Porcelain—a white vitrified ceramic comprised of fine clay—was invented in China over 3,000 years ago. In the years since, artisans have consistently improved the way they craft and mark porcelain objects. Chinese craftsmen began using porcelain marks as early as the first century as a way to reference the date of creation. These marks would typically include small characters or symbols found on the base or side of a piece. The marks themselves can shed light on a piece, sometimes revealing both its manufacturer and the period in which it was made.
The Emergence of Chinese Porcelain
Early Chinese porcelain—sometimes referred to as “proto-porcelain”—dates back to the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 B.C.), but the first examples were not produced until the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 A.D.). It is believed that porcelain during this time was made by firing ceramic materials to the necessary temperature, which created a light yet strong ceramic suitable for artistic and decorative purposes.
Followed by the Tang dynasty (618–907 A.D.), which included a rise in popularity in the art of tea drinking, ceramic wares such as teacups were traded along the northern Silk Road, a network of trade routes which connected the East and West during this time. As the porcelain industry became increasingly organized and sophisticated, craftsmen were firing up to 100,000 pieces a day.
During this time, porcelain from the city of Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of China, drew the attention of Emperor Zhenzong who was fascinated by the aesthetic of the medium. Emperor Zhenzong ordered that the words “made in the Jingde period” be marked on the pieces created during his reign, launching the imperial interest in Chinese porcelain that persisted throughout the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. This art form quickly became a symbol of Chinese excellence and was widely used in a variety of ways.
Types of Chinese Porcelain Marks
When Emperor Zhenzong demanded his reign be recorded on porcelain, it ignited a tradition of marking porcelain wares that lasted well into the 20th century. These markings, known as “reign marks,” loosely indicate Nien-hao or the imperial reign when it was created. Reign marks were typically written under the glaze in cobalt blue or over the glaze in various colors including red, blue, and black. Most marks feature a vertical format in scripts called kaishu, or regular script, or zhuanshu, a seal-form script.
From the end of the Song period throughout the Ming and Qing periods, imperial porcelain was a central part of Chinese culture. Most emperors commissioned craftsmen to not only put their reign marks on pieces, but to also design works to display in their halls. The only exception was the fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty, Emperor Kangxi, who forbade the use of his reign mark on porcelain in case the ceramics were defiled or broken.
It is common for pieces to indicate an imperial reign, even if it was not created during that time, simply because Chinese artisans copied marks from earlier dynasties out of reverence for these great periods. These marks are called apocryphal marks and do not necessarily lower the value of the piece.
Hall markings on porcelain were used for two purposes. They were predominantly used as a manufacturer’s symbol to indicate where the piece was produced. In less common instances, they were used to direct where pieces should be displayed. For example, if the piece was made for the Jade Hall in the imperial palace, the trademark would indicate this direction. For collectors, this shed light on where the piece was made—and possibly where it was displayed.
Symbols of Good Wishes
In Chinese culture, the kindest sentiments to bestow upon others are happiness (or fuh), longevity (or shou), and prosperity (or luh). These wishes can be found in many Chinese gift-giving traditions, such as the practice of giving lucky bamboo as a housewarming present. Markings of the symbols for fuh, shou, and luh can be found on porcelain plates and other pieces of decorative art that were given as gifts.
Religious or Cultural Symbols
The final type of marking to familiarize yourself with are symbols of religious and cultural significance. As two of the country’s dominant religions, Buddhism and Taoism are both at the center of Chinese culture and the meaning behind symbols from these practices has a strong sentiment for those who practice. Porcelain makers and craftsmen often marked their work with religious symbols for luck. Some of the symbols that can be found on Chinese porcelain include:
Babao – The Eight Precious Things
- Pearl – granted wishes
- Coin – wealth
- Open Lozenge – victory and success
- Solid Lozenge – counteracts evil
- Jade Stone Gong – just and upright life
- Pair of Books – knowledge
- Pair of Rhinoceros Horns – happiness
- Leaf of Artemis – good luck
Pa che siang – The Eight Lucky Emblems of the Buddhists
- Conch Shell – learning and knowledge
- Precious Umbrella – protection from harmful forces
- Victory Banner – triumph over obstacles
- Golden Fish – fearlessness
- Dharma Wheel – joy and liberation
- Auspicious Drawing – wisdom and compassion
- Lotus Flower – purification
- Vase of Treasure – long life, wealth and prosperity
Pa an hsien – The Eight Emblems of the Taoists
- Hua Lan – Flower Basket of Lan Ts’ai-ho, the Patron Saint of florists
- Pan – The Castanets of Empress Ts’ao Hou, the Deity of theater
- Hu-Lu – Gourd and Iron Crutch of Li T’ieh-Kuai, the Patron Saint of the sick
- Ti – Flute of Han Hsiang-tzu, an immortal musician
- Yu Kü – Musical Instrument of Chang Kuo-lao, an immortal musician
- Lien Hua – Lotus flower of Ho Hsien-ku, the Deity of housewives
- Chien – Sword and Taoist fly-brush of Lü Tung-pin, the Patron Saint of barbers
- Shan – Fan of Chung-li Ch’üan, the chief of the Eight Immortals of Taoism
How to Read Chinese Porcelain Marks
Though symbols and markings can be written in a horizontal line that is read from right to left, most are written in vertical columns, read from top to bottom, then right to left. This method of reading and writing is thought to have originated in the ancient tradition of writing on vertical strips of bamboo.
Of all Chinese porcelain marks, reign marks are generally the easiest markings to read as they follow a set format. On each six-character reign mark, the first two characters indicate the dynasty, the second two characters give the name of the Emperor, and the last two characters translate to “made for”. If the reign mark is a four-character mark, the first two characters recording the name of the dynasty should be omitted.
Due to the high-quality reproductions of Chinese porcelain, it can be almost impossible for a collector to distinguish an authentic piece from one that is fake. Before buying a piece, handle as many authentic and fake pieces as possible. Since Chinese ceramics have been copied for hundreds of years, the duplicates can often be virtually indistinguishable from original pieces. As always, consult specialists in Chinese porcelain—ask questions, pick up the pieces, and closely inspect the markings.
When evaluating whether a piece is original, it is important to consider both the condition of the marking and the period during which the piece was produced. All pieces that were specially commissioned for the Emperor will have the highest quality marks: the piece itself will be polished and uniform, and any mark will be clean and professional. If the piece was not commissioned for imperial use but was still made during the referenced period, the markings may be lower quality. These ceramics are called minyao, or the ware of the people. These pieces can be difficult to verify as they can be mistaken as a copy.
Chinese porcelain is widely sought-after by collectors today, and each original piece reflects the unique story of the period in which it was made. When buying Chinese porcelain, be prepared, study original pieces and their markings, and if you’re unsure about an object’s authenticity, always consult a specialist.