Reading Reign Marks: An Essential Guide to Antique Chinese Porcelain 

A Rare and Exceptional Small Pink-Ground Famille Rose Moonflask.

A Rare and Exceptional Small Pink-Ground Famille Rose Moonflask. Sold (Est: HKD 2,600,000 – HKD 3,500,000) via Christie’s (Oct 2020).

Whether it’s an antique celadon minyao vase, a soft pink-ground Famille Rose floral moonflask, or a collection of Qianlong Period blue and white porcelain from the Qing Dynasty, antique Chinese pottery can complement almost any interior. Its delicate forms and diverse, meticulous decorative motifs make Chinese porcelain and other examples of antique Chinese pottery a dazzling addition to your decor, but navigating the world of antique Chinese pottery can be challenging. 

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Deciphering the Popularity of Chinese Porcelain as Décor

To simplify the process, this article offers a primer to guide you through some of the most sought-after examples of Chinese porcelain in the auction market. In addition to providing a brief background on the fascinating history of antique Chinese pottery, we’ll walk you through the basics of how to interpret Chinese porcelain marks so that you can make informed decisions when curating your ceramics collection. Understanding these marks can help you research your next purchase and have greater confidence in its authenticity as an antique.

The Incredible Legacy and Culture of Chinese Pottery

One of world history’s most coveted artistic traditions, Chinese pottery is one of the oldest art forms recorded. Chinese potters were making earthenware vessels as early as 6,000 BCE, and their skills at making increasing dynamic forms increased rapidly. By the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), increasingly refined forms like the zun, a pot for wine or water, became common. At the same time, early porcelain prototypes were introduced and later further refined in the generations that followed.

The secret to that increasing delicacy was thanks to the relatively high concentration of kaolin that was part of the clay mixture in many of China’s main centers of porcelain production. This ingredient was essential because it allowed pieces of pottery to be fired at higher temperatures. As a result, makers of antique Chinese pottery were afforded an expanded ability to work vessels into thinner walls and progressively dynamic forms.  

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As the traditions of Chinese porcelain making continued to develop, several centers of production emerged across the Chinese landscape. For example, Chang’an, the capital city of the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 9 CE, 25–220 CE), capitalized on the prevalence of celadon deposits to become a hub for luscious green-glazed wares that emulated the appearance of jade. Later, during the Tang Dynasty (618-690 CE and 705-907 CE), Chang’an continued to conjure even more dynamic and increasingly colorful forms, such as imaginative earth spirits. The city also became a hub for the iconic blue and white Chinese porcelain, a style made possible thanks to the import of semi-precious stones, like cobalt, from the Middle East to conjure the iconic rich blue hue. 

The beauty of Chinese porcelain lured collectors and connoisseurs from around the world as European powers began carving trade routes into the East and pieces of porcelain began to appear around the world. Seventeenth-century European circles were so desperate to emulate the brilliance of Chinese porcelain that they even developed ersatz tin-glazed works (as the formula for porcelain – and its necessary ingredient kaolin – still eluded European makers). By the 18th century, studios like Meissen in Germany and Sèvres in France finally mastered the materials to make their own porcelain. Chinese porcelain continued nevertheless to be a coveted commodity as it is hard to resist the sheer beauty of such striking – and historic – vessels. 

Given the wealth of Chinese porcelain available on the market today, collectors need to know the elements that contribute to the historical (and financial) significance of a given vase or vessel. The age and rarity of an antique piece of Chinese pottery, for example, can impact its value, as can the vessel’s maker. Accordingly, in addition to appreciating the history of this breathtaking pottery, it is important to know how to navigate a crowded field. This begins with a quick guide to Chinese porcelain maker’s marks, also known as reign marks. 

Reign Marks Explained

Simply put, the reign mark of a piece of antique Chinese pottery refers to the series of script characters arranged in parallel columns that denote the name of the Chinese dynasty in which the vessel was made. Specifically, they refer to the emperor in power at the time the piece was made and typically are located on the underside or base of the ceramic piece. Reign marks typically appear as two bands of Chinese characters that can be oriented either vertically – to be read right to left – or horizontally – read from top to bottom. These mark characters are also most often enclosed in a double circle rendered on the vessel in a blue underglaze addition. 

Despite the extended history of antique Chinese pottery, reign marks were a relatively recent addition. The first reign marks began to appear on Chinese porcelain during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and were carried over into the subsequent Qing dynasty (1644-1911), after which point the practice of reign marks began to wane. This means that the presence of a reign mark can be a helpful means to date your antique Chinese pottery.

Interpreting the Reign Mark

Rare pair of porcelain cups Yongzheng Period (1723-1735).

Rare pair of porcelain cups Yongzheng Period (1723-1735). Sold for €496,218 EUR via Piasa (June 2013).

Beyond orienting the reign mark along its vertical or horizontal orientation, you can further subdivide the respective six Chinese characters depicted. In a typical reign mark, beginning at the upper right: 

  • The first and second characters relay the name of the dynasty
  • The third and fourth characters provide the name of the emperor
  • The final two characters simply read “nian zhi” (“made for”)

Let’s take a look at the example of two blue and white porcelain saucers. Their reign mark appears as follows: 

In this example, the top two characters of the right-hand column give us the name “da Qing,” which tells us this was created during the Qing Dynasty. Then, the third character in the right column and the first at the top of the left column refer to the ruler of the period, the Yongzheng Emperor (Emperor Shizong of Qing, who led the Yongzheng period between 1723-1735). Finally, the last characters – characters 5 and 6 – tell us “made for.” Pulling these characters together, then, this reign mark relays that these saucers were made during the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. 

