Epoch Marks on Rare Chinese Porcelain: An Expert Guide to Dynasty Marks on Artworks Made for the Emperor and the Imperial Dynasty

Specialist Kate Hunt, Director of Chinese Porcelain and Artwork, Christie’s London, provides a comprehensive guide to mark control, what they reveal about emperors and dynasties, and how to distinguish fakes from ‘apocryphal’ marks.

What is the mark of judgment?

The era marker records the name of the Chinese dynasty and the era of the emperor during which the piece was made. It is composed of four or six Chinese characters, and is usually found on the basis of a work of art that was commissioned to the emperor or his imperial house.


Blue glazed six-character Kangxi era sign

How do you read the mark of judgment?

Dominion signs are most commonly written in vertical columns and are read from top to bottom and right to left. This reading and writing system is believed to have originated from the ancient Chinese tradition of writing on vertical strips of bamboo or bone. Reign signs can also be written in a horizontal line that reads from right to left.

Judgment marks follow a specific format, and a six-letter mark can be divided as follows: the first two letters denote the breed, and they are either Da Ming Means “Great Ming Dynasty” (1368-1644), or Da Ching, translated as the “Great Qing” dynasty (1644-1911); The second two letters indicate the name of the emperor; And the last two characters, nian qi, means “made to order”. Four-letter rule marks simply omit the first two letters that register the breed name.

Ming Dynasty Jiajing era in blue glazed

Ming Dynasty Jiajing era in blue glazed

Yongcheng era sign vertical blue glazed

Yongcheng era sign vertical blue glazed

For example, the two six-character rule signs shown above read: Da Ming Jiajing Nian Chi“Made during the Great Ming Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Jiajing” (1522-1566) and Da Qing Yong Zheng Nian Chi, translated as “Made in the Great Qing Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng” (1723-1735). The first appears on the base of a blue and white jar and the second appears on the base of the blue and white “Lanka” plate.

Reign tags can be a handy dating tool, but buyers should be careful – there are many fake tags on transcripts and subsequent forgeries.

When were referee signs first used?

Signs of the Empire’s era Kaishu Or plain text, it began to appear regularly at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and continued throughout the later Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Don’t expect to find reign marks on cuts from earlier dynasties. The most common markings on porcelain tend to be glazed blue within a double circle.

There was a short time during the Kangxi period in 1667 when the emperor issued a decree prohibiting the use of his reign mark on porcelain in case the ceramics were smashed and disposed of. This resulted in many porcelain signs consisting simply of empty double glazed blue circles, or the use of blue underglazed auspicious symbols such as an artemisia leaf, to accomplish mushroom or head a Roy mace.

Blue glazed six-character Daoguang seal tag

Blue glazed six-character Daoguang seal tag

Zhuanshu, or signs of imperial rule in the form of a seal, found favor during the Yongzheng period (1723-1735) and were used throughout the nineteenth century. The six-character Daoguang period sign above belongs to a blue and white stem cup with written Xuanshu reading Da Qing Daoguang Nian Chi, or “Made in the Great Qing Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Daoguang” (1821-1850). Note that the characters are more stylized and angular than Kaishu script.

How are judgment marks written?

Judgment marks tend to be written in one of two completely different scripts: Kaishu or plain text, and Quanshu Or a script in the form of a stamp.

Qianlong era mark in Quanshu script in blue enamel

Qianlong’s reign Xuanshu blue enamel cursive

Kaishu The script was introduced in China in the Sui (581-618 AD) and Tang dynasties (618-906 AD) and is what we now commonly associate with Chinese writing. Zhuanshu The script is a more angular text that originated on ancient Chinese bronzes in the Shang (1500-1028 BC) and Zhou dynasties (1028-221 BC). This style of marking was especially favored in the Qianlong period.

Qianlong four letter sign in blue enamel qishu script

The four-character Qianlong sign in Kaishu Blue enamel cursive

Depending on the medium of the artwork, judgment marks can be written in cobalt blue overglaze or enameled over the glaze in various colors including iron red, pale blue, or black. It can also be written in gold and can be engraved or dazzled.

Where do I look for the mark of judgment?

Judgment marks are commonly centered on the ship’s base. However, it can also appear on the outside of the base or mouth of the bowl, usually in a single horizontal line.

Jiaqing six-character sign (1796-1820) in red iron enamel


Jiaqing six-character sign (1796-1820) in red iron enamel


How do you know if the judgment mark is genuine?

When deciding whether the mark of dominion is “period” or a later version, it is important to consider the mark along with the quality of the artwork.

The quality of original judgment marks varies greatly, but on pieces that were specially commissioned for the emperor or his imperial family, the judgment mark must be of the highest standard, matching the quality of the artwork. A sign so poorly written on ceramics or artwork dedicated to the emperor should raise alarm bells.

However, it is common to find lower quality marks on lower quality porcelain or artwork made during the Emperor’s reign, but not intended for imperial use. Many ceramics fall into this category and are often referred to as Minyaoor “people’s good”, unlike Guanyaoor “official tools”.

Qianlong blue glazed six-character seal mark


Qianlong blue glazed six-character seal mark


The difference is the obvious quality between the implementation Guanyao And the Minyao Qianlong period (1736-1795) seal marks on the following ceramists: an exquisite pair of family rose Double butterfly pumpkin vases (above) and a pair of multicolored enamel pots, pictured below.

The seal mark of the Qianlong period (1736-1795) in blue underglaze


The seal mark of the Qianlong period (1736-1795) in blue underglaze


If the piece has a later copied mark, is it completely fake?

no. To complicate matters a bit, Chinese craftsmen over hundreds of years copied the marks of rule from previous dynasties out of respect and appreciation for those earlier periods. These tags are often referred to in auction catalog descriptions as “fabricated” tags. These signs were not necessarily intended to deceive buyers into believing that they were previously purchasing original artwork.

For example, it is not uncommon to find marks of the 15th century Ming dynasty on blue and white Qing porcelain made in the Kangxi period (1662-1722). Two of the most copied “fabricated” signs hail from the Xuande period (1426-1435) and the Chenghua period (1465-1487).

The Chenghua period is famous for the quality of imperial porcelain. Chenghua porcelain is largely considered a rarity as a result of the strict standards of Imperial porcelain making – porcelain that was intended for the imperial family but had any blemishes or firing blemishes was destroyed.

Xuande period fabricated six characters

Xuande period fabricated six characters

Similarly, the Xuande period has been recognized as a high point in the production of bronze artwork, and the vast majority of bronze incense burners made during the 17th and 18th centuries bear Xuande marks in their bases. This includes the apocryphal Xuande mark pictured above which appears on a 17th-18th century four-lobed bronze censer base, also above.

Find out more

The most comprehensive reference book on Chinese signs of judgment is Gerald Davison’s book Marx on china porcelainpublished in 2021. It lists about 4,200 signs, including all signs of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties as well as many studio signs, hall signs, and countless miscellaneous signs that are also can Found on ships throughout China’s rich cultural heritage.

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