Marks & inscriptions on the Wanli shipwreck porcelain
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Carving out the base of a ceramic item to form a foot-ring was one of the later steps in the production process. It is believed that the potter responsible for trimming the base of an item on the wheel after it was glazed and air-dried also applied cobalt to form any needed circles on the base while the piece was still on the wheel.
If necessary, the base circle was later finished with a reign mark or another inscription by other decorators before the base of the item was glazed as the last step before firing (1). In The Wanli Shipwreck cargo there are numerous bases which include a circle, or double circle but bypass the next step of adding a mark (whether the omission is by accident or design is unknown for this period, although the absence of a mark is certainly deliberate in the later Kangxi period).
Despite this, numerous reign marks, hall marks, workshop names and other Chinese inscriptions were written in the base or less frequently in the well of the ceramic items. Reign-marked pieces were much sough after by the Dutch in the 17th century who referred to them as Paytaght from the Persian word paitakht meaning “royal residence”. In The Wanli Shipwreck cargo there were a total of 2,187 marked pieces representing 29% of all registered ceramic artefacts. This is a very high percentage considering that kraak plates and dishes rarely include any markings.
The Dutch, as the Portuguese before them prefered to sell marked pieces as they were appreciated in the European market as well as in India and Southeast Asia. Already in 1605, in a letter from Masulipatam in India, a Dutch VOC official requested such marked pieces:
”It should be borne in mind that all aforesaid porcelains are most desirable when they have a blue mark drawn like a character on the bottom” (2).
1. See the Letters of Pere d’Entrecolles in Robert Tichane, Ching-Te-Chen, Views of a Porcelain City (1983), Page 88 for a description of this process
2. T. Volker. Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company as Recorded in the Dagh-Registers of Bayavia Castle, Those of Hirado and deshima and other Contemporary Papers, 1602-1682. (1954) p.66
3. T. Volker. Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company as Recorded in the Dagh-Registers of Bayavia Castle, Those of Hirado and deshima and other Contemporary Papers, 1602-1682. (1954) p.69 These ‘cause’ ware were referred to as “Fujian porcelain” while the Dutch records also mentioned ‘badly painted crude porcelain’ which Volker (p.33) suggest was no other than second grade Jingdezhen ware.
4. These siddham characters also mean "accomplished or perfected" and was generally painted in adoration to a deity and used for writing mantras and copying sutras. This symbol later developed into varying shapes to conform to the aesthetic requirement. Most of the emperors in the Ming dynasty were Buddhist and Daoist by religion, especially the Wanli emperor. Various records suggest that he was able to chant the Buddhist sutras at the age of seven, the work of arts of the imperial courts mostly exhibited connotation of the religious symbols.
Five years later another VOC official complained that the Chinese delivered better porcelain to the Portuguese and that the ‘fine’ porcelains procured by the Dutch were ‘coarse’ when compared with those acquired by the Portuguese (3).
Based on the number of marked pieces on The Wanli Shipwreck site, and the demand for such pieces at the time, it is presumed that the ship’s loss was an economical disaster for its owner. On the other hand, if the ship was not lost, we would not have the opportunity today to view its extraordinary ceramic cargo.
The use of apocryphal Chenghua reign mark was by far the most common in The Wanli Shipwreck cargo. These marks were found in many variations, all dependent on the artisan’s skill, literacy and interpretation. Whilst well over 100 different styles of writing this reign mark was found, only the five most common styles are included here.
Meaning of marks:
Ref. 1 This reign mark reads as: Da Ming Chegnhua Nian Zao or, “Made during the Chenghua reign of the great Ming dynasty” (1465-1487). It appears to have been painted by a lesser educated or careless decorator.
Ref. 2 The same meaning as Ref 1. Note however the difference in the sixth character which reads as ‘Zhi’ instead of ‘Zao’. However, both mean ‘made’. ‘Zao’ also means ‘to build’ and was commonly used in a more personal way within individual potters marks. While ‘Zhi’ could also connote “the emperor’s order”.
