One of the first steps in determining the age of Chinese porcelain is to look at
the bottom of the piece and read the reign marks. Needless to
say, there are other important criteria to determine the actual age and the authenticity of an
antique porcelain, since nothing is easier that to write an old date on the bottom of a vase that
came out of the kiln last month. But it is still important to be able to recognize these marks.
or nianhao, constitute a basic unit of the Chinese calendar. Traditionally, dates are
given as year XX of the YY reign period. The third year of the Yongzheng period is 1725, since the
first year was in 1723 when the Yongzheng Emperor began his rule. The name of a nianhao
is actually an auspicious title or slogan chosen to indicate and support a political direction.
Originally, emperors could have several such titles during their years on the throne, changing them
when a new direction was instituted.
Starting from the Ming dynasty, however, the custom of picking new titles disappeared and each
emperor used a single nianhao during the entire span of his reign. When a new emperor
ascended the throne, they picked a new title. As a result, the reign titles became associated
with, and designate, the ruler. So when we talk about the Qianlong Emperor then, although
"Qianlong" is actually not the emperor's name but a title chosen at the beginning of his rule,
it is perfectly clear who we mean by that designation.
The marks on Chinese porcelain typically consist of four or six characters, the last two being
"nian zhi", i.e. "made during the years of". The style of the characters can be either "kai" form
or seal script. Seal script was favored especially during the years of the Qianlong and Jiaqing
Below are some examples of reign marks taken from actual pieces of Chinese porcelain, arranged
in chronological order.
Transcription: Da Ming Xuande nian zhi
Translation: Made during the Xuande reign of the Great Ming dynasty
Transcription: Yongle nian zhi
This inscription does not say the name of the dynasty, but we know that the Yongle period
was during the Ming dynasty.
Translation: Made during the Yongle reign
Transcription: Da Ming Chenghua nian zhi
Translation: Made during the Chenghua reign of the Great Ming dynasty
Transcription: Da Ming Chongzhen nian zhi
Translation: Made during the Chongzhen reign of the Great Ming dynasty
Transcription: Da Qing Yongzheng nian zhi
Translation: Made during the Yongzheng reign of the Great Qing dynasty
Transcription: Yongzheng nian zhi
This last mark differs from the others above because it does not include
the name of the dynasty.
Translation: Made during the Yongzheng reign
Transcription: Da Qing Qianlong nian zhi
These are by far the most common marks on Chinese anqtiques. The Qianlong Emperor
was a great connoisseur of art who was himself actively involved in painting, writing
poems and essays, doing calligraphy etc. The 60 years of his rule was a golden age
of Chinese art.
Translation: Made during the Qianlong reign of the Great Qing dynasty
Transcription: Qianlong yu zhi
This last mark specifically states that the procelain was made for the imperial
Translation: Made for Qianlong Emperor
Transcription: Da Qing Jiaqing nian zhi
Translation: Made during the Jiaqing reign of the Great Qing dynasty
Transcription: Da Qing Guangxu nian zhi
Translation: Made during the Guangxu reign of the Great Qing dynasty
By Imre Galambos, 1999
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