Amongst the porcelains treasured by Chinese connoisseurs the delicate doucai wares of the Chenghua reign are remarkable for having enjoyed continuous and universal admiration for more than 500 years. Even in the late 16th century, only a hundred years after they were made, Chenghua doucai porcelains could change hands between wealthy collectors for as much as 100,000 taels of silver.
Indeed, at the time of their manufacture during the Chenghua reign doucai porcelains would have been very precious. They were made of the finest raw materials by the most skilful craftsmen. In addition, the technique in which they were decorated resulted in significant wastage, and thus very high costs. It is interesting that the Ming Shilu, Xianzong Shilu (1368-1643) mentions a 'Twenty-point Memorial' sent by Chen Jun, the Secretary of the Board of Civil Office in Nanjing, and a number of other senior officials, to the throne in the twenty-first year of the Chenghua reign (1485). This memorial focused on the costs of imperial porcelain production, and stated that the cost of producing imperial porcelain amounted to tens of thousands of ounces of silver each year (Ming Shilu, Xianzong Shilu, juan 263, pp. 2-3). It also stated that the cost of imperial porcelains made from clay equalled the price of producing vessels made of silver.
It has been suggested that these delicate doucai porcelains were influenced by the Chenghua Emperor's beloved and greatly favoured concubine, Lady Wan. However, it appears more likely that their design was specifically determined by the emperor himself. Not only is he is recorded as taking great personal interest in production at the imperial kilns, he is also known to have had a particular fondness for small, delicate, items such as these doucai porcelain vessels. It is probable that this exquisite stemcup was made in the 1480s when, during the latter part of his reign, the emperor's interest in Buddhism led him to adopt the robes of a monk when Buddhist ceremonies were held at court, and to order the construction of many temples and monasteries, as well as the manufacture a vessels decorated with Buddhist emblems - such as the lotus flowers, which adorn this stemcup. Similar stemcups have been excavated at the site of the imperial kiln from the stratum dated to the period 1481-1487. A stem cup of the same shape, size and decoration was excavated in 1988 from the late Chenghua stratum of the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen and is illustrated in The Emperor's broken china - Reconstructing Chenghua porcelain, London, 1995, p. 42, no. 38.
The coloured overglaze enamels on this, and other Chenghua doucai porcelains were fired to a relatively low temperature. The darkening and iridescence seen in some the enamels on this stemcup, and several others from important international collections, including the Beijing Palace Museum, suggests that they were caught in a fire that reached a higher temperature. Fires were all too common in the Forbidden City, and records preserved in two British museums note that seventeen doucai stemcups were caught in the fire which destroyed the buildings of the Jianfu Gong (the Palace of Established Happiness) on 26th June 1923. It is a testament to the esteem in which they were held that these exquisite porcelains, nevertheless, continued to be treasured in the imperial collection of the last Chinese emperor, and today in the Palace Museum. Four Chenghua doucai stemcups preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, with similarly darkened enamels to those on the current cup, are illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum 38 Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colours, Hong Kong, 1999, pp. 188-190, nos. 170-172.
A Chenghua doucai stemcup in the collection of the British Museum of similar shape and size to the current stemcup, but with a decoration of birds on flowering branches, also has enamels which show signs of being heated beyond their normal firing temperature. This is illustrated by J. Harrison-Hall in Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, pp. 167-8, no. 6:12, where the author notes that when the stemcup entered the British Museum in 1943 it was recorded in the departmental register that it had been damaged in a fire in the Forbidden City in 1923. A similar cup with over-heated enamels was in the British Oliphant Collection before entering the Collingwood collection and in 1954 sold by Sotheby's to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The records of the Victoria and Albert Museum note that seventeen stemcups were damaged in a fire in the one of the palaces in the Forbidden City. In 1937 Sir Percival David bought a similarly over-heated Chenghua doucai stemcup from the sale of the Wu Laixi Collection (illustrated by R. Scott and S. Pierson in Flawless Porcelains: Imperial Ceramics from the Reign of the Chenghua Emperor, London, 1995, p. 38, no. 19). Other Chenghua doucai stemcups, which display the effects of having been in a fire, are preserved in the Hong Kong Museum of Art (see S. Jenyns, Ming pottery and Porcelain, London, 1953, pl. 70A,B) and the Meiyintang Collection (see R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol. 2, 1994, pl. 676). Chenghua doucai cups, like these and the current example, probably survived the fire only because they were carefully stored in fitted boxes. Indeed analytical research undertaken by Andrew Middleton of the British Museum in 1992 indicated that the changes noted in the darkened enamels on the museum's stemcup were consistent with it having been in a fabric-lined or wooden box during the fire (see J. Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, op. cit., p. 168, no. 6:12, note 1).
The Palace of Established Happiness and its gardens were built on the orders of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-95). Work began on this palace complex, located in the north-west of the Forbidden City, in the fifth year of the Qianlong reign,1740, and it was intended as an imperial garden retreat, where members of the court could escape the demands of governmental responsibility. It was prized for its beauty and tranquility, and a small number of ceramics bearing inscriptions indicating designation for use in its gardens are still preserved in the Palace Museum (see an inscribed Jun ware plant pot illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum 32 Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (I), Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 18-19, no. 15). The Palace of Established Happiness also housed a vast array of precious antiquities, the majority of which were damaged or destroyed in the fire of 1923. Fires were, sadly, not an uncommon occurrence in the Forbidden City, however, it has been suggested that this fire might have been started deliberately by palace eunuchs of the Neiwu fu, Imperial Household Department, who may have wished to cover-up the fact that a significant number of items from the palace collections had been stolen in the early days of the Republic, while the last emperor was still resident in the Forbidden City (see M. Holdsworth, The Palace of Established Happiness: Restoring a Garden in the Forbidden City, Beijing, 2008).
It is interesting to note that not only were these exquisite Ming dynasty Chenghua doucai stemcups appreciated by the Qing dynasty Qianlong Emperor, but also by his father, the Yongzheng Emperor (1723-35), who is known for his aesthetic appreciation of particularly fine porcelains. Palace archives for the seventh year of the Yongzheng reign (1729) mention that Chenghua polychome porcelain cups with 'high foot and rounded' were brought to the palace from the Yuanming yuan. Amongst the designs mentioned are 'parrots picking peaches', 'passion flowers' and 'lotus flowers and leaves'. The latter description probably refers to cups similar to the current example.