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Year : 2018  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 74-78

Looking for Chinese red: Materia medica trade along the silk road and development of Chinese red dyestuff

Shanghai Theatre Academy, Shanghai, China

Date of Web Publication9-Oct-2018

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Min Shao
Stage Art Department, Shanghai Theatre Academy, Shanghai
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_24_18

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In thousands of years from the Pre-Qin Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, crimson represents sacredness and good fortune in several dynasties and is honored in the hierarchy of colors. Meanwhile, introduction to the exotic Materia Medica for dyeing from the Silk Road trade greatly expands the dyeing category of red color. The exotic red dyestuff is eventually integrated into the red culture of the Central Plains through the localization process. Therefore, it becomes the color symbol on behalf of Chinese nation.

Keywords: Materia medica trade, red dyestuff, Silk Road

How to cite this article:
Shao M. Looking for Chinese red: Materia medica trade along the silk road and development of Chinese red dyestuff. Chin Med Cult 2018;1:74-8

How to cite this URL:
Shao M. Looking for Chinese red: Materia medica trade along the silk road and development of Chinese red dyestuff. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2018 [cited 2022 Jun 29];1:74-8. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2018/1/2/74/242578

  Red Color: The most Ceremonious Traditional Chinese Auspicious Color Top

The original meaning of “Red” in ancient China refers to the light red color (縓), namely the secondary color composed of crimson and white. Both red and light red can be obtained from dyeing with madder (Radix et Rhizoma Rubiae), showing a little yellow in the light red color. However, since the late Ming and early Qing Period, the semantics of red has changed gradually, which is progressively equal to vermilion (朱). It can be found out from Xiu Pu (《绣谱》 Book of Embroidery) – literature in the Qing Dynasty, that at that time, vermilion, crimson (赤), and red are all collectively known as the red color up to date. Therefore, the red color nowadays refers to crimson in ancient China.

Five elements refer to the movement changes of five elementary substances – water, fire, wood, metal, and earth [Figure 1]. If they are manifested in the celestial phenomena, they appear as the five stars; if on the earth, they appear as the five positions; if in the four seasons, they appear as the five virtues; and if they are manifested in complicated patterns, they appear as the five colors. Founding emperor of each dynasty decided the color of the official costumes which they were fond of according to the movement of the five elements and worship of the five virtues. Red belongs to one of the five orthodox colors, representing the South. Traditional has it that Yao (尧) got the essence of Yan Emperor (赤帝) and worshiped the fire virtues; therefore, crimson represented its sacredness. Afterward, crimson represented the sacredness of the Han Dynasty. In the Tang Dynasty, yellow and crimson stood for the sacredness of its costumes and flags, respectively. When it came to the Ming Dynasty, as stated in Ming Shi (《明史》 History of the Ming Dynasty), it is said that in different dynasties, people worshiped different colors. In the Xia Dynasty, people worshiped the black color, while in the Shang Dynasty, people worshiped the white color. At present, after we have replaced the rules of the Yuan Dynasty, we follow the worship of costume colors of the Zhou, Han, Tang, and Song Dynasties and choose the crimson properly.
Figure 1: Relationship between the five elements and five colors

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In the Ming Dynasty, they had strict hierarchy of costume colors, which could differentiate position levels of emperor from ministers, superiors from subordinates, and the young from the old of family members. They had rigid restriction on costume colors people would wear due to different social classes and social occasions [Figure 2]. Crimson is on behalf of the color of auspicious suits, which is not only the honorable color of the court but also the most joyous and solemn color for folk marriage. This color culture and custom continue from the Ming Dynasty to the present, and crimson have become the national color of China showing happiness and pleasure.
Figure 2: Official uniform from the Ming Dynasty, officers from the first to the fourth degree wearing the red official costumes

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  Red Dyestuff: Luxuries of Eastern and Western Nobilities Top

In the late 19th century, before the discovery and application of chemical dyestuff, regardless of the East or the West, colorful costumes wore by the nobilities were all made up of natural dyestuff. Natural dyestuff can be divided into three types: mineral dyestuff, vegetative dyestuff, and creatural dyestuff, among which vegetative dyestuff is the most widely used. Around the whole world, major natural dyestuff is as follows:

Cinnabar (朱砂 ) and vermilion (银朱)

Major constituent of both cinnabar and vermilion is mercuric sulfide (HgS), the typical mineral red dyestuff in ancient China [Figure 3]. They are originally the same substance, while they are given different names due to different production process. Cinnabar, refined from mercury which is refined from mercuric sulfide, has the trait of regeneration. It is regarded as the symbol of getting away from earthliness and is the important constituent to refine elixir from ancient times. As dyestuff, the production process is extremely complicated. Except for a small amount of usage, it is commonly replaced by vegetative dyestuff.
Figure 3: Mercuric sulfide

