The Xuande Period was and remains known as a time of great artistic and cultural advancement in China. The Xuande emperor (Zhu Zhangji) reigned from 1425-1435, considered the highpoint of the Ming Dynasty. Within the arts, imperial commissions sustained and expanded a heightened level of craftsmanship and artistry from ceramics to bronzes, lacquer, and paintings. The association of high-quality workmanship and creativity with the Xuande period resulted in the Xuande mark being used ‘honorifically’ on objects made at a later date, indicating that the later made object was inspired by the works of this early Ming period.
There are many types of Xuande marks, examples on bronze vessels are commonplace and in most cases, the Xuande mark appears much more frequently than marks of the actual period in which the item was cast. This is particularly true for ritual vessels and porcelain. Differentiating between early authentic marks and those of a later date is not difficult. Each displays features that are consistent with the period in which the figure was cast. Marks should never be judged in isolation, rather in the context of the object on which the mark has been placed, the provenance, wear, casting quality, and other features. The following marks are authentic Xuande marks on bronze objects.
Notice the mark with the crisply incised lines, sharp beveled edges that indicate a precise, strong hand prepared in advance to replicate the type of precision possible with a fine-bristle brush. The spacing of the characters is proportionate to the script both in height and width. There is a void at the upper register between each character particularly for the first two and final two characters, and the Xuande characters seem to extend very slightly above the height of the other characters and slightly higher that the lower register of each character. Whether this indicates a different hand than the first two and final two characters, is unknowable, but there is a slight visual difference between the center two characters and the others. The gilt ground is marked by a fine network of horizontal scratches beneath the gilding and the edge of the base is irregular as is the frieze beneath the edge with the open-sphere line of beadwork, perhaps created as collars for inclusion of turquoise or coral or paste stones. Comparing the downward sweep of the stroke on the fourth character to the final character, a noticeable difference exists in the depth and width of the cut. A similar difference exists between the downward sweep of the first character compared to the fourth character and the final character.
For a comparison, look at the example of a similar figure sold at Christies.
The first figure and this figure are of comparable size and quality, and the Christie’s example has a Xuande mark that is in a noticeably different hand than that of the example cited above. The first two characters and the final two characters are smaller than characters three and four, which are dominant and larger vertically and horizontally than the other characters. The characters are in a similar style and technique but the size and spacing is different. The surrounding area beneath the gilding is pitted with faint traces of horizontal scratching in some areas.
A figure of Vajrapani dating from the Xuande period has a different style mark but with similar spacing between the first two and the final two characters in relation to the two center characters. The cut of the characters is also smaller for characters three and four than the first two and last two characters.
A final example is the Buddha Shakyamuni which has a pitted and scratched ground beneath the gilding and the third and fourth characters are larger than the first two or the final two characters.
The variation in the style, scale, placement of the characters indicating the reign period may be the result of these being added after the first two and final two characters, suggesting that the figures may have been cast during the preceding Yongle period and inscribed later during the Xuande reign. Xuande marks on Sino-Tibetan gilt bronze figures are far less numerous than those with a Yongle mark.
A comparison of the Xuande Marks with those of a few examples from the Yongle period, show greater consistency in the style of the characters with the third and fourth characters.
This figure of Amitayus has a finely scratched surface with wear at the edge below the mark and above the beaded rim. The third and fourth characters are slightly diminutive compared to the others, with the first and sixth character broader in width.