How to Identify Chinese Markings

Chinese ceramics were rarely marked prior to the Ming and Qing dynasties.
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Given the popularity of collecting porcelain and pottery throughout the world and the huge market for reproductions, it is important to be able to correctly identify authentic antique Chinese ceramics prior to making costly purchases. While European porcelain makers were applying factory marks to their wares from around the 16th century, Chinese makers rarely used manufacturer's marks prior to the late 19th century. More than 140 ancient kilns are known to have existed in China, but being able to pinpoint the specific kiln that made a piece is impossible by mark alone.

Research the history of Chinese ceramics and acquaint yourself with some basic information to allow you to make informed decision on the ceramics you are looking at. In addition to marks, you need to pay close attention to style, shape, colors and decorative patterns, which are all important in trying to date a piece and determine its likely origin. These factors play a more important role in authenticating Chinese ceramics than they do in ceramics from other parts of the world, where factory marks are all important.

Keep a notebook, detailing information pertaining to specific marks and their meanings, and add further information as it becomes available.

Examine the pieces thoroughly and find any marks that have been applied. These are likely to be on the bottom of the pieces.

Ascertain that you are looking at a Chinese ceramic and not a Japanese one. Japanese marks are more organic and artistic than Chinese marks, which are generally within a box and very uniform, with characters of the same size.

Date the piece by keeping in mind that marks featuring western characters were not used prior to the 1890s and most pieces bearing western characters were made after the 1950s. Pieces marked "Made in China" date from 1970 and later.

Read the six character imperial reign mark. You will need a reference guide to imperial reign marks that gives a summary of marks and meanings, such as Gerald Davison's "Handbook of Marks Chinese Porcelain." These marks should be read from right to left and from top to bottom. Each character has its own meaning. Character one is usually the same in most marks and symbolizes greatness. Character two indicates during which dynasty the piece was made. Characters three and four refer to the emperor's reign title. Like character one, characters five and six are generic and mean period made.