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.
Few original Doucai porcelains have survived from the mid to late Ming Dynasty. What pieces that are in circulation today tend to be later copies of Chenghua original pieces. The Doucai process did undergo a renaissance during the Qing period, later examples of Doucai porcelain are technically finer than their 15th century predecessors. The white of the body and glaze is purer, and the polychrome enamels are much clearer and brighter. The colouring applied during the overglaze process involved a broader range of hues and colours. However, the rarity and subtle charms of the Chenghua pieces make them extremely highly prized by connoisseurs.
Just as the very name ‘Doucai’ refers to contrasts, there is a great deal to learn about the diversity of these porcelains, whether they are Ming originals or later Qing pieces. Experts home in on the many attributes. In Ming Doucai, a small crazing should be apparent in the under glaze. Another difference is that there are often black flecks visible in the Ming pieces. Red over glaze enamels in the Qing examples appear much glossier. An oily iridescence can be observed in the overglaze from certain angles in the Qing pieces, especially in the green enamels. Ming examples also usually have a flatter foot rim.
Doucai can also be extremely fragile, with some porcelain as thin as one-millimetre thick. The exquisite patterns, the refined Ming period designs, the bolder Qing period colouring all make any antique Doucai porcelains exceedingly collectible.