Ref. 3 This mark also reads as: Da Ming Chenhua Nian Zao or, “Made during the Chenghua reign of the Great Ming dynasty”. The strokes of the characters are written quite differently to the above two decorators.
Ref. 4 This four character reign mark excludes the first two characters ‘Da Ming’ in the previous mark. It says: Chenghua Nian Zao or, “Made during the Chenghua reign”. The fourth character is written as ‘Zao’.
Ref. 5 The same meaning as the above four character mark while the forth character in this sample is written as ‘Zhi’.
Ref. 6 These two characters are written as ‘Lian Yi’. ‘Lian’ means lotus, a symbol of purity in Chinese and Buddhist tradition. The character ‘Yi’ means peaceful or inner peace. When joined, the two characters might mean a specific name of a person or establishment.
Ref. 7 The same meaning as the above two character mark. These two characters could mean the name of the potter, his establishment or it might be a reference to the person ordering the items or his establishment.
Ref. 8 This reign mark means: Da Ming Jiajing Nian Zhi or, “Made during Jiajing reign of the great Ming dynasty” (1522-1566). Note the use the ‘Zhi’ character instead of ‘Zao’. While the Chenghua reign marks include both alternatives, the Jiajing reign marks found use the ‘Zhi’ character exclusively.
Ref. 9 This mark is the same as Ref. 8 except that it is painted in dark blue cobalt.
Ref. 10 These two characters are written as Dan Gui which refer to the red cassia or cinnamon which are the symbols of successful scholarship. The phrase also means “Success in Imperial Examination” in Confucian China. The marks were very common in domestic wares as congratulatory messages.
Ref. 11 These characters mean ‘elegant’ or ‘refined’ and are written as ‘Ya’. The use of these characters was common during the late Ming period.
Ref. 12 The style of the writing these Sanskrit characters, in the well of bowls, is likely to mean ‘Fu’ for good luck in Chinese. The characters were common mark on domestic wares but also appear in Wanli period imperial wares. The same marks were seen on numerous shards by the authors at the Miesilong kilns in Jingdezhen.
Ref. 13 These two characters are written as ‘Yu’ and ‘Qi,’ which, although not well defined, probably means ‘jade ware,’. Perhaps this is reminiscent of old traditions from the Yuan dynasty when the potters attempted to artificially reproduce jade. The mark was also used in praise of virtue during the Ming dynasty.
Ref. 14 This reign mark, in the well of a bowl, reads as: Da Ming Xuande Nian Zhi or, “Made during Xuande reign of the great Ming dynasty” (1426-1435). Along with Chenghua works, Xuande period blue and white wares are commonly credited as the finest porcelain ever made. Later potters often copied the reign mark, hoping to elevate the status of their work.
Ref. 15 The two characters are written as ‘Qing Ya’ meaning aloof and beyond the mundane world. The marks represent a Daoist way of living, especially during the middle and late Ming dynasty when the emperors were faithful followers of Daoist traditions.
Ref. 16 These nine characters, found in the well of some bowls, are all the character: ‘Shou’, meaning longevity. It is unusual that the central character in the bowl is offset from it’s centre.
Ref. 17 Same characters as in Ref.11 but enclosed in a double line square.
Ref. 18 Although written in a different style, these two characters have the same meaning as Ref. 12. They can also mean blessing for good living. They are enclosed in a double line square. This was the only mark found in the base of a 21 cm kraak dish.
Ref. 19 These two characters read: ‘De Hua’ which could mean convincing someone by virtue or alternatively could be referring to the famous potting town of Dehua in the Fujian province. The Dehua kilns are otherwise best known for their blanc de chine ware. This mark was only found in one bowl decorated with a Chi-dragon in the well. Many other Chi-dragon decorated pieces were found at the Miesilong kilns in Jingdezhen in 2004.
Ref. 20 This character is difficult to make out, but could read ‘He’. The decorator could have intended to sign his name or the name of the workshop. This mark only occurs once on the base of a twin deer plate.
