This is the finest Chinese water pipe for tobacco that we have seen. It is made entirely of high-grade silver. Not made for export to the European market, but was made either for local use or perhaps for export to Indo-China, possibly to what is now Vietnam. It might also have been the product of Chinese silversmiths operating in Vietnam.
It is complete with silver tweezers, a silver hooked wick holder and a pipe bowl.
The double-skinned body has an outer skin of finely cut fretwork.
The base is marked with several Chinese ideograms. One reads ‘Chen Ying Ji’. This is either the maker’s or retailer’s name and is possibly of Cantonese origin suggesting that this piece has come from southern China, or from Vietnam where Cantonese is the main dialect of the ethnic Chinese community. The finial for the wick holder has been stamped with what appears to be an import or control mark, hitherto unidentified.
Such pipes were not used for opium, but for tobacco. The base was filled with water and the pipe worked by drawing the tobacco smoke down through the water before being drawn into the user’s mouth so that it was cleansed of ash and cooled. It essentially functioned in the same manner as a hookah used in the Middle East and Mughal India. Tobacco was imported into China in the 19th century but mostly it was grown locally in Shandong and Gansu provinces where it was grown after the Spanish had introduced tobacco to the nearby Philippines.
This is an excellent piece, in superb condition.
Chan, D.P.L., Chinese Export Silver: The Chan Collection, published in conjunction with the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, 2005.
Forbes, H.A.C. et al, Chinese Export Silver 1785-1885, Museum of the American China Trade, 1975.
Johnson, I., & M. Brooke, ‘The Chinese water pipe’, Arts of Asia, November-December 1977.
Marlowe, A.J., Chinese Export Silver, John Sparks, 1990.
Rapaport, B., ‘Tobacco pipe curiosities of the Orient’, Arts of Asia, January-February, 1997.