Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Color in Ancient and Medieval East Asia

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Color in Ancient and Medieval East Asia

Article excerpt

Color in Ancient and Medieval East Asia. Edited by MARY M. DUSENBURY. New Haven: YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2015. Pp. 285. S65.

In the pre-modern world, color had an intimate relationship with its material substance. Its value depended not only on its hue, but also on its durability, cost, and the accessibility of the substances from which it was derived. Previously, the topic of color in East Asia had mostly been studied by conservators and scholars of Five Phase Cosmology. Color in Ancient and Medieval East Asia represents the ground-breaking collaboration of a diverse group of scientist and humanists working together to explore the role played by color, dyes, and pigments in East Asian art, thought, politics, religion, science, and society.

The volume succeeds in presenting a multi-faceted approach to color through sixteen original essays on the topic. The essays are divided into five sections: Colors and Symbolism in Ancient China; Tomb and Grotto Paintings; Dyes in Ancient Chinese and Japanese Textiles; Color at the Court of Japan; and Color in Religious Art in Medieval East Asia. The work concludes with a useful appendix that presents an overview of the major dye plants and mordants of ancient and medieval East Asia.

Guolong Lai's essay appears first in the volume and focuses on the relationship between the material basis of color and its symbolic meaning. He proposes that a color's power in antiquity can be connected to its medicinal properties. Lacquer black and cinnabar red were magical hues because they were created with highly protective, but also toxic, substances (p. 39). Lai also surveys the colors employed in early Chinese artifacts from the Neolithic to the Western Han and contends that "magicoreligious practices" influenced the shift from a binary red-black system to a quinary five-color system in the Eastern Zhou (p. 43).

Lai's essay is followed by two chapters on organic pigments, which comprise section II. The first, Lisa Shekede and Su Bomin's essay on the Mogao grottos, employs technical analysis to reveal several new findings about Dunhuang's wall paintings. They show, for example, that the much admired, dark-skinned asparas found in Northern Liang to Northern Zhou period paintings were originally fair-skinned; they were painted with lead white paint and shaded with cinnabar and red lead, which has since deteriorated (p. 48). They also analyze shifts in color usage during the medieval period, demonstrating that at times a color disappears from the wall paintings of a period due to a scarcity of pigments, whereas in other cases it vanishes simply due to shifts in patron tastes.

Park Ah-rim's essay on the pigments employed in Goguryeo murals follows. It presents an overview of the process by which Goguryeo frescos were made. Park also provides a useful summary of the major pigments used in East Asian wall paintings.

Section III consists of four informative, technical essays on East Asian dyes. Richard Laursen summarizes the results of several dye analyses that he and his collaborators have performed on textiles from Japan, the Tarim Basin, and China to identify the major dyes used in those regions. He proposes that early societies initially used local colorants as dyes but then developed or imported others as their societies became more complex.

Chika Mouri's essay on the yellow dye grass, jincao, identifies the grass species used to produce the dye and traces its history from its early use in China to its prolonged use in Japan. Zhao Feng and Long Bo's essay similarly addresses yellow, but examines imperial yellow and the process by which it was produced during the sixth century. Zhao and Long attempt to reproduce the color by following the precise instructions included in the sixth-century Qimin yaoshu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. The authors succeed in producing a sample that is close, but not as highly saturated as the original, potentially due to their use of degummed rather than raw silk. …

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