Ref. 21 One character, written as ‘Yu’. This means Jade, as in Ref. 13 above. The ancient Chinese referred to any stone that could be carved as Jade. It signifies high virtue, a status of feudalistic society. The ‘Yu’ mark was frequently painted on domestic wares.
Ref. 22 The ribbon-like rendering of the word ‘Shou’ rises from the Lingzhi fungus. The fungus is the emblem of longevity or immortality. Similar marks are reportedly seen on Tianqi dated porcelain shards from excavations of the Ming Palace ruins in Nanjing.
Ref. 23 Painted in the well of bowls, this mark reads as ‘Shan’ for kind, good or to be good at.
Ref. 24 The hare, when used as a mark, symbolises intelligence, riches and longevity. The hare is traditionally believed to inhabit the moon where it engages in pounding up the ingredients which make up the elixir of life. The hare mark was only seen in two kendis and in the lid of one covered jar in the shipwreck cargo.
Ref. 25 This mark is seen on the exterior of a brown glazed storage jar. It is read as ‘Jin’, meaning gold. The mark was a hope that the jar might be filled with gold and that it would never empty.
Ref. 26 Another mark on the exterior of a storage jar. This ‘Yuan’ character means “source”, or “spring”.
Ref. 27 This character, written in ink, reads as ‘Fu’ which means “blessing for good fortune”. This mark was only found in the base of one brown glazed storage jar.
Ref. 28 The first characters reads ‘man’ indicating an ancient family name. The second character ‘zhi’could mean “made by” or “emperor’s order”. These characters were seen in the glazed base of a shard, apparently from a 20 cm kraak plate with a peony motif. The foot-ring is however cut differently from all other kraak plates.
Ref. 29. Another reign mark which reads as: Da Ming Chenhua Nian Zhi or, Made during Chenghua reign of the great Ming dynasty (1465-1487). These characters are however painted in the well of a bowl in similar manners as the Xuande reign mark in Ref. 14.
Kraak plate. Serial number: 2697
The text on this intriguing plate is the first four
lines of a famous Ming Dynasty poem whose
title translates approximately to “Return to Chibi.” (1)
The unknown late Ming author of the poem on the porcelain plate # 2697 seems to have written it whilst visiting the legendary Chibi (“Red Cliff”) site. This site was made famous in an earlier poem by a Northern Song Poet, Su Shi, also known as Su Dongpo (1037-1101).
For speaking out against hardships caused by faulty administration of a reform program known as the “New Laws”, Su Shi, a Mandarin scholar serving in the Ministry of Culture, was exiled to Huangzhou, a remote district in Hubei Province.
In the autumn of 1082, on a full moon night, Su Shi visited Chibi, which was in the vicinity of his Huangzhou dwelling. He was accompanied by two friends (a well known scholar Huang Lu Zhi (黃魯直), better known as Huang Ting Jian 黃庭堅, and Fo Yin (佛印), a monk) in a boating trip along the Yangtze River. Illustrations of the scene typically also depict a boatman standing at the stern, holding the rudder. The scenery at this spot is magnificent. The spot was mistaken for the ancient battlefield of Chibi in the Three Kingdoms period, however, in reality that battle occurred considerably upriver, at a place known as Puqi Chibi (蒲圻赤壁).
At the battle of Chibi (AD. 208), Zhou Yi (周瑜), a general from the weaker state of Dong Wu, defeated another, stronger, State led and powerful military head Cao Cao (曹操). Su Shi wrote the poem to express his own inner sentiments. He compared himself with Zhou Yi, who, even as young as 33 years old was able to contribute much to his State, whereas he, now in his twilight years, was still unable to achieve anything. It was such a sentiment and the majestic scenic landscape that inspired him to compose the well known poem known in English “Ode to the Red Cliff”, in the autumn of 1082 (壬戌秋) .
