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May 30, 2012

Baffling Chinese Pottery

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – “That many dynasties,” I asked as I started my lessons about identifying ancient Chinese pottery. As with most beginning collectors, I began my research after I had purchased about eight pieces.


The ceramics are categorized according to the ruling dynasty. The first emperors, Xia and Shang, were followed by 15 others. The problem was they also break into eastern and western Jin, northern and southern Song and the Three Kingdoms. Names such as Yuan,Tang and Quin all “bee bopped” around my mind. I thought I was memorizing a Chinese restaurant menu.


The dates were even stranger. They went back to 1600 B.C., an era incomprehensible to me. As an American, nothing happened before 1492 when Christopher Columbus discovered America. The rest doesn’t matter.


In the English speaking world, we put dates or names on our antiques. We can say it was a Stottlemeyer rocker, or we may find a date. In comparison, it’s like having a rare watch with the name of that immortal president, Van Buren, engraved on the back. That means it was made during his dynamic administration.


I can remember all the presidents up to U. S. Grant but then I lose track until Woodrow Wilson, then on to Franklin D. Roosevelt where I can pick up again. I know Teddy Roosevelt is in there somewhere because he yelled “Bully” all the time. I learned that from the old movie Arsenic and Old Lace. But I digress.


Then there is the writing. Here in Malaysia, one is confronted by Chinese picture writing; Indian writing which look like curly fries; Thai, which is like Indian but with a lot of dots; and Arabic where you pronounce things by clearing your throat.


On most of Chinese ware, the names of the dynasties are stamped on the bottom. I decided to learn the characters so when I go antique shopping I could identify without having to consult a guide. Since it was picture writing I knew, it would be easier for this dyslectic mind of mine to imagine the figures.


Most pieces have six letters, arranged in vertical twos. I started with the top right corner. This was easy for this dynasty. There was a man very similar to the one in the game Hangman. I put together man and Quing. I was very proud of myself until I discovered they all had the little man.


I then tried to look at all six of the characters, but, alas, they were too complicated for my feeble, dementia-beginning brain. Just the addition or movement of a small stroke changed the meaning from a “holy emperor to “cat riding on the back of a cow while swimming down the Potomac.” To find pictures in that chicken scribbling one must be hallucinating on one of those ’60s drugs.


Giving up on that mode of identification, I was told colors were associated with certain dynasties. My wife thought that this would solve my problem except for the fact I am color blind.


The one thing I did learn was the expressions on dragons’ faces changed with some of the reigns. On many pieces, dragons wind around platters and plates as decoration. If the dragon is smiling pot high ludicrously, then it belongs to one era; and if he has a fierce look, it belongs to another.


My wife, watching me, intervened when in frustration I was about to throw the ancient dishes into the river. She calmly glanced at each series of six, looked at the dynasty and matched them perfectly in about 30 seconds. After about a minute or so, she could tell me the history of the piece and, most importantly, she didn’t rub it in when I couldn’t.


Suriani is much smarter than I am, and I have told her that. She is now the Chinese antiquities expert while we visit antique shops. When we enter a shop, I display a ludicrous smile on my face like the dragon.


. . . . .Life is good. . . . .


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