Ming Dynasty Reigns 1368-1644

 Pinyin

Wade-Giles

   Span

Hongwu

Hung-wu

1368-1398

Jianwen

Chien-wen

1399-1402

Yongle

Yung-lo

1402-1424

Hongxi

Hung-hsi

1425

Xuande

Hsuan-te

1426-1435

Zhengtong

Cheng-t'ung

1436-1449 *

Jingtai

Ching-t'ai

1450-1457

Tianshun

T'ien-shun

1457-1464 *

Chenghua

Ch'eng-hua

1465-1487

Hongzhi

Hung-chih

1488-1505

Zhengde

Cheng-te

1506-1521

Jiajing

Chia-ching

1522-1566

Longqing

Lung-ch'ing

1567-1572

Wanli

Wan-li

1573-1619

Taichang

T'ai-ch'ang

1620

Tianqi

T'ien-ch'i

1621-1627

Chongzhen

Ch'ung-cheng

1628-1644

*  (same emperor)

The list above shows the 17 reigns of the Ming dynasty. Those in bold are the lesser known and, aside from Jingtai, are rarely mentioned..

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As a collector of Chinese porcelain, I've always searched for not just beauty, but what is rare. Naturally, Imperial grade porcelain is the most sought after. There are hundreds, if not thousands of such pieces in museums and private collections throughout the world. The major auction houses have many books and catalogues showcasing porcelain made for the Imperial household. Publicity from their auctions creates a frenzy of bidders for clients scrambling to own the rarest of the rare. The Chenghua chicken cup is a prime example.

I had to ask myself the question - "What is more rare? A piece of porcelain of Imperial quality from a well documented emperor such as Chenghua, or Xuande, in which there are many such pieces in museums and private collections worldwide, or a piece of porcelain with the mark of a virtually unknown emperor created during a time of extremely limited porcelain production and unrest?"

The answer is quite obvious, but it's not the right answer for the major auction houses as it would give them so little to work with. Keeping this in mind, in my search for fine porcelain, I always kept an eye out for a piece from a lesser-known emperor's reign knowing that they would be few and far between.

To support this endeavor, I began to research the different periods within the Ming Dynasty that seemed to be missing an emperor. I was interested in not just who they were, but why they seemed so unimportant to history.

There were indeed emperors that did reign during the missing years, but they were for the most part unknown. Perhaps overshadowed would be a better term when comparing them with the more successful and celebrated Ming emperors.

There were a total of 17 separate reigns to the Ming dynasty. One emperor reigned twice with a brief interruption when captured by the Mongols, then released. This explains why there are 16 emperors for 17 reigns.  He chose a different name for his second reign, which explains the 17 different names.

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Interregnum Period

Many of the collector books list only 11 reigns for the entire Ming period, focusing only on the better-known Ming emperors. In my gathering information on the lesser-known emperors, my interest soon focused on a certain period of time referred to in many history books as the Interregnum (between reign) Period, 1436 to 1464. This period spans the end of Xuande (1435) to the beginning of Chenghua (1465), and represents the longest span of time during the Ming dynasty in which little is said about it's emperors or porcelain manufacture.

This raises two important questions.

1.   Why would there be so little porcelain produced during a period that fell between the two reigns that produced the finest porcelains of the Ming Dynasty?

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2.   Are there pieces bearing the reign mark of any of these lesser-known emperors, and if so, where are they?

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To answer the first question, porcelain manufacture obviously did resume during this time, but it was very limited. Political unrest brought to a halt the operation of the Imperial kiln during these years. There was little trade and export during this time of unrest, limiting the supplies needed (such as imported cobalt). The result was porcelain production probably focusing on internal supply and demand, and doing so with native material. Though the Imperial kilns were silent for the 29 year period, it stands to reason that the hand of the artisan was not idle. This explains many fine unmarked porcelains.

To answer the second question, I believe much of the unmarked common ware (Min yao) is from this period. As for marked porcelains from this time, they do exist, but they are extremely rare. One such piece is the world famous Annam Vase considered the most important porcelain of the 15th century. It is in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul Turkey, from the period of Jingtai, and actually dated 1450.

Any fine unmarked pieces from this period are almost always attributed to belonging to the preceding reign of Xuande, or to the succeeding reign of Chenghua.  True recognition of the few fine porcelains from the 29 year Interregnum period is overshadowed.

Back to Ming reign mark page.

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