This poem by Su Shi and the scenic spot in Chibi have been a well known theme in paintings through many centuries among the scholars of the late Ming and early Qing periods. In porcelain, the scene and poem are represented in the well known series of “Red Cliffs” bowls that have been well described by Arthur Spriggs (Oriental Art, Winter 1961). The earliest known examples in porcelain of the scene and the original Su Shi poem are dated to the Tianqi period by means of Tianqi-marked examples and a 1627 painting by Jaques Linard depicting such a bowl.
As noted above, the poem on plate number 2697 is the first four lines of a related but later poem called “Return to Chibi” that was written by a later Ming Dynasty poet.
The first four lines of the later poem, as they appear on plate number 2697 are as follows:
五百年來续此游，Five Hundred years on, the journey continues, 水光依旧接天浮 ,Glittering water still meets the floating sky in the far horizon, 徘徊今夜东山月，Loitering tonight under the moon (2) of the Eastern Mountain, 恍惚当年壬戌秋 ,The sentiment seemingly as if it was in the autumn of 1082. (3)
The complete poem has another four lines which, in English translates approximately to:
Have a friend to catch fishes, down Red Cliff.
Nobody is to carry wine, out of sandbar of yellow.
Now myself, the riverside and thousands of mountains, all in silence.
A lonely crane is crossing the water, just above the little boat. (4)
Clearly the author of this plate poem was aware of, and makes much reference to, the earlier poem by Su Shi. The potters were also aware of the connection because the scene they have depicted on plate number 2697 appears to be the same as that depicted on the famous “red cliffs” bowls that bear the original Su Shi poem i.e. it is that of Su Shi and his two friends.
Although the late Ming Poet is not known with any certainty, it has been suggested that the poem might have been composed by a member of the Gong An sect that is represented mainly by the works of the three Yuan brothers (1560-1600, 1568-1610 and 1570-1623 respectively). The brothers were from Hubei province. The Gong An sect are thought to have been admirers of Su Shi and to have favoured the idea that writers should express themselves freely without being bound by rules and regulations.
1. The translated text of the Su Shi Poem can be found in English in Burton Watson, The Selected Poems of Su Tung-po, 1994, Page 94 and also in Chinese Porcelains of the Seventeenth Century, Landscapes, Scholar’s Motifs and Narratives, Pages 159-160.
2. Note that the character for “moon” on 2697 appears to have been mis-drawn as “guest”.
3. This last line can also be translated as “The sentiment seemingly as if it was in the autumn of the Ren Xu year”. Ren Xu years occur every 60 years with 1082 being one such year and 1562 and 1622 being later cycles.
The presence of this cyclical date in the poem along with the earlier reference in the poem to it being “five hundred years later” (than 1082) has inspired much debate as to whether the poem and the plate on which it was drawn can be dated. Unfortunately it appears that possible interpretations for dates for the poem might be 1562, 1622 or approximately five hundred years after 1082 which would be around 1582. Although many experts disagree, Professor Liu Xinyuan (personal discussions in August 2005) from Jingdezhen Ceramic Archaeological Research Institute contends that 1622 represents the date the plate was made.
Notwithstanding the ambiguity in the dating of the poem, there is no way of knowing how much time passed between the creation of the poem and it’s application onto The Wanli Shipwreck plate. The poem appears on many other documented porcelain items which can be attributed to the Chongzhen though Kangxi periods. Therefore it is thought that the dating of the poem itself cannot be used to date The Wanli Shipwreck plate.
With respect to the scene of Su Shi and his friends boating on the river however, the authors have been unable to find any documented examples occurring on porcelain prior to the beginning of the Tianqi reign. Stephen Little (Chinese Porcelains of the Seventeenth Century, Landscapes, Scholar’s Motifs and Narratives, Page 39 and Seventeenth Century Porcelain from the Butler Family Collection, Page 22) suggests that merchant guilds from Anhui played a significant role in the introduction of woodblock-illustrated books as sources of decoration to the ceramic painters at Jingdezhen from the Tianqi though early Kangxi periods. We might speculate that the imagery and perhaps the poem from The Wanli Shipwreck plate came from just such a source.
4. The authors wish to thank Mr Henrik Johansson for the translation of the last four lines of the poem.
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