Purple in Ancient China: New Reflections on its Sources and Status


Purple in Ancient China:  New Reflections on its Sources and Status


In the ancient near East and the Mediterranean, no color embodied kingship like purple. However, in China, purple is often thought to have been relatively unimportant because it was not one of the five colors and was famously reviled by Confucius. Purple’s eventual popularity with Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) of the Han dynasty has often been attributed to the color’s association with Daoism. This presentation will re-examine the status of purple in ancient China and propose that by the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE) if not earlier, purple had assumed the same status that it had in other parts of the ancient world—as the ultimate sign of royal or imperial authority. Examining new evidence from archaeology, I will analyze the sources of purple dye in ancient China, presenting new evidence that the Chinese may have used dyes extracted from shellfish (often loosely referred to as “murex purple”) rather than zicao (gromwell) as has been previously assumed. I will also show that purple textiles had a longstanding relationship with Shandong province, particularly the ancient city of Linzi. The popularity of purple fabrics produced in this region fueled demand for the color in other media, catalyzing the development of paints colored with synthetic purple pigments. 

Allison R. Miller (Ph.D., Harvard University) is an assistant professor of Asian art history at Southwestern University, specializing in the art and archaeology of early China. Her research focuses on ritual architecture, court art (early Chinese jades, terracotta figurines), gifting and patronage, ornament, and early aesthetic theory. Miller offers broad surveys of East Asian art and architecture in addition to specialized courses on a diverse range of topics including: landscape art, contemporary art and architecture, and ancient Chinese civilization. Her work has been supported by fellowships and grants from the Fulbright Foundation and the Fairbank and Asia Centers at Harvard University, among others.  She has been awarded the distinction of being a Lecturer for the AIA (American Institute of Archaeology) this year.

Sponsored by: China Endowment, Suez Endowment and Center for East Asian Studies

Friday, November 10, 2017 at 3:30pm to 5:00pm

Will C. Hogg Building (WCH), 4.118 Meyerson Conference Room
120 INNER CAMPUS DR, Austin, Texas 78712

Event Type

Academics, Arts & Humanities, World & Culture, Diversity & Social Justice


College of Liberal Arts

Target Audience

Students, Faculty, Alumni



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