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Color in Ancient and Medieval East Asia.

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.

The final essay in section III, by Liu Jian and Zhao Feng, compares the dyes used in two textiles excavated from Xinjiang, a Han-dynasty brocade from Loulan and a Tang-dynasty Sogdian twill, to make inferences about their provenances. Scientific analysis of the dyes and textile structure of the samples leads the authors to conclude that the Han brocade was likely produced in Central or Eastern China and that the Sogdian textile was most likely produced in Central Asia.

Section IV focuses on color use at the Japanese court. Mary Dusenbury's essay analyzes color schemes employed by the Japanese court during the seventh and eighth centuries. Japan acquired dye technologies from Tang China, and Dusenbury analyzes the degree to which the Japanese court adhered to Chinese precedent. She finds that in some cases the Japanese followed Tang artistic modes such as is evidenced by the number of objects in the Shosoin Repository with Tang ungen color bands. Japanese leaders, however, also occasionally departed from Chinese models, such as occurred when Emperor Tenmu declared safflower scarlet as the highest-ranking color in 685 (p. 127).

Monica Bethe's essay takes a literary turn and analyzes purple (murasaki) color imagery in the Man 'yoshu poetry anthology. References to the dyes in Man 'yo poems indicate that even high elite poets had very technical knowledge of the dye process. Bethe also uncovers the medieval Japanese literary associations between different colors such as gromwell purple, which was "deep-rooted, enduring, lofty, and glowing," and safflower scarlet, which was fleeting and "bound to fade" (p. 141).

Tanaka Yoko's provenance study on four pairs of embroidered slippers from the Shosoin Repository appears next in the volume. Japan had safflower dye, which is featured prominently in these slippers, beginning in the third century C.E.; however, these slippers, she argues, were produced in "Chinese workshops" based on their satin samite weave structure.

The last two essays in this section relate to the Heian period. Bethe's second essay in the volume analyzes the use of multi-colored cord talismans and threads in two yearly palace rites--the Tango no hi festival (now the Children's Day festival) and the Tanabata (Star Festival). This is followed by Dusenbury's essay on iro awase or the art of arranging one's costume (p. 172). She powerfully argues that "in the secluded world of women, skill in the use of color ranked with skill in poetry and calligraphy as a measure of her aesthetic sensibility, a primary marker of her 'worth'" (p. 170). Dusenbury not only reflects on garment arranging but also Heian textile workshops and the role of elites in garment production. Murasaki, Genji's beloved consort, she notes, was a talented dyer (p. 175).

The final section, section V, explores the role of color in religious art. Sim Yeon-ok and Lee Seonyong's essay presents an overview of the set of textiles that symbolized the five directions that were enshrined in Goryeo and Joseon Buddhist statues; these textiles, functioning as the statues' organs, were designed to bring the statues to life. The authors find that enshrinement deposits commissioned by the royal family for Haeinsa were produced with the highest quality workmanship and dyed in vividly pure colors, while the deposits enshrined in Buddhas made for the populace were of lesser quality and replaced some pure colors with intermediate colors (p. 190).

Buddhist art is also the subject of Hillary Pedersen's chapter, which is an iconographical study of two five-color deity pentads--the Five Great Space Repository Bodhisattvas and the Five Wisdom Buddhas. Examining these figures in Japanese Esoteric Buddhist temples and textual sources, she argues that their iconography drew on both Indian five elements and Chinese fivefold schema. The conflation of these two systems, she claims, increased the efficacy of the images (p. 205).

This is followed by Kaminishi's chapter on the dual meaning of iro [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as color and sex in the Buddhist context. By looking at the Kegonshu soshi eden (Illustrated history of the founders of the Kegon sect, 1224-25) and other Buddhist textual sources, she argues that "Buddhists coined the words, shiki-yoku [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], literally 'color-desire' to denote sexual desire, and adopted female images to represent color, or sexual, desire in many paradigmatic stories" (p. 220).

The volume concludes with an essay by Susan Shih-shan Huang on color in Daoist texts and artifacts. Huang highlights the prominent role played by color in Daoist visualization practice, pointing out that even when images in visualization texts were printed in black ink, they were often accompanied by short notations indicating how the images ought to be colored. She also explains the symbolism of the colorful objects used in Daoist salvation rituals such as banners, talismanic paper, and packing materials for written documents.

Given the enormity of the topic, it can be expected that the volume cannot cover all aspects of color in East Asian art, but readers might be aware that some areas are better covered than others. Textiles and textile dyes are a major focus of the book and feature prominently in eight out of the volume's sixteen essays. Organic pigments, in contrast, are discussed in only three essays, whereas synthetic (inorganic) pigments are seemingly overlooked. Geographically, as well, more essays concern Japan than China or Korea.

In sum, the volume succeeds in highlighting the way that an exploration of the material basis of color can shed light on a number of fields from literature to art history to religion. The unique perspective offered by each of the essays highlights the fruitful results that can be obtained through interdisciplinary cooperation between scientists and humanities scholars. This study, a pleasure to read, will certainly inspire further research on the topic of color in East Asian art.


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Author:Miller, Allison
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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