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Madder (Radix et Rhizoma Rubiae)

Madder belongs to Rubiae genus, Rubiae species, also named as Mao Sou (茅蒐). Qian Qian (蒨芊), Di Xue (地血), Teucrium Viscidum (血见愁), Lycopodium cernuum L. (过山龙) as well as Niu Man (牛蔓). Its root can be used for coloration of dark red (绛), which is also known as Ran Fei Cao (染绯草) [Figure 4]. Madder pertains to traditional Chinese vegetative crimson dyestuff. Since the Qin and Han Dynasties, it is the major dyestuff for coloration of emperor's clothes. Madder belongs to dyestuff with mordant dyeing property. Red colored from madder shows warmth with a little yellow color. Stained for the first time, the color is light red (縓); for the second time, the color becomes yellow combined with red (纁); for the third time, the color changes into dark red, while for the fourth time, the color transforms to vermilion. Madder is widely distributed globally. Compared with traditional Chinese dark red color, occidental dark red color is rather brighter.
Figure 4: Madder root

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Safflower (Flos Carthami)

Safflower pertains to the composite family. At first, the flowers are yellow; afterward, they change into red. The leaves seem quite blue; therefore, it is also named as Carthamus tinctorius (红蓝花) [Figure 5]. Safflower was originally produced in Liang Han (梁汉) and Western Regions. Seeds were obtained by Zhang Qian (张骞 , a famous diplomat in the Han Dynasty) from the Western regions and then were extensively planted in the northern part of China. Safflower is the main vegetative source of red dyestuff. It can be used for coloration of scarlet red and real red. For the bright color, it can be used to make blusher.
Figure 5: Safflower

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Sappan wood (Lignum Sappan) and Brazilian rosewood

Sappan wood belongs to Leguminosae, also named as sapan wood (苏方), Su (櫯 , a kind of wood for coloration in ancient Chinese book), and Fang (枋). It is similar to locust tree and is produced in ancient Dan Dan Guo (丹丹国 ancient Chinese name for region near Malaysia or Singapore), which can be used for coloration of dark red and black red. The earliest record of it was written in Nan Fang Cao Mu Zhuang (《南方草木状》 Description of Vegetation in South China) in the Jin Dynasty. When it came to the Ming Dynasty, sappan wood became the most important dyestuff for red color [Figure 6].
Figure 6: Sappan wood

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Brazilian rosewood is also known as Caesalpinia echinata (巴西苏木), pertaining to Leguminosae. It was originally abound in Brazil, then was transported to Europe because of mass deforestation, and became the red dyestuff exclusive to European aristocracy during the Renaissance Period.

Laccifer Lacca and cochineal insect

Bengal kino (紫鉚), also known as lac (赤胶) and lac encrusted twig (紫梗), belongs to the natural colloid secreted by laccifer lacca – a typical kind of parasitic insect in the south subtropical zone. Bengal kino is the main creatural dyestuff source for coloration of scarlet red (大红) in ancient China. It is referred to as “Ant Paint and Red Floc” (蚁漆赤絮 the excretion secreted by ant to dye the cotton material), which is pretty precious.

Cochineal insect was originally produced in Mexico as well as Central America, which is the scale insect parasitizing in Cactus. Polypide includes a large amount of carmine acid, referring to the absolutely perfect natural red dyestuff. After the discovery of the New World, cochineal insect was once monopolized by Spaniard as the secret commodities to transport to Europe with the pretty expensive price.

  Red Color: Splendid Color in Materia Medica Trade along the Silk Road Top

China is one of the earliest ancient civilizations to conduct natural coloration. As early as in the palaeoid literature – Shang Hai Jing (《山海经》 The Classic of Mountains and Rivers), it had already recorded many minerals and plants for coloration. In thousands of years from the Pre-Qin Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, on the one hand, crimson represents sacredness and good fortune in several dynasties and is honored in the hierarchy of colors. On the other hand, introduction to the exotic Materia Medica for dyeing from the Silk Road trade expands the dyeing category of red greatly. Color system of red becomes increasingly delicate with far richer gradation.

