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Date Marks On Oriental Porcelain

( Originally Published 1911 )

THERE was no regular method employed in either China or Japan for indicating either the time or place at which the porcelain was made. Neither was there any mark by which the workman or artist could be identified. Where marks are used they indicate the period in a dynasty; still it must be constantly borne in mind that the old marks were continually copied in reproductions of a later period made by the Chinese themselves, and other reproductions produced with much fidelity in Paris and elsewhere. So that the collector has to be very careful, especially in buying fine specimens. There seems to be scarcely nothing worth copying that has not received full attention at the hands of the forger. Of course, when these copies are simply offered as reproductions of old pieces, the purchaser, even if he pays a large price, has not much to complain of, but the trouble arises when they are foisted on the public as genuine. The work is so cleverly done, the imitatation is so accurate that only the specialist is able to detect the fraud. The texture of the porcelain is closely imitated, and every care is taken to reproduce the scratches and even the dirt. More than that, old pieces that have been damaged are restored so as to appear perfectly genuine throughout, whilst real old pieces, that were originally plain, have been enamelled with the finest "famille verte" or "famille rose" decoration so as to deceive all but the most skilful expert. Such a case occurred within the author's own experience. An old dish, early Keen-lung, was so decorated with the finest rose decoration, and only the most careful examination revealed the fact that both decoration and glaze had been applied in comparatively recent times—in fact, within a very few years. The owner was indignant when he was informed of this. How-ever, he afterwards came back with the information that he had sold the dish for L20, but he forgot that if the dish had been really old it would have been worth not L20 but L12O ! Too much dependence, therefore, must not be placed upon the marks or upon the decoration ;it is upon the education of the eye, the tout ensemble, really upon the merits of the specimens themselves, that dealers and collectors must rely. No training is as good as the handling of fine old pieces, in which the grain of the porcelain, the colours of both the porcelain and the decoration can be studied, and the knowledge thus gained becomes the experience which is, above everything else, the necessary equipment to any one who collects old china.

The Chinese write in characters, each represents a word, and the commencement is made from the top of the right-hand side. The columns are read downwards, but when the characters are in a line they are read from right to left. The marks may be in the seal characters, in plain characters as employed in books, or in grass-text as used for rapid writing ; but all are read in the same way, though the last are very difficult to read. As there are many variations in English handwriting, so the Chinese characters will be found to vary, yet the word would be the same. It is in the forgeries that we noted the most slavish attention to accuracy and the most infinite pains taken to reproduce the old marks given in the books. The marks themselves are either painted on the bases, usually in blue, though on some late pieces it is found in red, or they may be engraved or embossed. The Chinese have no centuries for measuring time, they use instead a cycle of sixty years, and the precise date as indicated by the cycle is so seldom used on porcelain that it may be disregarded, as only four or five examples of the cyclical dates have ever been found. The marks on porcelain indicate only the reign of the emperor, who when he comes to the throne adopts two words as his title or Nien-hao. Before the coming of the Ming dynasty, in 1368, these titles were changed in order to commemorate any striking event, but since then only one Emperor, who lost his throne in 1450 and regained it after seven years, has changed his Nien-hao, and only one Emperor, Kang-he, reigned a whole sixty years, and a cyclical date may have been used when the thirty-eighth year of the sixty-eighth cycle recurred. See Mark 1 in date marks. The Nienhao was the honorific designation of the Emperor ; Taou-kwang (1821–1851) was "reason's lustre," and Kwang-hsiu (1875) means "inherited lustre." Following the seal marks, which are read in the same way, note that the list gives a number of marks having six characters. Reading these it will be noted that the one in the top right hand and the next one below it, marked (I) and (2), are always the same for the same dynasty—" Ta Ming " or " Ta Tsing" show the " great Ming " or " great Tsing " dynasty. The bottom sign of the first column (3) and the top sign of the second column (4) give the Emperor's title or Nien-hao, whilst the two remaining signify in descending order "year" or "period" (5), " made" (6). In six-mark characters, arranged in two lines, the reading is similar, as marked by the figures (1), (2), &c. In four-mark character the signs for the dynasty that is, " Ta Ming " or " Ta Tsing " are left out, and the first two marks show the period. As before remarked, the forgeries and imitations have been so numerous that the date marks cannot be accepted as proof of age. The old blue porcelain—Nankin ware so called—was marked with six characters until 1677, as mentioned elsewhere. After that we have the double circle in blue, either empty or having a symbol in the middle.

The Ming productions have not yet received due recognition with regard to their beauty of shape and decoration, but the two periods which are most represented by the marks are Seuen-Tih (1426–1436) and Ching-hwa (1465-1488). In the British Museum are two Celadon bowls with the Seuen-tih mark, with deep mouldings; to these is affixed on the label "probably Kang-he." Then, again, immense quantities of china appear to have been brought to Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much of which was marked " Ching-hwa." Whether during the eighteenth century such porcelain could be collected in China for cargo purposes is a matter of doubt. If not, this is an illustration of the fact that from an early period the Chinese copied old forms, decoration, and marks.


The word tang often occurs in inscribed marks, which seem to indicate a place of origin. In the list given it is marked Tang or Hall Marks. These marks are found on pieces differing considerably in character, age, and quality. The general opinion is that the Hall named is the title of the residence of the Tao-tai, or superintendent of the porcelain works belonging to the Emperor. Other inscribed marks simply set out praises of the porcelain itself, stating that it is " a gem among precious vessels of rare jade," " a gem rare as jade," " an elegant rarity," " fine vase for the rich and honourable," and so on. Some pieces are found with a seal character embodying a wish, as " happiness," " prosperity," " longevity," and "harmonious prosperity."

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