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Sawasa Knife

Place of Origin: China, Qing Dynasty

Date: 18th to 19th Century

Overall Length: 255mm

Reference: 108

Status: Available

Full Description:

This is a highly unusual Chinese eating knife with mounts of Sawasa (a term applied to a group of black lacquered and gilt artefacts made from a copper alloy with gold, silver and arsenic).

Sawasa is believed to have been made in Japan, Tonkin, Batavia and possibly Canton (the latter being the most likely place where this knife was made) between 1650 and 1800.  The Chinese played a large and important role in the Sawasa trade, not only as manufacturers in the busy city of Canton but also providing vital transport via the Chinese maritime trade network.

The knife has a rosewood handle and a short, straight blade with a wavy, tempered single edge.  The scabbard of triangular cross-section has a wooden core and is covered with emerald-coloured green shagreen.  Alongside the knife sits a bone pickle skewer which is probably a later replacement.

The scabbard mouth is formed from a thick piece of silver alloy neatly engraved and inlaid with a gold key pattern along the outer face.  The top mount of the scabbard shows a detailed dragon grasping at a pearl amidst storm clouds with waves below.  On the rear, acting as a loop for a suspension cord, is a life-like three-dimensional squirrel with a wide, flat tail.  The tail rests on a lower mount which comprises a gilded copper band with an applied silver key pattern that’s framed by two thinner bands of twisted silver and copper wire.  Attached below are silver wires shaped as Chinese fungi (or stylised clouds) filled with blue enamel.

Two further mounts in the form of bats (Chinese symbols of good luck) are decorated in contrasting techniques.  The upper bat has a black body, silver wings and gold on the lower surfaces.  The bat below has a silver body with black wings, also with gold on the lower surfaces.  A further mount has an upper border of twisted silver and copper wire, with the main body made of gilded copper alloy with applied leaves and flowers.  The leaves have a black lacquer finish with their lower areas in gold, and a silver flower.

The knife, pommel and the scabbard’s chape both have gilded, granulated backgrounds with black highlights and applied flowers in alternate material and decoration: one silver and the other of black.

There are some features that set apart this piece from the well-known group of Sawasa objects exhibited at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam from 1988 to 1999 and shown in the 1999 book Sawasa: Japanese Export Art in Black and Gold.  These features are the use of silver and copper twisted wire bands which appear on two of the mounts, and the band of enamelled fungi or stylised clouds.  These additions, and the belief that this was made for the Chinese market rather than for exportation, makes this a highly unusual example.

We cannot find a similar set but we can compare the workmanship and materials to an oval tobacco box from a private collection which is illustrated in the Rijksmuseum catalogue, p.70, no.B.13.1.

Catalogue Notes

Knives were highly important to the Manchus.  Emperor Qianglong erected a tablet in front of the Jian Ting (the Archery Pavilion in the Forbidden palace)(1) emphasising that real Manchus should always carry knives to cut up their own pork at meals rather than having it cut up for them in the Chinese way.  He said on another occasion:

“Now I can see that Manchu traditions have been much relaxed.  For instance, Prince Yi did not carry his knife.  What is the reason for that?  I read records of Taizong (Hongtaiji, son of Nurgaci and second ruler in the dynasty) who said ‘Imperial clan males who cannot cut their meat themselves and do not carry arrow quivers are not observing Manchu customs.  What will become of their descendants?’  These are the lessons taught by Taizong to his sons.  He is already worried about his children and grandchildren giving up on tradition.”(2)

Knives were part of the standard Manchu ceremonial attire and can be found depicted, partly hidden by pouches but clearly visible, in official portraits such as those published in Life in the Forbidden City, Hong Kong, 1985, pl.66, portrait of the Kangxi emperor, and pl. 73, portrait of the Yongzheng emperor.  Qianglong can also be seen wearing a knife as part of his full ceremonial dress at the age of 25 in a painting kept at the Palace Museum, Beijing (Gu6464), attributed to Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766), circa 1736, which has been approved by the emperor by him stamping it with three seals. (3)


(1) Ho and Bronson, Splendors of China’s Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, 2004, p.31, fig.18.

(2) Tie, Qindi Dongxun (The Eastern Tours of the Qing emperors), 1991.

(3) Rawski and Rawson, China: The Three Emperors, 2005, p.81, fig.39.