Identifying Chinese Porcelain

Process of identifying Chinese porcelain ...

Before the last Chinese imperial dynasty ended (1911) the expression of crafts and arts followed mostly tradition and was limited to some degree by imperial guidelines and other factors. One of the latter was probably the method with which arts and crafts were taught in Far Eastern societies since ancient times, not allowing for free expression or creativity. Apprentices would rather be copying the works of their master or other masters rather than creating their own works.
Kilns producing porcelain to order for export or domestic use would produce many similar items as sometimes huge quantities were required. Painted decorations were often worked on by several different painters, each painting something different. For example some would only paint the landscape, others the buildings, the people, boats, plants, etc.. The whole production process was more of a collaborative manual mass production than an artistic creation process.


Introduction to Chinese Porcelain

Only from the republic period onwards, after the old ways started to decline did  artistic expression become possible, and shapes and decorations slowly became more variegated. A major cause of this was possibly the increased exposure to foreign cultures.

On this basis the 20th century became for ceramics production an era of innovation, with new shapes, methods and decorations appearing. Potters and factories started producing items that were increasingly different from the traditional wares, incorporating creative influences from abroad.

Identifying Chinese porcelain involves more than just knowing the mark in order to decide age and manufacturer, as many novices do believe.
See a comparison of Chinese and non-Chinese marks.

The identification and authentication of Chinese porcelain is a complex process of an overall verification of a number of factors. All experienced collectors know that with Chinese porcelain the mark is the last to be looked at.

Identifying Chinese porcelain items, including evaluation of age and/or manufacturing period, always involves, among other, shape, decoration and several other features that serve as reference points. These are also important for further evaluation, once an item is established a genuine antique.

The overall evaluation takes into account sveral the following points:

  • Shape
  • Color(s)
  • Decoration style
  • Foot (foot rim & base area)
  • Glaze
  • Age and/or usage signs
  • Mark
  • Era-related production traces

Since porcelain was first produced, but especially after the Song dynasty, its forms and shapes were often confined to certain shapes. While shapes may have had some minor variations during different dynasties or reigns, or according to the kiln which may them, deviations remained within certain limits. These factors assist us when we need to identify from which era or kilns porcelain items are.

With kitchen and table wares remained more or less the same with due to their utilitarian purpose and association with the eating and drinking habits of the people.
Decorative items like vases, jars and ceramic containers of all sizes and forms were often subject to more change.

When visually identifying Chinese porcelain, the Shape always the first thing that meets the eye. A short glance over a vase or jar, for example, often allows an expert of Chinese ceramics to assert or discard the possibility of a Chinese object being antique.

Some shapes or curves, like those found in Japanese Sake jars or tea cups, are rare or non-existent among Chinese ceramics of old, yet they can be found on modern fakes.
Another example usable for identification is the shape which with export wares often was different from Chinese shapes. For example plates made for epxport to Europe had a completely different  shape from the Chinese ones; such a shape was virtually unknown in China before the production for European clients started, in the 16th and 17th centuries.

If the shape passes this first step of inspection, an examination will most likely include a short evaluation of the decoration and color(s) used. Here again, certain colors (pigments) or combinations of these were just not available in earlier times, or were out of supply at times, for example due to trading prohibitions during specific periods. Therefore, the presence of a color or colors that will not fit a specific period of production, will result in an item being classified as a later item, a reproduction or fake.

Some of the earliest painted porcelain color decorations of porcelain were made in blue and red color on a white ground. But, even the blue color tone differed depending on whether the blue mineral pigments used were of the imported type, mined domestically, or was a mix of both.

As imports weren't available at all times, this color itself also helps the identification or dating of Chinese antiques.  See antique china categories for color information according to decoration type.

If the item passes a color inspection, then the decoration will probably be scanned for any signs of acceptable or unacceptable styles or patterns. Variations and different painting styles also do provide important era-specific hints.

Foot /Base
Checking the foot rim and base of an item provides the most relevant indications in view to age and/or approximate time of production (dating). The production process was subject to continuous improvement over the centuries. The presence or absence of production traces or features pointing to certain techniques can be an important means to clarify authenticity of porcelain. Also, foot rim shape and characteristics were different from period to period, and they often are decisive in dating or authentication, respectively.

The glaze provides some hints as to the age, as it was different and evolving over time, and may have been subjected to elements (soil, sea, air). 

As with the glaze the clay/slip was gradually refined and in the 18th century its quality was at the peak. However, it declined somewhat after that. Some defects therefore may not show in porcelain of the 18th century.

Age signs

Finally, the whole item is checked for the appropriate age signs. Here again, some points involving the techniques (e.g. kiln firing, etc.) developed over time can be included in the overall evaluation when identifying Chinese porcelain.

If there is a mark, the experienced collector will know if the period of the mark and that of the item itself (the points mentioned above) fit into the same picture. Please see the section on marks.


» Identifying Chinese Porcelain

search by keyword