Despite the bad reputation Chinese porcelain marks have earned themselves for their inherit lack of authenticity, Chinese porcelain marks remain 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 regardless of what it actually says. You just need to know how to read them.
This marks section right now illustrates more than 1,560 porcelain marks. In the navigation panel you find the main groups. Within each page you can find further links to even more marks, where there are many similar marks grouped together. Whenever possible all marks have a link where an enlargement can be studied.
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 with mostly six or four character put inside a round or square frame. Japanese marks are typically irregular, with two or any odd number of characters, different colors and more artistic in style, or just printed. 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. Four red marks on the picture above are Chinese and rubber stamped which usually means "around 1900", one modern Chinese is printed and one Japanese, is a hand drawn 19th century Fukagawa 'orchid' mark.
It's a very simplified 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 very rare but COULD be real, but just because of that, is 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.
In the best of worlds, 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 if that was always the case, but usually they are very recent souvenirs intended to be sold to tourists. Look at it this way, there are genuine antiques out there, but a genuine Imperial Chinese Porcelain pieces with a genuine Imperial mark will very rarely be found at a flea market for a few $.
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). The left mark is written in Kaishu or "regular script" script, that is the most common in Chinese writing. The right more angular mark is in zhuanshu, or "seal script". The latter mark is technically speaking a line drawing, and does not reflect any style of handwriting.
Imperial reign marks are like all old Chinese texts read from top to bottom and from right to left. The first character is the top right character 1 that reads Da meaning "great". This is normally the first character in most Ming (1368-1644) or Qing dynasty (1644-1911) marks. This is very easy to memorize and then you will always know which way is "up". Character 2 tells us the dynasty as Ming or Qing. Earlier than that, porcelain did not have reign marks.
Next two characters 3 - 4 are the emperors Nian Hao 年號 or reign title, name of the era, motto, or slogan. It is not the emperors name.
The last column with the last two characters 5 - 6 merely say Nian Zhi usually translated as "Made".
The marks are almost always written in two or three columns or very rarely - in a single horizontal row. Worth mentioning is that around 1950 the Chinese modernized their written language and started to write from left to right, as in the west. This practice also found its way to some of their porcelain marks from that time and onwards.
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.