We may here conveniently say something of the marks found on Chinese
porcelain. We do not propose to give any systematic account of these
marks–this is a subject indeed to which a disproportionate amount of
space has perhaps been devoted in some works on porcelain–but rather to
collect a few notes on points of interest.

Tang-ying in his report to the emperor on the manufacture of porcelain,
from which we have lately quoted, tells us that during all the processes
of turning on the lathe, painting and glazing, a solid bar is left at
the base of the vase by which it is conveniently handled. This bar or
handle is at length cut off short, and the base of the stump is scooped
out to form the foot of the future vessel. It is at this stage that the
inscription is written by a special artist on the centre of the base,
and then brushed over with a coat of the glaze, which does not extend
over the rim to join the rest of the glazed surface. Thus we see that
the writing of the inscription and the glazing of the base are
subsequent to and independent of the decoration of the rest of the vase.
In whatever style this decoration may be, the inscription is generally
written in cobalt blue under the glaze.

There are many varieties of Chinese writing. We pass from the oldest
‘tadpole’ forms, by way of the _chuan_ or seal character, to the
_kai-shû_, which takes the place roughly of our ordinary printed
letters. Of this last, the square detached strokes pass when written
with a brush into the more flowing ‘grass’ character. The _kai-shû_
style is the one most frequently found on porcelain, or at least a form
something between it and the grass hand. The seal character, however,
was much favoured by the Manchu emperors, and since the time of Kang-he
has been practically the only one used for the imperial _nien-hao_ (PL.
A. 10-12).[72]

The Chinese have two methods of indicating a date: first, by a cycle of
sixty years; second, by the name given to the whole or part of the reign
of an emperor. With the first we are not concerned, it is found so
rarely on porcelain.[73] The other, the imperial date or _nien-hao_, has
been in use ever since the time of the Han dynasty (say roughly from the
beginning of our era). Very early dates of this kind are often found on
bronzes, where, however, they are no more to be relied on than in the
case of porcelain. The inscription occurs in two forms:–first, the six
word form where the emperor’s name is preceded by that of the dynasty,
thus: _Ta Tsing Kang-he nien chi_,–‘Made in the reign of the Emperor
Kang-he of the great Tsing or Manchu dynasty’ (PL. A. 8); or second, the
first line with the name of the dynasty may be omitted, leaving only the
emperor’s name and the words _nien chi_, ‘year made,‘–for example,
_Cheng-hua nien chi_ (PL. A. 3).

The name by which we know the emperor of China was not his personal or
family name, but was assumed on ascending the throne, and in old times
was frequently changed. But from the time of the Sung dynasty such a
change has only once occurred. This was in the case of the unfortunate
Ming emperor Cheng-tung, to whom we referred on p. 93. We rarely find
the name of any emperor of an earlier time than the Ming dynasty on
porcelain, and the few instances that do occur are obvious forgeries.
Perhaps the earliest date on Chinese porcelain with any claim to
authority is the _nien-hao_ of Yung-lo (1402-25), in quaint ‘tadpole’
characters engraved in the paste beneath the glaze. This inscription
occurs on the thin bowl of Ting ware in the British Museum, described on
page 67 (PL. A. 1).

We have said before, and we cannot too strongly impress this fact upon
the reader, that the vast majority of the Ming marks so frequently found
on Chinese porcelain are of no value. They teach us nothing themselves,
and when we can accept them it is on evidence derived from other
sources. As Franks observed many years ago, all we can say is that a
piece of porcelain is not older than the date which it bears.

When we find the date inscribed in a horizontal line round the neck of a
vase, as is not infrequent in later Ming times, especially in the reign
of Wan-li[74] (1572-1619), more reliance may perhaps be put on it, as
regards ware of Chinese origin at least, for the Japanese were very fond
of decorating their blue and white ware with Ming inscriptions placed in
this position.

