Demystifying Chinese reign marks — everything you need to know to get started
Specialist Kate Hunt, Head of Sale for Chinese Works of Art at Christie’s South Kensington, offers an extensive guide to reign marks, what they reveal about emperors and dynasties, and how to tell fakes from ‘apocryphal’ marks
What is a reign mark?
A reign mark records the name of the Chinese dynasty and the reign of the emperor during which the piece was made. It comprises four or six Chinese characters, and is usually found on the base of a work of art commissioned for the Emperor or his imperial household.
How do you read a reign mark?
Reign marks are most commonly written in vertical columns and are read from top to bottom, and from right to left. It is thought that this system of reading and writing grew from ancient Chinese traditions of writing on vertical strips of bamboo or bone. Reign marks can also be written in a horizontal line that is read from right to left.
Reign marks follow a set format, and a six-character mark can be broken down as follows: the first two characters refer to the dynasty, and are either Da Ming meaning ‘Great Ming’ dynasty (1368-1644), or Da Qing, translated as ‘Great Qing’ dynasty (1644-1911); the second two characters refer to the name of the Emperor; and the last two characters, Nian Zhi, mean ‘made for’. Four-character reign marks simply omit the first two characters recording the name of the dynasty.
For example, the two six-character reign marks illustrated above read: Da Ming Jiajing Nian Zhi, ‘Made in the Great Ming dynasty during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor’ (1522-1566) and Da Qing Yongzheng Nian Zhi, translating as ‘Made in the Great Qing dynasty during the reign of the Emperor Yongzheng’ (1723-1735). The first appears on the base of a blue and white jar and the second on the base of a blue and white ‘lanca’ dish.
Reign marks can make for a handy dating tool, but buyers should beware — there are many faked marks on later copies and forgeries.
When were reign marks first used?
Imperial reign marks in kaishu, or regular script, began to appear regularly at the beginning of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and continued throughout the subsequent Qing dynasty (1644-1911). You would not expect to find reign marks on pieces from earlier dynasties. The most common marks on porcelain tend to be written in underglaze blue within a double circle.
There was a brief time during the Kangxi period in 1667 when the emperor issued an edict forbidding the use of his reign mark on porcelain in case the ceramics were smashed and discarded. This resulted in many porcelain marks simply comprising empty underglaze blue double circles, or the use of auspicious symbols in underglaze blue such as an artemesia leaf, a lingzhi mushroom or the head of a ruyi sceptre.
Zhuanshu, or seal-form imperial reign marks, found favour during the Yongzheng period (1723-1735) and were used throughout the 19th century. The six-character Daoguang period mark above belongs to a blue and white stem cup and is written in zhuanshu reading Da Qing Daoguang Nian Zhi, or ‘Made in the Great Qing Dynasty during the reign of the Daoguang Emperor’ (1821-1850). Note the characters are much more stylised and angular than kaishu script.
How are reign marks written?
Reign marks tend to be written in one of two very different-looking scripts: kaishu, or regular script, and zhuanshu, or seal-form script.
Kaishu script was introduced in China in the Sui (581-618 AD) and Tang dynasties (618-906 AD) and is what we now most commonly associate with Chinese writing. Zhuanshu script is a much more angular-looking script that originated on archaic Chinese bronzes in the Shang (c. 1500-1028 BC) and Zhou Dynasties (1028-221 BC). This style of mark was particularly favoured in the Qianlong period.
Depending on the medium of the work of art, reign marks can be written in underglaze cobalt blue or in enamels over the glaze in various colours including iron-red, pale blue or black. They can also be written in gilt and can be incised or impressed.
Where do I look for the reign mark?
Reign marks are most commonly centred on the base of a vessel. However, they can also appear on the exterior of the base or the mouth of a vessel, usually in a single horizontal line.
How can you tell if a reign mark is authentic?
When deciding whether a reign mark is ‘of the period’ or a later copy, it is important to consider the mark in conjunction with the quality of the work of art.
The quality of genuine reign marks varies greatly, but on pieces specially commissioned for the Emperor or his imperial household, the reign mark should be of the highest calibre, matching the finesse of the work of art. A very poorly written mark on a ceramic or work of art intended for the Emperor should raise alarm bells.
That said, it is common to find less well-executed marks on lesser quality ceramics or works of art made during the reign of the Emperor, but which were not intended for imperial use. Many ceramics fall into this category and they are often referred to as minyao, or ‘the ware of the people’, as distinct from guanyao, or ‘official ware’.
The difference is quality is palpable between the execution of the guanyao and minyao Qianlong period (1736-1795) seal marks on the following two ceramics: a magnificent pair of famille rose ‘butterfly’ double gourd vases (above) and a pair of polychrome enamelled bowls, pictured below.
If a piece has a later copied mark, is it an outright fake?
No. To complicate matters a little, for hundreds of years Chinese artisans copied reign marks from earlier dynasties out of a respect and reverence for these earlier periods. These marks are often referred to in auction catalogue descriptions as ‘apocryphal’ marks. These marks were not necessarily intended to fool buyers into thinking they were buying a genuine earlier work of art.
For example, it is not uncommon to find 15th-century Ming dynasty reign marks on Qing dynasty blue and white porcelain made in the Kangxi period (1662-1722). Two of the most copied ‘apocryphal’ reign marks hail from the Xuande period (1426-1435) and Chenghua period (1465-1487).
The Chenghua period is famed for the quality of its imperial porcelain. Chenghua porcelain is scarce largely as a result of the exacting standards of imperial porcelain manufacture — porcelain that was intended for the imperial household but which had any blemishes or firing faults was destroyed.
Similarly, the Xuande period is acknowledged as a high point in the production of bronze works of art, and the vast majority of bronze censers made during the 17th and 18th centuries have Xuande marks to their bases. This includes the apocryphal Xuande mark pictured above which appears on the base of a 17th-18th century quadrilobed bronze censer, also above.
Find out more
The most comprehensive reference book on Chinese reign marks is Gerald Davison’s The Handbook of Marks on Chinese Ceramics, first published in 1994. It lists around 1,800 marks, including all the major Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasty imperial reign marks in addition to the many studio marks, hall marks and myriad miscellaneous marks that are also to be found on vessels throughout China’s rich cultural heritage.