How to Identify Chinese Porcelain Marks

For more than 1,000 years, Chinese porcelain has enchanted the world. Its exacting craftsmanship and exceeding beauty have made it a touchstone of Asian culture. While westerners have long found it fascinating, there are very few who can decipher the hall marks appearing on the side or bottom of most pieces. I can't, and in all probability neither can you, but there is a way.

First some history. The term porcelain denotes a fired ceramic made of finely grained clay. Its origins date back some 3,000 years to the earliest (Shang) dynasty with refinements continuing throughout the centuries. The earliest hallmarks appeared during the first century AD when they were added to identify the maker. Over the next several hundred years, the popularity of porcelain gathered steam, especially during the Tang dynasty (618-907) as tea drinking became more widespread and the legendary Silk Road introduced porcelain samples to the west.

With the passage of another 500 years, porcelain objects had become so coveted that Emperor Zhenzong decried that all such pieces made during his reign would carry his mark so as to connect one to the other for all time. These imperial or reign marks thus came to attach the finest porcelain to that and subsequent dynasties. Interestingly, later makers would sometimes copy these early reign marks as a sign of respect for their forbearers so not all marks are true to the period they indicate.  However, such honorary imprints can usually be identified by experts and do not necessarily affect value.

Just as the practice of hallmarking was becoming widespread, their meaning took on more complexity. While some served to indicate the maker or reign, others directed where in the Imperial Palace the piece was to be displayed. For many artisans without royal benefactors, the addition of hallmarks expressing the traditional Chinese sentiments of happiness, longevity, and prosperity were meant for gift-givers. Still others had religious affiliations to Buddhism or Taoism.

The traditional six-figure configuration of hallmarks are read top to bottom, right to left. In general, the first two characters are reign marks, the second two are emperor marks and the last two direct placement. In the case of four-character marks, the reign marks are usually the ones omitted.

Now here's the payoff. If you're really looking to immerse yourself in Chinese hallmarks, invest $100 or so and buy the "Handbook of Marks of Chinese Ceramics" by Gerald Davidson. The latest edition released just a few months ago identifies some 4,000 marks with extensive imagery and explanations. It's a beautiful little volume printed in England and definitely worth the price of admission. Knowing that a particular mark means that the object was made for the Hall of Righteous Justice will add an interesting bit of texture to the piece.

As with so many categories these days, reproductions and fakes are extremely common so proceed with caution when looking for collector-quality examples. Original Imperial porcelain should be smooth and indicate the highest possible degree of craftsmanship. Or for those of casual or decorative interest, just buy what you like and don't worry about it. That's not a bad way to go either.

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