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Coming into Color: The Cloth Classic, Jiangnan Dyeworks, and the Expansion of Cotton Dyes in Qing China

Rachel Silberstein, independent scholar

Wed, 9/13 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · 219 Aaron Burr Hall

P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art; East Asian Studies Program; Department of Art & Archaeology

The subject of textile colors in Chinese history evokes notions of elite luxury and power: imperial yellow over commoner blue. But observers and gazetteers suggest a wider color palette began to be offered to a range of consumers in the early Qing, with new dyeing techniques being applied to both silk and cotton. An expansion of clothing colors for ordinary people is intriguing to consider in light of claims that the living standards of inhabitants of the wealthiest parts of China compared favorably to those of Europe in this period. But while material culture history might be supposed to hold some potential for substantiating these claims outside cliometrics, the biases of collecting and material survival mean that extant cotton garments are rare: though the vast majority of Qing Chinese would have worn cotton or hemp, studies of Qing dress are dominated by silk. Accordingly, The Cloth Classic (Bujing 布经), an early nineteenth-century compendium of advice and experience written by a cloth merchant for cloth merchants, possesses considerable value for understanding the causes and impact of advances in cotton dyeing. This talk positions The Cloth Classic within the context of developments in the Jiangnan cotton industry, with a focus on the growing dyeing sector, and evaluates the factors driving its expansion, including dyeing innovations, dyestuff trade, commercial organization, and consumer demand. By so doing, this understudied work redresses the unrepresentative material archive to provide insight into the economic and cultural significance of the cotton industry’s finishing sector.

Co-sponsored by the Tang Center, East Asian Studies Program, and the Department of Art and Archaeology

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