Written by Jing Han.

When considering popular colours in China, one’s immediate thought may be of red, the colour of the national flag and the colour of celebration. However, it is actually yellow that dominated the imperial wardrobe in ancient times. This piece will explore the hierarchy of costume colours in ancient China and tell the story of imperial yellow through the presentation of both documentary and physical evidence.

Colour as an important symbol of social hierarchical sequence

The order of ancient Chinese empires began with discerning rank. As early as the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC), an ideological system called li 禮 (etiquette) was established. Court decree, seen as a model of etiquette for the whole nation, was developed systematically and continuously over time. As an essential part of daily life, costumes were graded by colour, material and patterns, to such an extent that detailed regulations were issued, giving precise instructions about what people of different ranks could wear.

The grading of costume colour began in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), when the colour of ribbon worn indicated the owner’s rank. During the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907), a colour grading clothing system called pin se fu 品色服 was established and continually developed in the subsequent dynasties. For example, in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), as recorded in Yu fu zhi 輿服志 (Record of the Proper Carriage and Attire), the colour of official dress was graded from high to low into fei 緋 (red), qing 青 (dark blue) and lv綠 (green). Three colours, xuan 玄 (reddish black), huang 黃 (yellow) and zi 紫 (purple), were regarded as imperial colours and their use was prohibited amongst officials and common people.

The dominance of imperial yellow

Yellow, as one of the five colours derived from the Five Elements Theory surpassed the other colours when it became the emblem of emperor. It was thought that the emperor was located in the centre of the five directions and the centre was represented by the element earth and the colour yellow. The earliest record of an emperor wearing yellow is Sui Wen di 隋文帝 (the Emperor Wen of Sui) wearing a zhehuang 柘黃 (ocher yellow) gown in court. In the period of Tang Gao zong 唐高宗 (Emperor Gaozong of Tang), it was proposed that chihuang赤黃 (reddish yellow) could only be used by the emperor, because it is the colour of the sun. Just as there cannot be two suns in the sky, there cannot be two emperors in a nation. Thus from then on, yellow was regarded as the costume colour used exclusively by emperors.

Such regulations on yellow for costumes were developed over time and in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) a set of the most detailed regulations on costume colours was established. As recorded in Huangchao liqi tushi 皇朝禮器圖示 (Illustrations of Imperial Ritual Paraphernalia), minghuang 明黃 (bright yellow) could be only used for the court robes and dragon robes of the emperor and the empress, the court robe and mang robes for crowned princes should be xinghuang 杏黃 (apricot yellow) and those for other princes should be jinhuang 金黃 (golden yellow). In contrast, the court robes for imperial family members of lower ranks should be qing 青 (dark blue) and shiqing 石青 (azurite blue). In this way, the emperor and princes would easily stand out in the court and the purpose of discerning rank was achieved.

How to achieve costume colours like imperial yellow

In recent decades, the dyeing of costumes in ancient times has seen growing interest. Research has been carried out based on both documentary and physical evidence – that is, dye recipes in historical manuscripts and the chemical analysis results of dyes on historical costumes.

Historical Chinese manuscripts such as Tiangong kaiwu 天工開物 (Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century, first published in 1637) and Neiwufu quanzong dang’an, Zhiranju buce 內務府全宗檔案,織染局簿冊 (Complete File of the Imperial Household, Volume of the Weaving and Dyeing Bureau, 1754, collected in the First Historical Archives of China of China) recorded dye recipes for various colours. The file of the imperial household recorded that bright yellow is dyed with pagoda bud and alum, while golden yellow and apricot yellow are dyed with pagoda bud, smoketree and alum, each recipe containing detailed records for the amounts of raw materials. Pagoda bud and smoketree heartwood are both common yellow dyes native to China. Usually during certain seasons through the year they are collected and then boiled in water to extract the colourants. After filtering away the plants, yarns or cloth are soaked in the heated dye bath and dyeing begins. Alum is used both to strengthen the bond between the colourants and the fabric and to brighten the shade.

Chemical analysis of historical dyes can also help to reveal the dyeing practices used in ancient times. The Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History at the University of Glasgow is pioneering the application of Ultra Performance Liquid Chromatography with Photo Diode Array detection (UPLC-PDA) in the identification of dye sources, by separating and detecting the characteristic colourants of dyes on costumes. Analysis has been carried out on several dragon robes with imperial yellow ground collected in The Victoria & Albert Museum and in private collections in the UK. The detection of pagoda bud in these yellow grounds helps to confirm that these robes belonged to an emperor, and also contributes to the preservation and conservation of these precious historical costumes.

Starting out as an emblem of the emperor, furthered through the regulations that were developed and in the detailed dye recipes created to achieve very particular shades, it is clear just how imperial yellow came to dominate the Chinese imperial wardrobe.

Jing Han is a PhD Candidate at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on the historical and chemical investigation of dyes in high status 16th century to 18th century Chinese costume and textiles of the Ming and Qing Dynasty. Image Credit: CC by Ashley Van Haeften/Flickr.