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Cradle of arts and crafts
By Wang Jie

ASK 10 young Shanghainese about T'ou-Se-We, and probably nine would shake their heads, or even 10.

But the T'ou-Se-We Jesuit Orphanage and its large vocational workshops witnessed many watershed events in the development of modern culture, arts and crafts, education, science and philanthropy in Shanghai and China itself.

The area at the southern end of Xujiahui was once home to China's first Western-style library, China's first modern science museum and China's first modern astronomical observatory, meteoroslogical research and weather forecasting.

It was one of the birthplaces of modern higher education, the cradle of modern arts and crafts and most important modern printing workshop in Shanghai. It became a center for the production of stained glass and carvings for churches and public buildings in China.

At the 1915 Panama Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco, exquisite arts and crafts such as silver and embroidery from orphan craftsmen astonished the world.

Later non-orphans would study there and go on to make names for themselves, such as Liu Haisu, Ren Bonian and Xu Yongqing.

Famed oil painter Xu Beihong (1895-1953), a pioneer in modern Chinese art, said T'ou-Se-We "made a valuable contribution to the communication between Chinese and Western cultures and was the cradle of Western art in China."

Today, nothing physical remains, except for the orphanage building that has been turned into the T'ou-Se-We Museum.

Despite its obscurity, the Xuhui District government is promoting awareness of T'ou-Se-We, recently holding a seminar about its history and legacy.

T'ou-Se-We literally means "soil mountain bay" and refers to the more than 5 hectares of soil heaped there from the construction of the Zhaojiabang Tunnel in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It was described as being 6.6 meters high and 33 meters long in the middle of Zhaojia Canal.

R.P. Joseph Gonnet, president of the Jiangnan Society of Jesus (Jesuits), purchased the land in 1863 and built an orphanage. The children were boys aged 6 to 10 and were provided clothing and food and taught arts and crafts so they could support themselves. It was supported by Chinese and Western Catholics. After graduation, boys could leave or continue to work in the orphanage's workshops.

Over the next 90 years, the T'ou-Se-We Orphanage and workshops were written into the annals of modern Chinese culture.

At the recent seminar, scholar Su Zhiliang, a specialist in Shanghai history, called T'ou-Se-We "the largest and most influential source of Western cultural communication in modern China."

"The artistic creations of T'ou-Se-We developed simultaneously with its culture and education. They complemented each other to create a novel and unique mode that integrated education and practice and achieved historical brilliance," says Zhuo Xinping, director of the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

At a time when a variety of different cultures coexisted in Shanghai, many cultural historians regarded T'ou-Se-We as a "Latin area in Shanghai," and referred its culture as typical "Latin culture" in the Chinese cultural landscape. It referred to the European culture of "Romance" language countries such as Spain, Italy, Portugal and France.

According to Zhou, the "Latin characteristics and Western style" stem from the integration of European and US church culture dominated by French Catholicism in T'ou-Se-We.

During T'ou-Se-We's cultural development, vast changes occurred on the national and international scene. In 1842, Shanghai had been forced open as a treaty port by Western powers, developing into an international commercial city. By the early 20th century, it was the largest city in East Asia. Western culture flowed in, reflected in the education, arts and crafts in T'ou-Se-We.

Eventually T'ou-Se-We culture "became a little-known, dust-laden chapter of Shanghai's history," Zhuo says. "However, political history itself doesn't comprise the whole history of cultural exchange, even if it is very important. So, when we re-examine and sift through this period of history today, we should truly understand the T'ou-Se-We cultural phenomenon and its 'Latin' color, and (we should) positively comprehend its value, significance and contribution to cultural exchange between China and the West."

T'ou-Se-We Museum

Address: 55 Puhuitang Rd

How to get there: Metro Lines 1 and 4

Aspects of T'ou-Se-We

Ciyun School

Within the T'ou-Se-We Orphanage Handicraft Workshop was Ciyun School, considered a successful example of early vocational education. It provided six years of schooling, including four years of lower and higher primary school followed by a two-year internship. This covered basic knowledge, economics, history, geography, math, foreign languages and citizenship.

Xujiahui Art Studio and Gallery

In 1851, Spanish painter, sculptor and missionary Joannes Ferre (1817-1856) relocated his Dongjiadu studio to Xujiahui. In 1852, he founded the Xujiahui Arts and Crafts School, which taught sketching, watercolor and oil painting. He invited Italian painter and missionary Nicolas Massa to teach oil painting and how to grind pigments and make oil paint. In 1872, the school was moved into the orphanage and named T'ou-Se-We Gallery. It introduced Western art including pencil and charcoal drawing, watercolor and oil painting.


At first the woodworking department mainly designed and built altars, icons, pews, statues and various furnishings for churches in Jiangnan or region south of the Yangtze River. It later produced Western-style furniture and wood carvings. The furniture combined Western style and comfort with Chinese motifs and craftsmanship. It was widely sold in Shanghai and exported to Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States.

Printing press

In 1867, the orphanage workshops contained an independent printing department, employing lithography techniques introduced to Xujiahui by Western missionaries. The press first printed Catholic promotional materials, followed by a wide range of other publications, including dictionaries, academic writings maps, musical scores and religious materials.


As early as 1880, T'ou-Se-We started to renovate the ironwork and other metal work for churches in Shanghai. In 1894 it produced gold-plated items for the mass, designed in Chinese style and using gold foil, including chalices, censers, votive lights, candlesticks and copper and iron bells. The facilities included a smelting workshop built in 1901, followed by an iron foundry and hardware workshop. Many of those orphans went on to become successful artists and craftsmen. The Institute of Arts and Crafts would attract many talented students (by no means orphans) and produce distinguished artists and teachers.

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