Some variations to these reign marks can occur. For some pieces of antique Chinese pottery, for example, the name of the dynasty might be omitted, reducing the total number of characters in the reign mark to four. 

The Scripts and Colors of Reign Marks

We mentioned the traditional format for reign marks, but it is also important to keep in mind that you can usually encounter two different kinds of script used for the characters in these marks. These include:

Kaishu Script

The more common script style, known as kaishu script, features regular Chinese characters and was featured across Chinese porcelain pieces throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. For example, Originating as early as the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE), kaishu is more reminiscent of today’s standardized Chinese characters.

Zhuanshu Script

More popular in the later centuries of the Qing Dynasty – particularly during the extended reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795), zhuanshu script, like that seen on this Qianlong imitation cloisonne vase, is much more stylized and can be detected thanks to its angular forms. Each character is elongated such that the characters unite similar to a unified band or seal. This similarity means at times these marks are referred to as “seal marks.” The legacy of zhuanshu is actually quite old, as there is evidence of its use as early as the Shang Dynasty (1500-1028 BCE).  

Script Colors 

In addition to these two script forms, reign marks can also appear painted or stamped in different colors. The most common hue used for these marks is the deep blue rendered from cobalt that was used across blue and white porcelain pieces.  Red, derived from copper, was also used as a means to conjure some of these reign marks. In other cases, gold pigments were used to emboss reign marks on antique Chinese ceramics, thereby adding to the glamour of a particular vessel. 

The Authenticity of the Reign Mark

While discovering a reign mark from the Ming or Qing dynasties on your porcelain might exponentially increase your excitement as to the age and importance of your antique Chinese pottery, keep in mind that not all reign marks are authentic. Reign marks can give you an estimate of age, but many of these marks were repeated or forged on subsequent pieces of Chinese porcelain. These forgeries might seem simply like a ploy to fool consumers, however, many times these reign marks were repeated out of reverence and respect by modern makers for those Chinese ceramic artisans of the past. Such marks are often referred to as “apocryphal” when discussed in auction house catalogs or on the antique Chinese porcelain market.

If you are not convinced of the authenticity of your antique Chinese pottery by reign mark alone, you can also assess the value of a piece by considering: 

Overall Quality

If a Chinese porcelain piece is of exceptional quality or exhibits a remarkably meticulous motif, it is probably of greater value than a vessel with less intricate or vibrant details. The same can be said for the state of the reign mark. If the application of the reign mark is sloppy or ill-defined, there might be a chance that you have an antique Chinese vase you might simply have acquired a piece of porcelain deemed minyao (“for the people”) that often displayed less meticulous craftsmanship. If, however, you’ve been led to believe that the antique Chinese pottery you’re considering was deemed guanyao, or of highest quality for imperial use, then these imperfections in the reign mark are cause for alarm. 

Vessel Shape

Early makers of Chinese porcelain typically repeated similar forms throughout their pottery production. If a piece of antique Chinese pottery presents a highly unusual or angular form, it is probably not that old. 

Color Palette

Though many antique Chinese pottery pieces will be decorated with blue glaze on a white surface, early porcelain makers were known to use an expanded palette that often incorporated reds, soft greens, and deep blacks. That being said, if a piece of Chinese porcelain offers too kaleidoscopic a range or exhibits colors that would be difficult to conjure from nature, there is a possibility that your vessel is a more modern creation. 

When There Isn’t a (Traditional) Reign Mark

While a missing reign mark might be a red flag when it comes to the age or authenticity of your antique Chinese porcelain, there are some periods of Chinese pottery production where this absence is to be expected. During the rule of the Kangzi Emperor, Shengzu of Qing, in the 17th century, the use of reign marks was temporarily outlawed for any vessel not made specifically for imperial use. The purported reason the emperor wanted to curtail the use of these reign marks was because he held porcelain production to a high standard, and so he did not want his name to be associated with potentially lesser-quality works that might be discovered. 

In the case of these vessels, though the reign mark was indeed omitted from the blue underglaze double circles, often symbols would take its place. They could be borrowed from nature, like the use of the reishi or lingszhi mushroom, or, in the case of the icon of the ceremonial ruyi sceptre, tied to other ritual or commemorative practices. These works are relatively rare, but they are important to distinguish from script-secured reign marks.

Picking the Perfect Piece of Chinese Porcelain 

It’s probably easy to see why so many collectors find collecting antique Chinese pottery utterly irresistible. Its fine glazes and subtle forms only become more enticing when situated within the impressive history that the tradition of antique Chinese pottery relays. Before you take the plunge and purchase your next piece of antique Chinese porcelain, though, take stock of our quick guide provided here to the world of reign marks. These marks can help you assess the age of your antique Chinese pottery while also offering a brief glimpse into the past of an artistic tradition that can bring imperial luxury to your home. 

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