China is famous for its long history in producing ceramics, porcelain and other wares. One of the most celebrated is the Imperial Ru Ware which was made exclusively for the Chinese Imperial use.
Wucai Chinese antique porcelain has its origins from the earlier Doucai ceramics. Wucai first appeared during the reign of the Ming dynasty Emperor Jiajing, who ruled the Chinese empire between 1521 and 1567. Its manufacture continued throughout the Ming dynasty until its demise in 1644, but underwent a renaissance during the Qing dynasty.
Jingderjen often called the Porcelain City of the world and is still producing fine ceramics today, was the main site of production throughout China for Wucai ceramics. Although Wucai can be translated as ‘five-colour’ the colours were not strictly limited to that number and the term is best understood as simply multicoloured.
Wucai porcelain was characterised by the over glaze decoration of coloured enamels after the porcelain had been fired once with a blue under glaze design. The over glaze enamels included a variety of colours such as red, green, blue, yellow and purple. Once the coloured over glaze enamels had been applied, the porcelain was then fired a second time, but at a lower temperature.
Sancai, meaning three-coloured, is a polychrome ceramic ware that was produced during the Tang dynasty which ruled China from 618 to 907 AD. Archaeological evidence shows that initially Sancai was exclusively manufactured for the Imperial elite who used the pieces as tomb objects.
The original funerary pieces were often made in the form of animals such as camels and horses, as well as human figurines. The style is figurative and the lead-glaze is highly coloured. Other forms included a variety of vessels such as bowls, vases and incense burners, and these were often decorated with stylised flowers.
The term Doucai literally means ‘contrasting colours’, or ‘compete for colour’. Doucai was a porcelain enamelling technique perfected during the reign of the Chinese Emperor Xuande during the Ming Dynasty. This created wonderfully decorative pieces, true examples of which are rare and highly-prized by collectors.
The contrasting colours of Doucai came during the firing process. A blue under glaze design was first sketched on to the porcelain, and then the porcelain was fired in the kiln at a high temperature. The previously outlined areas were then filled with a variety of coloured enamels, typically red, yellow, green and aubergine. The porcelain was then fired again, at a lower temperature. The end result was a beautiful design where the subtle under glaze blue and the decorative overglaze enamels appeared to compete for the observer’s attention.
Typically, Chenghua Doucai porcelain features a smooth white base glaze, giving an overall appearance of elegance. Pieces from later ching dynasty periods, such as the Kangxi Period, are also highly prized for their aesthetic qualities.