We have innumerable vases in our collections undoubtedly made in the
reign of the great Kang-he (1661-1722),[75] but his reign-mark is
comparatively rarely found. The absence of this _nien-hao_ is usually
explained by a proclamation, issued in 1677, which has been preserved in
the Chinese books, forbidding the inscription of the imperial name on
porcelain. With this proclamation the empty double ring of blue often
found on the base of vases of this time may perhaps be connected. Many
of the finest pieces, however, bear no mark of any kind.

In place of these date-marks we may often find an inscription stating
that the piece was made at a certain _Tang_–for example, _Shun ti tang
chi_–literally ‘Cultivation virtue hall made’ (PL. B. 17). We have here
translated the character _tang_ by the somewhat vague word ‘hall,’ but
it is doubtful whether the inscription should be rendered ‘made for the
Shun-ti pavilion,’ _i.e._ for the imperial palace, or rather, ‘made at
the Shun-ti hall,‘–that is to say, at the studio or factory of that
name, presumably at King-te-chen. The best authorities, however, are in
favour of the latter rendering (Bushell, p. 78 _seq._, and the Franks
_Catalogue_, p. 213), and they regard these so-called hall-marks as more
or less equivalent to the signature of the manufacturer. The character
_tang_ is sometimes replaced by other words, as _tsuan_, a balcony;
_ting_, a summer-house; or _chai_, a studio. This last word is the
Japanese _sai_, which so often forms a part of the adopted names of
Japanese artists, as for example Hoku-sai, which means the ‘northern
studio.’ The Japanese potter often signs his work, and even in China we
find in a few cases a name, that of the painter, inscribed in the field
of the decoration,–we have already mentioned some instances of
signatures found in this position (p. 108).

Of another kind is the inscription found on certain egg-shell cups of
the time of Wan-li (1572-1619). These cups, of which we have no
specimens unfortunately in our collections, were made by a famous
poet-potter who signs himself _Hu yin tao jen_, or ‘the Taoist hidden in
a pot.’ The reference is to a Taoist recluse (what the Japanese know as
a _Sennin_) who when disinclined for society was in the habit of
retiring into his gourd-bottle. At the same time, as Dr. Hirth has
pointed out, the words form an excellent motto for an artist–the true
expression of whose genius we seek in his works.

There is a third class of marks which celebrate the beauty of the vessel
on which they are inscribed or, more rarely, refer to the subject of the
decoration. A large number of these are illustrated in Franks’s
_Catalogue of Oriental Porcelain_. We will merely quote as examples ‘A
gem among precious jewels of rare jade’ (PL. B. 16), and, with reference
to the decoration, which in this case includes some red fishes,
‘Enjoying themselves in the waters’ (PL. B. 44). Such rather tame
sentences do not teach us much. More suggestive is the inscription we
find on a cylindrical vase for holding writing materials: ‘Scholarship
lofty as the hills and the Great Bear’ (PL. B. 15)–a fit motto for the
desk of the student.

The Emblems or Devices that so frequently occur in lieu of inscriptions
on Chinese porcelain are well illustrated in the British Museum
catalogue. They are, however, of little or no value in classifying or
dating the pieces on which they are found–they can seldom be connected
with any known manufacturer or artist. Such devices are generally
symbolic, above all of long life, riches, and honours, the three things
desired by a Chinaman, and I suppose that they are more or less vaguely
expected to bring to the owner the good luck that they suggest.

Some of these devices remind us of the ‘canting’ charges and badges of
our heraldry. Thus a bat (PL. B. 19 A.) is in Chinese called _fu_, but
the same word also means happiness; so again a peach is _shu_, but _shu_
means also long life. The characters for happiness (PL. B. 23) and long
life (PL. B. 19), we may mention, are of constant appearance, the first
usually as a mark on the base, the second as an integral part of the
decoration, on both Chinese and Japanese porcelain. Such interest, then,
as can be found in these marks is derived rather from the light they
throw upon the working of the Chinese mind than from any information
they give us about the porcelain on which they are inscribed.