Scholars across world, disciplines study ancient use of color in Asia

Thursday, May 07, 2015

LAWRENCE – The use of color was a potent force in ancient and medieval East Asia. A book released this month and edited by a University of Kansas scholar shows the power color plays in research when applied across multiple disciplines.

In “Color in Ancient and Medieval East Asia,” 18 researchers from the United States, United Kingdom, China, Japan and South Korea examine the role of color in society, politics, philosophy, art and religion.

“This is one of the first times that chemists, archaeologists, conservators, dye analysts and historians of art, literature and religion, have talked together about the implication of their work beyond conservation,” said the book’s editor and project director Mary Dusenbury, who is a research curator at the Spencer Museum of Art.

Published by the Spencer Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, the book is the result of more than a decade of collaboration.  

The seeds of the book began at a College Art Association conference in 2003 when Dusenbury organized a panel on the role of color in East Asian cultures. In 2010, she organized an exploratory colloquium at The Commons at KU, which forged an interdisciplinary network of researchers studying color. An international symposium followed in 2013.

The project looks at color in East Asia from about 1600 B.C. to A .D. 1400. It was a time when color was believed to hold certain powers during religious rituals. Shrines were built to colors, Chinese literature admonished readers not to substitute any other shade of red for the official red made of madder roots, poems used color as a metaphor for fleeting love, and rank was denoted by the color of robes.

“Color was very important in East Asia, not just because it was beautiful, but also because it was supposed to have this powerful effect,” Dusenbury said.

Among the unlikely researchers connected through the project are Richard Laursen, a Boston University chemist who has done groundbreaking work in dye-analysis technology, and Zhao Feng, director of the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou. In 2012, a researcher from the museum brought more than 100 samples of Chinese archaeological textiles to test in Laursen’s lab. By looking at plant fibers in yellow and red colors, the analysis provided clues as to where the artifacts were made.

That research is detailed in the book, along with essays on the use of color in ancient tomb and Buddhist cave paintings, religious art and the Japanese court.

The interdisciplinary approach to studying color promises to provide a better understanding of the origin of archaeological artifacts, use of trade routes and cultural influences.

It also raises more questions, Dusenbury said, and points to paintings in Buddhist temple caves at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert along the Silk Road. At one point during the sixth century, the color scheme in the paintings became radically different. For years, art historians attributed the change to cultural factors.

However, an analysis of the pigments showed that unlike other paintings in the temple complex, the colors didn’t include lapis lazuli. At that time, lapis lazuli, a brilliant blue stone, came from one mine in northern Afghanistan and traveled all over the known world. It is a mystery, Dusenbury said, why the stone wasn’t available when China was expansive and trade routes were open and safe.  

“The analysis that lapis lazuli wasn’t used in the paintings raises these historical questions,” Dusenbury said. “This goes against anything we would have guessed about the politics and trade from that period. What is it that we don’t know?”

A book launch event for “Color in Ancient and Medieval East Asia” will take place Tuesday, May 12. To learn more, contact the Spencer Museum at or 785-864-4710. Advance copies of the publication will be available for sale through the KU Bookstore.

“Color in Ancient and Medieval East Asia” is supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, the Marilyn J. Stokstad Publication Fund, and the University of Kansas Research Investment Council, with preliminary project funding from The Commons. It is published under the auspices of the Arts Research Collaboration initiative at the Spencer Museum, facilitating research collaborations among the arts, sciences, technology and society.

Image Credit: “Blue Dragon, Great Tomb at Gangseo.” Late sixth century. Sammyo-ri, Gangseo, Nampo City, North Korea.