7 Signs Your Chinese Porcelain Dates from the Qing Dynasty
Chinese porcelain regularly fetches record prices at auction–whether it dates from as far back as the Qing dynasty or closer to today.
In 2010, a London woman was clearing out her late sister’s relatively modest home when she stumbled across an 18th-century Chinese vase stowed away in the attic. It ended up selling for a record-breaking $83 million at auction to a Chinese buyer.
In early 2021, a second-hand enthusiast picked up an attractive, antique-looking, blue-and-white Chinese porcelain bowl for a measly $35 at a yard sale in the US. The buyer, feeling like he’d stumbled on something special, sent it off to a local auction house to get it appraised. It turned out to be a rare Ming dynasty piece, expected to fetch up to $500,000 at auction.
These kinds of random encounters with Chinese ancient art are certainly the exception, not the norm. But for anyone wishing to build their ceramics collection through purchase or auction, it still pays to know what you’re looking at.
If you’re a Qing dynasty pottery enthusiast, read on to learn how to tell if a bowl, vase, or other artifact is authentic.
New to Chinese Porcelain? A Quick Explainer
Chinese porcelain isn’t just antique… It’s ancient. The very earliest pieces date back to before the 2nd millennium. China first exported it to the world via the Silk Road.
Chinese porcelain production first began in the area that China occupies today in the Han dynasty–206 BC to 220 AD. And imperial production didn’t slow until the beginning of the 20th century, when the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, ended in 1912.
Chinese porcelain was (and still is in some areas) made entirely by hand in small family-run workshops. While it was made for the general population, specific kilns were nominated “royal kilns,” and they made ceramic vases, bowls, and more for the ruling class of the era. Antique Chinese pottery is distinguished by a potter’s and dynasty or emperor marks.
The materials that go into making this ancient Chinese art have changed little over the centuries. During various dynasties, they might include:
- Raw clay
Sturdy yet delicate Chinese porcelain–a careful combination of kaolin, quartz, and feldspar–is thought to have been invented over 1,000 years ago in Jingdezhen. This small town outside of Hangzhou is still dedicated to pottery production.
When making a porcelain bowl or vase, a Chinese potter gathers together the raw materials, shaping them by hand or on a pottery wheel, before putting them through a bisque (first) and glaze (second) firing.
Introduction to the West
Believe it or not, China has been exporting its fine porcelain wares since the late 2nd century BC.
Traders traveled the Silk Road and later, during the Song dynasty, maritime trading routes, introducing pottery from China to countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe. Porcelain vases, bowls, and cups–regarded by most as rare, delicate, and expensive objects–were nestled in a ship’s cargo hold with other exotic goods, like ivory, tea, bolts of silk, and ink paintings.
The dinnerware and tableware crafted in Chinese kilns were so popular that the word “china” became synonymous with porcelain in the English language.
Determining Authenticity in Qing Dynasty Ceramics
Perhaps you’re hunting for that ideal piece to begin your collection of Chinese porcelain. Maybe you’re looking for that one-of-a-kind gift for a favorite family member. Whatever reason you’re hoping to purchase Qing dynasty pottery, it’s crucial to learn the signs of an authentic piece.
1. Reign Marks
In the early Ming dynasty, which began in 1368, porcelain makers in China started using reign marks regularly. They range from complicated markings in Chinese characters to auspicious symbols like mushrooms, scepter heads, and leaves.
Qing Dynasty Reign Marks
Chinese porcelain made in the Qing and earlier Ming dynasties is easier to date than pottery produced in other eras. This is because Qing and Ming objects are more likely to feature a reign mark.
There are ten Qing reign marks, each covering different dates:
- Shunzhi (1644 to 1661)
- Kangxi (1662 to 1722)
- Yongzheng (1723 to 1735)
- Qianglong (1736 to 1795)
- Jiaqing (1796 to 1820)
- Daoguang (1821 to 1850)
- Xianfeng (1851 to 1861)
- Tongzhi (1862 to 1873)
- Guangxu (1874 to 1908)
- Hongxian (1909 to 1912)
Reign marks recorded the name of the dynasty and emperor active when the porcelain vessel was made. The mark is made up of four or six Chinese characters. If a piece of early Chinese art has a reign mark, it almost always means that it was created for use in the imperial palace.
Artisans wrote the reign marks in zhuanshu (seal-form) or kaishu (regular) script–usually using cobalt blue underglaze or enamel in various colors.
How to Read Reign Marks
So how, exactly, do you read a Chinese pottery reign mark? In almost every case, they follow the same rule as Chinese characters still do today: top to bottom and right to left.
The dynasty is represented in the first two characters, while the second two name the emperor. The last two characters mean something akin to “made for” in English. If a reign mark only has four characters, it will show only the emperor’s name and the “made for” inscriptions.
Naturally, reign marks make it easy for professionals to date a piece of Chinese porcelain. However, amateurs should be wary. These marks are easily applied to copies, too.
Is This Reign Mark Authentic?
One giveaway as to whether a reign mark is real is its location. In most cases, it’ll be found on the base of a piece. But, occasionally, you’ll see it in the mouth of a vase.
