By Gerald Davison
First published in 2010, the 2013 reprint, containing additional material is now available (1 August 2013)
of Chinese Dynasties and Imperial Reign Periods
shows the 60 year jiazi cycle dating system.
Apart from imperial reign periods, specific date marks are almost of an unlimited nature ranging from just the year to a combination of reign period, year and precise day. Although they are not found frequently on Chinese ceramics their potential diversity is considerable. My dating table above will, with a little familiarity, enable the user to translate most types of date mark.
The only difficulty arises when in the case of a long mark the date may be added to an inscription of dedication to an event, person or place. Chinese calendars have been based on numeric cycles of 60 since Shang dynasty times (c1600-1028 BCE) at first for cycles of days but from around IOO BCE for years. Years are given unique names within the 60 year cycle by combining two characters. The first of these is taken from The 'Ten Heavenly Stems' and the second from 'The Twelve Earthly Branches'. This results in the Ten Stems recurring six times and the Twelve Branches only five times providing a unique set of non-recurring combinations throughout the 60 year cycle, known as the jiazi,
The main problem with this system is that without any further information there is no way of knowing which cycle you are dealing with. For this reason the cyclical year characters are usually accompanied in inscriptions by the imperial reign title, in which case the cycle can be identified and comparison can then be made with the Christian calendar. As official Chinese chronology starts from 2637 BCE the cyclical dating table spans cycles numbers 45 to 76, equivalent to the period 4 to 1923 CE. This table enables the character combinations for each year to be easily converted to specific years.
Translating many date marks requires identification of numerals so I have also provided a table of these. The Chinese characters used for numbering are both simple and logical in their use. There are two versions either of which can be found in many date or commemorative marks. The first are the numbers that equate to the Arabic numbering sequence used throughout Europe. The second type of character represents the complicated form of those same numbers used to prevent fraud. In the table of numbers the character yuan for 'first' is also included as this frequently occurs in marks. Larger numbers are simply compounds of the simpler basic numbers created by combining tens with units or the multiplication of units by tens as shown in the table.