Chinese Reign / Character Marks Guide
To understand a Chinese reign mark, it is first important to understand how they are written.
Typically, the character mark will consist of six characters and will be stamped, painted or etched into two columns. The mark should be read from top to bottom, and from right to left – not the traditional, western approach of left to right. Chinese historians believe that this tradition started with Chinese artisans writing on long, thin strips of bone or bamboo.
Some reign marks can be made of up two or three horizontal lines of six or four characters. All marks will still be read from the right to the left.
Chinese Xuande Six Character Mark on Bronze
The Origin of Reign Marks
Chinese Reign marks were most likely in common usage at the start of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and continued throughout the subsequent Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
Although Chinese reign marks were commonly used into the 20th Century, there was a short period in Chinese history that they were forbidden to be used. In 1667, the Kangxi Emperor issued an edict that forbid the use of the Kangxi reign marks. This was a precaution, in case delicate porcelain was broken or discarded, so potters painted a precious or an auspicious object within two double circles such as a Jui, lingzi, rabbit or ruyi head. Alternatively the two double circles were left blank.
Daoguang Seal Mark – Zhuanshu Script
How Chinese Reign Marks are Written
Let’s look a little more on the difference between kaishu and zhuanshu script.
Kaishu script dates as far back as the Sui dynasty, which began in 581 AD. Kaishu script is what most of us think of when we picture Chinese characters.
Zhuanshu, meanwhile, looks more angular in style. Zhuanshu is actually older than kaishu, dating back to the Shang dynasty of 1500 – 1028 BC. Zhuanshu began a resurgence in popularity around the early 18th Century.
When writing the script, reign marks are usually applied in two different ways. An underglaze cobalt blue character mark is common. If this is not the case, an enamel reign mark will appear on top of the glaze. These could have been impressed or incised, and the colour palette could include paler shades of blue, black or iron red.
Where to Usually Find a Chinese Reign Mark
The first place you would look for a reign mark on a piece of Chinese porcelain is the bottom of the item. If you do not see a reign mark here, check around the mouth of the item, or the exterior of the base.
Checking a Chinese Reign Mark for Authenticity
Reign marks can help to date and value a piece Chinese porcelain. Unfortunately, forgeries have been produced that include reign marks to fool antique art collectors.
Further Reading: Fake Chinese Porcelain Guide
To understand if a piece of antique chinese is genuine you need to first look at the quality of the workmanship. If a piece was made for an Emperor, everything about it should be of the highest quality – including the reign mark. A badly drawn, faded or poorly applied reign mark is an immediate red flag.
Not all poor-quality reign marks are forgeries, however. This rule only applies if the piece was made for the imperial palace. Many Chinese porcelain items were designed for every day use by the general population. These pieces are called, “minyao”, which translates as, “the ware of the people.”
Ceramics made especially for the Emperor are, “guanyao”, or, “official ware.” As you can imagine, minyao was not subjected to the same exacting standards. The quality differences between minyao and guanyao pieces are very easy to spot, especially once you have a basic understanding of Chinese reign marks and an overall feel for antique Chinese pieces.
One of world history’s most coveted artistic traditions, Chinese antique pottery is one of the oldest art forms recorded. Chinese potters were making earthenware pieces from as early as 6,000 BCE, and their skills at making increasing artistic forms increased rapidly throughout the early years. By the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), increasingly refined forms like the zun, a pot used for wine or water, became a common item in Chinese culture. At the same time, early porcelain prototypes were introduced and later further refined in the generations of potters that followed.
The secret to that increasing fine pieces was thanks to the relatively high concentration of kaolin that was the main part of the clay mixture in many of China’s main centres of porcelain manufacturing. This ingredient was essential to porcelain production because it allowed pieces of pottery to be fired at much greater temperatures. As a result, makers of antique Chinese pottery were able to work vessels into thinner walls and progressively dynamic and much finer artistic forms.