Chinese date marks
A key question for furniture is making an assessment of its age. This is a particular issue for Chinese furniture as it did not evolve with the same more clearly delineated periods that can be seen with western furniture. The Ming period is best identified with furniture of simple yet elegant design. Qing period furniture on the other hand is generally considered to be more heavily decorated. While this is a useful way of differentiating between two different styles, the fact is that ornate furniture existed well before and during the Ming dynasty. On a similar note simple, unadorned furniture remained popular throughout Chinese history and was produced through to the modern day.
The most accurate measure of age is the date mark. The percentage of date marked pieces is small. These pieces form a valuable point of reference and benchmark for assessing the age of other pieces.
The marks are in the form of carved or written Chinese characters and are usually located on the inside of a door or under the base. In many cases the characters are not the date but are instead the name of the person or place it belonged to. Sometimes both the date and the owner can be identified. Instances of the maker's name are extremely rare indicating the greater importance being attached to the buyer. Examples of date marked pieces can be seen on the page - Date marked furniture.
The Chinese used two calendars; the emperor's reign period and a cycle known as the Heavenly Stems.
Emperor's reign period
When an emperor ascended the throne each year of his reign was marked by the first year of his reign, the second year of his reign and so on until he descended the throne either by abdication or passing away. Knowing the emperor's name and the particular year of his reign can be readily translated to the western calendar and so give an accurate age of the piece.
The characters on this panel read "da qing guang xu er shi er nian" which means the 22nd year of the reign of Qing dynasty Emperor Guangxu. This emperor ascended the throne in 1875, the 22nd year of his reign is 1896.
This is an ancient system that commenced as far back as the Shang dynasty (1759B.C. - 1040B.C.). There are two elements known as stems and branches which forms a total of 60 combinations. Each combination represents one year therefore the total cycle is 60 years.
This means that an item of furniture so marked can be identified as a certain year in the cycle. However it is not possible to determine which cycle in history is being referred to. In other words the same characters may relate to any date 60 years apart e.g 1810, 1870 or 1930. By itself then, the Heavenly Stems markings are not conclusive about the age, we would need to look at other features such as wear to be more precise.
The characters on this piece read "ren shen ji xia" which means the last month of summer in the year ren shen. However, it is not possible to determine which cycle is being referred to so it could be for example, 1872 or 1932.
Combined reign period and Heavenly Stems marks
Sometimes a piece might have the name of the emperor but instead of characters for numbers use the heavenly stems system for the year. Fortunately this does not present a problem because no emperor reigned for more than 60 years.
The characters here read "qian long ren chen gua yue" which means the seventh lunar month of the ren chen year of the emperor Qianlong. Reference books have correlated reign periods with the heavenly stems and from this material we know this piece was produced in 1772.