for wrapping and wefting. Finally, these fine threads were woven into cloth.

As early as February-March, western companies ordered premium silk from Chinese merchants so their ships could collect deliveries upon arrival at the Eastern ports in August-September. The most popular silk export was jacquard fabrics, which were coloured with larger patterns woven in. Most exported jacquard was designed with traditional Chinese patterns in single or dual colours.

Chinese Clothing became Fashionable

By the nineteenth century, Chinese clothing became a new trend in Europe. Some noblewomen even dressed up in traditional Chinese women’s attire. They would wear embroidered dresses, shawls, and shoes decorated with fantastic beings, including qilin (a Chinese horned and hooved mythical creature), dragons, and phoenixes. To keep up with fashion trends, clothing designs fusing Chinese and western elements emerged in the export market.

Chinese Export Clothing

In the late nineteenth century, Chinese clothing was a new category of export goods. Its typically loose tailoring and oriental touch made it ideal for western ladies’ morning gowns and night robes. Among the enchanting robes on display is a loose blue satin robe. Wide-sleeved and slit on both sides, the sapphire blue silk is embroidered with seasonable flowers and flower baskets to symbolise everlasting spring (a Chinese idiom for wealth and prosperity).

Text & photos by Victoria Mae Martyn