Antique Porcelain Marks on Chinese Ceramics

Most of the antique porcelain marks or pottery marks that the beginning collector will encounter on ancient Chinese ceramics are originating in the Ming or Qing dynasty, or are from the republic period. Few of us will ever be able to lay hands on marked porcelain of the Song or even the Yuan dynasty. They are extremely rare.

While European porcelain manufacturers usually applied a factory mark very early on, antique marks on ceramics from China rarely show which kiln actually made an item. The manufacturer's name was virtually never mentioned before the late 19th century - there were almost no maker's marks in existence in ancient China.
See Antique China Marks - a comparison.

Yes, there do exist antiques with so-called shop or factory marks, but they represent only a very small fraction of all the Chinese marks known. Only items specifically made to order for local clients or overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia seem to frequently show shop or manufacturer's marks.

One of the most common antique porcelain marks found on ceramics throughout the ages is the reign or period mark (Jinian Mark).
Antique pottery marks of this type are known to have existed as inscribed marks on ancient pottery as early as the Qin and Han dynasties (see China history timeline). There are also some marks known to exist on ceramics of the Three Kingdoms period (3rd century).
These are all relatively rare, however. Real marking of items did not take off until the Ming dynasty.

Some Chinese antiques' porcelain marks or pottery marks contain dates of the Chinese 60 year cyclic calendar, but these are actually quite rare. Cyclic calendar dates started to appear mainly on Qianjiang-style dated porcelain in the second half of the 19th century. But these are not marks proper, but rather part of the signatures of porcelain artists.

Antique porcelain marks more often than not show the emperor's reign title (period name). During the Kangxi reign pictorial marks were popular, symbol marks and double circles were especially frequent. These had already existed earlier, but only in a limited manner. Otherwise, the majority of antique porcelain marks consisted of hand-written characters.

Kaishu character mark
(hand written)

Zhuanshu seal-type mark

Antique Porcelain Marks in Zhuanshu Characters

Zhuanshu marks (seal-type marks written with Zhuanti characters) were usually written or painted one by one manually during the Qianlong, Jiaqing and Daoguang reigns. Only in the later Qing dynasty (19th century) stamped seal marks started to appear more frequently.

The imperial marks used during the Qianlong reign, for example, were written by hand with archaic characters (Zhuanti or Zhuanshu) in the square shape of a seal, usually with or without a hand-painted frame depicting the square seal edge.
This is exactly the same way seal characters are/were written before carving or engraving the characters in a seal today.

Needless to say that the ancient characters used in such seal type porcelain marks are not the normal characters used in everyday writing of the Chinese language.
This ancient character type is called Zhuanti (or Zhuanshu) and was and still is mainly used with seals (even today) and is more difficult to read, even for a Chinese person. It takes some practice to recognize this type of characters in porcelain marks. So don't be surprised if not every Chinese person is able to read such characters.

Later, in the 20th century this mark came into use for apocryphal Qing dynasty marks on copies and imitations of earlier porcelain. These 20th century marks are using a slightly different writing style, however, and are generally easily recognizable as apocryphal marks.


Marks on Earthenware and other pottery

Sample selection of Chinese marks (Ming Qing private kiln marks)

This site is an excellent source for 20th century marks.