Marks of earlier periods have been used throughout almost the history of Chinese porcelain. Almost at the same time that the Chinese invented porcelain they also invented copies - sometimes to learn, sometimes to honor, sometimes to deceive, sometimes copies were plainly ordered, sometimes the market just asked for a "mark" on the porcelain and sometimes - but I think rarely - just to show off.
Interestingly enough pretty much any mark on the bases of the Chinese porcelain is still one of the best means we have to identify the period during which a certain piece was made. Correctly understood it is like a timestamp and sometimes like a fingerprint of the potter and his time.
This marks section right now illustrates close to 1,500 porcelain marks. In the navigation panel to the left you will the main groups and within the pages further links to even more sections where similar marks of a certain kind might be grouped. Whenever possible each mark also have a link to a larger picture of the piece the mark was found on, and the mark itself.
The marks might be bewilderingly difficult to recognize and it might even be hard to see if it is Japanese or Chinese. As a general rule Chinese marks are more regular and the characters within the mark, are mostly of about the same sizes. If the mark is irregular, odd number of characters, different colors, more artistic in style, or just printed - the mark might be Japanese. You can try to see if you can see what I mean by trying to spot the one Japanese mark there is in the picture to the right.
To sort this subject up somehow, marks could be red or blue, handwritten or applied with a rubber stamp. All red marks on the picture to the right are rubber stamped except the Japanese, which is actually a 19th century Fukagawa 'orchid' mark.
It's a very crude rule but statistically speaking marks from mid 19th century or later are actually mostly red, while older marks are mostly blue.
Four character marks with raised enamels signifies that the piece is made at the Imperial workshop in Beijing, which is more than rare and COULD be real, but just because of that also often used on modern souvenir porcelain vases.
Marks incorporating western characters do not occur before the 1890's and almost all we see are after the 1950's.
Most porcelain marked "Made in China" is usually from the 1970s and later.
Theoretically, any mark at the base of a piece of Chinese porcelain should be the reign title of the Emperor during which period the piece was made.
Theoretically again, a pieces carrying the mark Da Qing Qianlong Nian Zhi should thus have been commissioned by the Chinese court to be used by them during the Qianlong period (1736-95) of the Qing dynasty. This would be very nice since one of those vases kind of marks are interesting to know about, but when met with are almost always very recent copies. Look at it this way, there are genuine Rembrandt paintings and genuine Picasso paintings and there are genuine Imperial Chinese Porcelain marks, but they are rare, ok, and genuine pieces with genuine Imperial marks are NOT sold at eBay for a few hundred US$.
On the other hand - again - while I am writing this I get an e-mail about a narcissus bowl bought at a flea market in California for 50 cents, which turns out to be a Guangxu Mark and Period piece with the date 1887, and worth considerably more then 50 cents, so - there went that good piece of advice ... so, lets look into the Imperial reign marks too then.
Below is illustrated two six character marks from the Shun Zhi period (1644-61). One in "regular script" and the other one in "seal script", which latter mark is technically speaking a drawing, and does not reflect any style of handwriting.
Imperial reign marks are like all Chinese texts read from top to bottom and from right to left. The first character is thus the one at top right as in the figure. The marks are also written in one, two or three columns or rows. If it is written all in one horizontal row - and not in a museum - it is most probably a fake since this is an early Ming feature and then we are talking tens of thousands of $. Most dealers know this.
Character 1 reads Da meaning "great" and is the normal first character in most Ming and Qing marks. This is very easy to memorize and than you will always know the right "up" direction of these marks.
Character 2 spells out the dynasty as Ming or as in this example Qing dynasty.
Character 3 and 4 is the emperors reign title which is always in two characters, in this case Shun Zhi
Character 5 and 6 merely says nian zhi or specifically 'period' 'make', which does have a different flavor than 'period' 'made'. I just mention this, but this is the norm anyway.
During the Kangxi (1662-1722) period, marks with symbols and characters other then the reign title became common. The characters are often the name of the place the piece seems to have been made for. These are called "Hall marks". It is also interesting to remember that specifically 18th century export porcelain to the west is almost never marked while most pieces made for the Chinese common people are actually quite often marked. All this commoner's porcelain is called Min yao meaning "people's wares" as opposed to the Imperial wares which is called Guan yao.
Unfortunately this is something that is very hard to learn and is only possible by extensive studies and comparison of genuine examples. This goes for the shape, the porcelain body itself, the glaze, the cobalt, foot rim, decoration and down to the individual brush strokes in marks and decoration and all this is combination.
From this perspective it is actually very helpful to begin by studying the marks on the bases of the purported Imperial porcelains since this is limited in scope. It was not that many different calligraphers entrusted with the job of adding the Imperial seals to the bases of the porcelain that we eventually can't learn to recognize the handwriting of these experts, and eventually the small but telltale differences in how the strokes were applied.
For a first impression it is usually enough to look at the general design of the mark, if the strokes are absolutely symmetrical and if the mark as such is perfectly square and even, if the characters are of equal size, if the strokes are evenly and precisely drawn etc.
To learn how to see this yourself it would be enough with a few years careful studies. The easiest is to compare with genuine published examples as you would with a stamp or a bill, that *looks* all right but you don't know for sure, so you put them side by side and - compare.
That is how the so called experts do it, and there are no shortcuts available that I know of :-)
This marks section is therefore mostly a guide for you who want to know what the marks says rather than for dating the piece. Best of luck with your collection.