The Social History of Colour in Medieval China: Perspectives from Independent Dunhuang, 9th to 11th centuries

In the mid-20th century, Chinese artists and art historians discovered a lost world of vibrant colour in the medieval-era murals from the oasis of Dunhuang. A vernacular history of cultural change was read into these murals. From the Song dynasty onwards, Chinese elites â€" who had embraced and celebrated a diversity of colour in the Tang dynasty and earlier â€" came to associate colour with vulgarity, adopting a more restricted and muted palette that supposedly reflected the refinement and moral uprightness which the literati saw as being the essential attributes of their class.

Although we can question the idea that a shift from a polychrome to a monochrome art was part of a foundational transition in the Chinese socio-cultural order in the centuries after the Tang, the links between colour and the history of social power deserve exploration. The richness of the medieval-era visual and written record in Dunhuang (coupled with its relative isolation from the heartlands of Chinese culture) makes it a fruitful site for this endeavour. This paper will explore three contrasting correlations of colour and social order observable in medieval Dunhuang: 1) the notion that colours and social divisions constitute fixed and immutable systems of contrasting polarities; 2) the notion that individual social positions can change, with colour being crucial to the representation of shifts from one state to another; and 3) the notion that colour and the social order are both domains of illusion, surfaces which must be penetrated if one is to live an authentic life.

About the Speaker

LEWIS MAYO was born and grew up in New Zealand, and currently teaches Chinese and Asian Studies at the University of Melbourne. He studied medieval and early modern Chinese and Eurasian history at the University of Auckland, Peking University and the University of Hawaii before coming to the ANU to do a PhD which ultimately became a political history of birds in independent Dunhuang. He is engaged in three large-scale projects: a study of the non-human history of medieval Dunhuang; a study of the relationship between peasant rebellion and the rise of the suburbs; and a study of creole cultures and the idea of feudalism, with the latter two projects taking the Pacific Rim between the medieval era and the present as their primary object of inquiry.

After the Seminar

To allow for informal discussion, the seminar will be followed by a dinner with the guest speaker at 6.15 pm. All are welcome, though those who attend will need to pay for their own food and drinks. As reservations must be made, please RSVP by noon of the day before the seminar to

The China Seminar Series is sponsored by the China Institute, with the Australian Centre on China in the World and the College of Asia & the Pacific.