Note, too, the overall quality of the tableware. If a Qing porcelain bowl has a reign mark, it was made for the emperor’s household. That means the glaze, the clay body, the inscriptions, and the decoration will all be of the finest possible quality.
Another confusing factor is that makers often copied reign marks of previous dynasties or emperors as an act of reverence. These are known as ‘apocryphal’ marks and are not considered forgeries.
If you suspect the quality doesn’t match up to the reign mark, or vice versa, then get the item appraised by a professional well before you buy it.
2. Proportion and Shape
Chinese porcelain makers started getting really creative during the Qing dynasty, and as a result, there were more styles than ever before. Researchers know of nine different shapes in vases alone.
Because styles were more subdued in prior dynasties, you’ll be able to pick out the flourishes of Qing pottery with a bit of practice. Though just to confuse you, many late Ming dynasty styles were still favored in the early Qing.
The Qing dynasty began in 1636 and ended in 1912. So even though it was the last Chinese dynasty, potters made the earliest Qing pieces well over three centuries ago. The most recent would have been made decidedly earlier. This means the condition of an object could vary, but they should still show their age.
Of course, it’s essential to examine any object you want to buy carefully for signs of repair, chips, and cracks.
4. Kilns and Production Locations
The term yuyao (imperial kiln) rose to prominence during the Ming and Qing dynasties. These kilns were added into the system minyan (household kilns) and guanyao (official kilns) already firmly established in earlier dynasties. The pottery town of Jingdezhen was set up in the Ming dynasty to manufacture fine porcelain, and it’s still a powerhouse of Chinese ceramic production today.
5. Base Design
As we mentioned earlier, with reign marks, the base of early Chinese art ceramics matters in authenticating and dating it.
In what style did the maker cut the base? How did they glaze it? And in what colors did they decorate it?
6. Weight and Feel
Very experienced Chinese porcelain specialists know a piece is authentic simply by how it feels and what it weighs when they hold it. When buying expensive objects, try to hold them yourself or have a dealer you trust visit with the object in person on your behalf.
7. Palettes and Glazes
In the Qing dynasty, there were significant advances in glaze firing technology and chemistry. Glazes were fired to higher temperatures. There was a wider range of colors available for ancient Chinese sculpture and tableware.
Though there is some overlap, this helps Qing dynasty porcelain stand apart from the predominantly blue and white Ming dynasty wares.
Where to Buy Antique Chinese Porcelain
Unless you’re one of those rare lucky people who find a priceless work of art at a yard sale, you’re going to need to buy your Chinese porcelain via more traditional channels. This includes online marketplaces and the more conventional settings of antique dealers and auction houses.
Only very experienced collectors should attempt to buy antique Chinese porcelain on online marketplaces like eBay or Etsy. If you’re brand new to Chinese art acquisition, you likely don’t have enough experience to spot a fake. And believe us, there are plenty of forgeries out there!
Because you can’t touch or feel the artifact you’re interested in when shopping online, you have to rely on the imagery and description provided by the seller. And it’s difficult, if not impossible, to be sure of the seller’s authenticity on many open online marketplaces–despite the verification practices they may have in place.
If you really want to shop online for Chinese antiques, it’s better to work with an experienced dealer or a reputable auction house.
Are you interested in partnering with an antique dealer to build your collection of fine Chinese porcelain? Don’t settle for any old salesperson, or you risk getting deceived. Do your homework and seek out professionals with years of experience working with Chinese sculpture and its collectors under their belt.
Nowadays, you don’t have to visit a physical gallery. Dealers usually have online collections or downloadable catalogs of their sale items for you to browse. If you’re after artifacts from a particular Chinese dynasty or in a specific color, shape, or style, some dealers will also use their connections to source these items on your behalf.
If you have the budget, look for sales at top auction houses like Sotheby’s or Christie’s. These companies often have specialist Asian art sales that focus on many aspects of Chinese art: paintings, ceramics, textiles, jade, and more.
When dealing with an auction house, there are a few crucial steps to keep in mind. For any item you’re interested in, you should:
- Research the provenance and condition
- Register to bid well in advance of the auction (even if it’s held online)
- Carefully review the sale’s terms and conditions
- Ask any questions you have about the item–or the sale
- Do some digging into past prices for similar items
- Have a maximum bid price in mind–and don’t exceed it
Finally, if you’re successful in your bid and add the piece to your collection, be sure to research how best to display and preserve it. You don’t want to ruin your investment due to lack of care.
Qing Dynasty Porcelain: Consult the Experts
Unfortunately, Qing dynasty ceramic forgeries are widespread and often challenging for a novice to detect.
Antique experts study for decades to acquire their in-depth knowledge of the centuries-old practice of Chinese ceramics production. Anyone new to Chinese artifacts should look at the advice above as an introduction, helping you begin learning about this fascinating field of art.
If you’re interested in collecting Chinese pottery or want to add to your existing inventory, don’t hesitate to reach out to the experts at Weisbrod Collection. With fifty years of experience, the Weisbrod team is well placed to find that perfect piece.