A Guide to Marks on Chinese Ceramics of the Ming and Qing Dynasties

A GUIDE TO MARKS ON CHINESE CERAMICS OF THE MING AND CH'ING DYNASTIES Foreword: This is the first in a series of articles intended mainly for be– ginners who wish to make some sense of the many different marks which appear on Chinese ceramics of the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties. The series will consist of a guide to such marks and how to recognize them, together with an indication of their usage, and each article in the series will be accompanied by various charts of relevant marks and, where ap– propriate, brief notes on their use and the incidence of fakes. Introduction: The normal reaction of those who do not read Chinese is to dismiss the many different marks found on ceramics as totally incomprehensible. With a lan– guage involving tens of thousands of characters in flu– ency the beginner would be for– given for considering the obsta– cles in the way of understanding such marks to be insurmount– able. However, this is certainly not the case, and the purpose of this article is to help the begin– ner to understand the majority of common marks with the aid of a few simple charts. There are easy steps to be taken in tackling any problem, however complex, and the begin- ner might be encouraged to know that despite the number of characters in the Chinese lan– guage, only twenty-four different reign titles appear on the ceramics of the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties (covering the period of over five-hundred years during which such marks were in com– mon use) and each consists ~f only two characters. Such reign marks may be easily recognized by their form and by the identifi– cation ofjust a few characters, followed by reference to the charts given here. Equally, the most common dating system used by the Chinese over many cen– turies consists of the repetition of no more than twenty-two differ– ent and easily recognizable. characters in varying combina– tion and, again, a single chart is the key to thousands of years of precise dates. The first stage is the recogni– tion of the type of mark in ques– tion and for the purpose of this series of articles we will separate these into four main categories, dealing here with only the first: 1. Period or precise date marks. 2. Marks indicating the names of individual potters and the adopted studio, workshop or hall names of either manu– facturer or owner. 3. Marks of commendation, praise, felicitation, or indicat- 26 ing usage. 4. Pictorial and/ or symbolic marks. Period or precise date marks: There are basically two types of mark which indicate the time of manufacture: those that give the general period, where the reader is expected to know the time and extent of such a period, and those that state a precise date. With the former we are dealing predominantly with the period during which a given emperor reigned, although since 1912 that period has, with one brief excep– tion, been the title adopted by a political system rather than that of an individual ruler ($; I~ Min-kuo, Republic of China). When an emperor came to the throne he would adopt a reign title, and it is these reign titles that have become identified with the ruler and the period in ques– tion. One of the best known em– perors of China would pass virtu– ally unnoticed among lovers of Chinese art under his real name, Hung-li ( e~Jf ) but would be immediately identified by thousands of people by his reign title, Ch'ien-lung ( eft It ). These reign titles consist of the combination of two auspicious characters (Ch'ien VZ; - continu– ous and lung ~ - prosperous, for example) and the common usage