What Is Doucai?

The Beauty Of Chinese Doucai…

Meaning, literally ‘contrasting colours’, or ‘compete for colour’, doucai was a porcelain enamelling technique perfected during the reign of the Chinese Emperor Xuande (Ming Dynasty, 15th century). This created wonderfully decorative pieces, true examples of which are rare but highly-prized by collectors.

The contrasts in that description came during the firing process. A blue and white undegrlaze was first applied to the porcelain, when the pattern was sketched. Once this base had been treated in the kiln at high temperature, the previously outlined areas were 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 piece where the subtle underglaze and decorative overglaze 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 periods, such as the Kangxi Period (Qing Dynasty, early 18th century) are also highly prized for their aesthetic qualities.

Few porcelain has survived the mid to late Ming Dynasty. What are in circulation today tend to be copies of Chenghua pieces. The doucai process did undergo a renaissance in the Qing period; indeed, later examples of doucai porcelain are technically finer than their 15th century predecessors. The white of the underglaze is purer, the enamels much clearer. Indeed, the colouring applied during the overglaze process involved a broader range of hues. However, the rarity and subtle charms of the Chenghua pieces make them prized by connoisseurs.

Just as the very name ‘doucai’ refers to contrasts, there is a great deal to learn about the diversity of these collectables, be they Ming originals or Qing reproductions. Experts home in on many attributes. In Ming doucai, a small crazing should be apparent in the underglaze. Another difference is that there are often black flecks in the overglaze in the Ming pieces; reds in the Qing examples will appear much glossier. An oily iridescence can be observed in the overglaze from certain angles in the Qing pieces, especially in green. Ming examples usually have a flatter foot rim.

Doucai can also be extremely fragile, with some porcelain as thin as one-millimetre thick. But for all these reasons – the often exquisite patterns, the refined Ming designs, the bolder Qing colouring – doucai pieces are all exceedingly collectible.

Irv