Tianjing: The Hidden Art Hub of China

Tianjin is a city in China full of culture and history, especially for collectors of Chinese ceramics. In recent history, there have been many people of renown who resided in Tianjin. Of these people of renown, there was one who was a member of the “Eight Great Families of Tianjin” who owned what is now known as the Shi Family Grand Courtyard.

This property was first built in 1875 and covers over 6,000 square meters. The residence included a main area for the Shi family, a worship area for Buddha, and also offices for their servants and accountants. Shi Yuanshi is the son of Shi Wancheng and is directly responsible for continuing his family’s fortunes and the family residence. His business acumen and relationship with the Qing government insured the family’s prosperity. The family has been building prominence over 200 years since the reign of Jiaqing Emperor, through transporting grain and cotton using canal transportation.

To this day, the Shi family residence has been well preserved and partially transformed into a museum. Other portions of the residence have been used as stage sets for historical dramas and movies. The Shi family was known to collect Chinese Ceramics and other trade items of value, and today there are still a few intact pieces which are displayed in the museum portion of the residence.

Shi Grand Family Courtyard

Seated just 20 kilometers away from the Shi Family Courtyard is the Jing Yuan, the Tianjin residence of the last Emperor of China. This residence is now considered a heritage site and under the special protection of the Chinese government.

Before becoming a heritage site, the residence housed Puyi, who was banished to Tianjin with whatever he belongings that he was allowed to bring from his former home. During his banishment, it was said that he lived an extravagant life even though he was without an imperial mandate. This is likely to have been funded by the material possessions that were taken with him during his banishment. The residence covers about 3,000 square meters, just half the size of the Shi Family Courtyard. This is where the last Emperor of China would reside for four years, from 1927 to 1931.

Jing Yuan, the residence of China's last emperor.

Also in Tianjin at the time was Xiao Dezheng, a eunuch which took almost $1 billion in bribes from Yuan Shikai. At the time, Shikai was determined to remove the imperial family from power and even created letters from 44 commanders of the army, as well as using his relationship with the Russian embassy to coerce the imperial family. It was said that Dezhang moved to an area in what is now the Heping area in modern Tianjin. He also took troves of loot from the imperial treasury which included ceramics, paintings and imperial gowns.

Yuan Shikai, the general who bribed the eunuch Xiao Dezheng, and eventually set to create his own albeit short dynasty.

The three illustrious figures listed here are only the few of many examples of ceramics and other valuables finding a home in Tianjin. Tianjin is also a port city close to the capital, which means that whatever enters and leaves Beijing must also go through Tianjin. Aside from the capital, Tianjin has a history of being the port to the ocean for all of northern China, since before modern China, the other port cities were not as developed. Situated in such a position, Tianjin is thus a place where money and items change hands, and naturally cities that host commerce will also find a growing class of elites who will purchase and collect objects of great monetary value.

A map of the Tianjin area from 1897.