We have quite rich literal expression of red color system in ancient Chinese literature. In the first place, it refers to root for individual characters, such as light red (縓, 赪), red (红), yellow combined with red (纁), dark red (绛), deep red (绯), crimson (赤), vermilion (朱), and cinnabar (丹). In the second place, it relates to tertiary color composed of degree terms and root, such as scarlet red (大红), pure red (纯红), and real red (真红). In the third place, it means tertiary color consisted of item color and root; for example, bright pink (水红), pink (桃红), pinkish red (肉红), wood red (木红), alum red (丹矾红), and purplish red (枣红). From ancient Chinese literature, such as Tian Gong Kai Wu (《天工开物》 Exploitation of the Works of Nature), Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》 Compendium of Materia Medica), Duo Neng Bi Shi (《多能鄙事》 Capable of Doing All Sorts of Vulgar Things), Wu Li Xiao Zhi (《物理小识》 Basic Knowledge of Physics), and Qi Min Yao Shu (《齐民要术》 Important Arts for the People's Welfare), it can be found out that the delicate and rich color system of red is mostly stained by safflower and sappan wood. Application of these two types of Material Medica for coloration, which were introduced to China through the Silk Road, was far more than the localized madder. For instance, in Yun Lu Man Chao (《云麓漫钞》 Historical Notes in the Tang and Song Dynasties), the record of red color is as follows: “Previously it was believed that red refers to the secondary color composed of crimson and white, namely the color of red combined with blue nowadays.”

The earliest record of madder was written in Shang Hai Jing (《山海经》 The Classic of Mountains and Rivers). Application of madder for coloration had a long history in the whole history of Chinese clothing color. During the whole period of Pre-Qin as well as Qin and Han Dynasties, madder was extensively planted for dyeing. As written in Han Guan Yi (《汉官仪》 Ancient Laws and Regulations in the Han Dynasty), “we planted herbs in the dyeing garden for the coloration of emperor's clothes, which is known as madder.” The warm red color dyed from madder belongs to the crimson color combined with yellow. For the coloration of strong crimson, it needs repeatedly impregnation, leading to the color change that stained for the first time, the color is light red, while for the fourth time, the color transforms to vermilion.

Safflower was originally produced in Central Asia and West Asia, a type of traditional dyestuff with a long history. It was recorded in Bo Wu Zhi (《博物志》 Natural History) that Zhang Qian (张骞) obtained the seeds of safflower from the Western Regions and at present we plant safflower in Wei Area (nowadays the region of Hebei Province). Safflower contains yellow pigment and red pigment and was widely planted due to being introduced to Central Plains via the Silk Road. As first, the color stained by safflower was helvolus. Laterm yellow pigment was eliminated with the gradual adoption of killing-flower method (the method to extract red pigment) to obtain the pink color with fluorescent effect, thereby which can be used for coloration of red (红), scarlet red (大红), carmine (莲红), pink (桃红), pale rose color (银红), bright red (水红) m and real red (真红). Ancient Chinese also dried safflower in the sun or made it into flower paste [Figure 7]. This technique was not limited by the flowering phase. It could preserve the red pigment and be used to make blusher, which is the indispensable beauty applications for makeup and adornment of ancient Chinese women [Figure 8] and [Figure 9].
Figure 7: Production of safflower paste

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Figure 8: Safflower for Drying in the Sun

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Figure 9: Silk tassel dyed from safflower

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Sappan wood was originally produced in India, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Malaysia. In local area, sappan wood belongs to the red dyestuff of great importance [Figure 10]. The earliest record about sappan wood was written in Nan Fang Cao Mu Zhuang (《南方草木状》 Description of Vegetation in South China) in the Jin Dynasty, saying that sappan wood was similar to sophora flower with black seeds, which was produced in Jiu Zhen (nowadays, the central area of Vietnam). Southerner applied it for coloration of dark red. If it was soaked in water from Da Yu (located in Guangdong Province), the color would be deeper. Coloration process by sappan wood is simple with strong color. It can be used for tintage of wood red (木红), alum red (丹矾红), little red (小红), and black red (乌红), referring to as the significant dyestuff for official uniforms [Figure 11]. The widespread application of sappan wood in the Ming Dynasty got benefit from the commodity trade of the Maritime Silk Road. Fleet of Zheng He (郑和 , the famous navigator and diplomat in the Ming Dynasty) transported large amounts of sappan-wood from Southeast Asia to the Central Plains, which not only met the needs of red color for the royal court but also continued and developed the red culture, making it exists not only in the imperial court but also in the lives of common people. Eventually, it became the color symbol on behalf of Chinese nation.
Figure 10: Sappan wood the most important red dyestuff in the Ming Dynasty

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Figure 11: Red colors dyed from sappan wood

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As stated above, due to the terrestrial Silk Road and maritime silk trade, brand new type of red dyestuff had been introduced, cultivated, applied, and integrated into Chinese red culture, becoming an indispensable part eventually.

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  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5], [Figure 6], [Figure 7], [Figure 8], [Figure 9], [Figure 10], [Figure 11]


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