Many books on Chinese porcelain state that the Doucai palatte was first introduced in the reign of the emperor Chenghua. I myself understood this to be correct until I spoke with Mike Vermeer who informed me the Doucai palette was actually used in the earlier regin of the emperor Xuande. Michael Vermeer is a highly respected authority in the field of Chinese imperial porcelains especially monochrome porcelains and a consultant to three major U.S. museums. Visit Mike Vermeers Website
The definition of the early Ming enamel colours was further improved in the Xuande and Chenghua periods by an entirely novel approach – the use of coloured enamels to fill in high-fired, underglaze-blue designs. In this technique fully glazed and fired underglaze blue-and-white wares had the outlines of their blue drawing carefully filled: in with coloured enamels, with occasional touches of solid blue being left to give an extra colour in the finished decoration. The wares were then retired to enamel temperatures. This style is known as the doucai technique –doucai being variously (and rather confusingly) translated as ‘clashing’ or ‘dovetailing’ colours. It is a true polychromc effect, combining red, yellow, green, brown and aubergine overglaze enamels with underglaze blue. Some secondary colours are also seen in doucai wares, such a sage-green, achieved by painting the transparent yellow enamel over the underglaze-blue.
The doucai technique is particularly associated with small toy-like porcelain objects, made from the finest porcelain materials, and using the highest standards of craftsmanship. The style is delicate and rather feminine. Most doucai pieces are small bowls, dishes and stem cups, but doucai incense burners and covered jars were also made.
Until the Zhushan Road excavations the doucai technique had been associated with the reign of the Chenghua emperor (reign 1465-1487) and, in particular, with the influence of the emperor’s consort, Wan Guifei. However, closer reading of history has shown Wall Guifei to have been a mercilessly cruel woman, with a taste for armour and fast horses, and an unlikely patron for fine porcelain. The appearance of many do. cai-style pieces, in the Xuande levels of the Zhushan excavation, has now shown that the development of doucai porcelain actually took place in the earlier reign of the Xuande emperor, and one complete Xuande bowl, made in a prototype doucai style, has survived at the Sa’gya Monastery in Tibet.
Besides this ‘painting by numbers’ principle the experiental Xuande doucai technique also saw the introduction of a totally new enamel colour – a transparent brown with a slightly purple tinge. Unfortunately, the almost legendary value of 15th-century doucai wares has so far prevented any analysis of doucai enamels being attempted but, judging from its colour, the doucai brown seems to have been based on manganese, perhaps with a small cobalt impurity. So famous were these wares that they were imitated almost perfectly in the early Qing dynasty, and these Qing copies are still being confused with the 15th-century originals.