Purple, the new black

In the previous blog there was one unanswered question regarding the Forbidden City – why is it called “purple” forbidden city in Chinese when it is in fact red? Today let us continue our journey through colors and take a look at the color purple.

The question from the previous blog:

Forbidden City in the dusk

The name of Forbidden City is in fact “purple” forbidden city. Do you know why there is “purple” in its name?

In Chinese, purple or violet is written as “紫” which has the upper side that means “here” or “foothold”, and the bottom that symbolizes silk. It is a character that has been associated with long robes that sweeps the floor and worn by the royalties since the creation. However if you still remember, there are five primary colors in the oriental societies, and purple is not one of them. And if you recall, the so called primary colors in the oriental society are much more than mere colors, the “primary” gives them legitimacy, they are considered pure and in a sense, correct. This in turn also means that all the other colors are much less right, much less legitimate. So it makes sense that the Forbidden City, a royal palace, was decorated mainly in red walls and yellow roofs – its significance can be seen directly with the color impact – in the name though, there has to be a “purple”, why?

purple abstract art

“Yesterday and tomorrow cross and mix on the skyline. The two are lost in a purple haze. One forgets, one waits.”

– Carl Sandburg

It is because “purple” is considered an auspicious celestial color! In the ancient time, “purple clouds” were used to describe fortunate aura, and “purple residences” were meant to describe the locations where gods and goddesses lived. The legendary Laozi, the founding father of Taoiasm, was seen to have emerged from the east riding on the back of a blue cow a few days after the auspicious sighting of purple clouds rising from that direction. In the later period, “purple books” were taken to refer to Taoism classics. There are many slangs including the character “purple” that refer to great fortune, and these slangs are still in use today. Therefore it is possible to conclude that since ancient time, people have been rather in awe towards this color, even though it has never been considered primary.

The origin story of the holy purple color was similar between the East and the West. One of the main reasons for this sentiment was that purple fabric around 3000 years ago cost about five times the same quantity of ordinary colored fabric in the oriental world.

Illustration from the internet

Duke Huan of Qi (?-643BC)

Illustration from the internet

The Duke Huan of Qi (齐桓公) loved purple color, and it was because of him that the price of purple fabric became that expensive about 3000 years ago. He was one of the rulers in the Spring and Autumn period, and there have been many stories or legends recorded about him. One of them that stood out was his preference towards purple. Little did he know that his preference set a trend in the nation, and before he knew it, every citizen was trying to buy purple clothes, which drove the price into the sky. He then decided to take the advice of his consultant and ceased wearing purple, the nation quickly followed and the price dropped back to normal.

In the later Dynasties, perhaps under the influence of the Duke Huan of Qi, the governments set a rigid rule about who were allowed to wear certain colors, and for the majority of the empirical time, only the highest ranking officials were honored with this color. Even so, this color remained rather expensive.

Illustration from the internet

Hercules’ Dog Discovers Purple Dye (1636)

Illustration from the internet

This painting by Peter Paul Rubens was one of him later creations. In here the dog of Hercules ripped through a sea snail, which dyed its mouth and nose purple. This captured a mythical origin story of the Phoenician discovery of the purple dye, in the city of Tyre.

The sourcing of the purple dye between the East and West was quite different. The purple dye obtained from the mollusks (as illustrated in the painting) was so small in quantity that resulted in the extremely high market price. One statistics recorded that over 9000 such mollusks were needed to produce 1 gram of the purple dye – a very rare commodity indeed! What this means is that not even all European royalties could afford such color. But it also associated purple directly with royalty, wealth and power.

In the East, it is the purple gromwell plants that contributed to the purple color on fabrics. The process of dyeing from such plant was complex, because it takes several times of dyeing before the fabric can take on the right shade, and this dye only shines over silk – other common fabric such as flax does not display its true beauty. This plant also has very low production, and it is afraid of heat, so only in autumn or winter could beautifully colored purple silk be produced.

Illustration from the internet

Purple gromwell

Illustration from the internet

These purple plants were the main contributor to the purple dye in the oriental world.

With the explanation above, we can safely conclude that the color purple was not only rare but also expensive – it could only be used by the most powerful and the most wealthy people in the world. It is also therefore heavily connected with the concept of royalty, the gods, an existence beyond human world. So back to our original question, it was because the Forbidden City was home to the “son of heaven” that it in fact, should be called the “purple” Forbidden City. Did you get it right?

Today is May 20th, in Chinese the numbers 520 sounds like “I love you”, so in this blog I also want to express my love towards all of you – your love and support keep me going! Thank you ❤️❤️❤️

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!



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