National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Allison Miller

Affiliation: Southwestern University

Allison Miller is Assistant Profssor of Asian Art with the Department of Art and Art History at Southwestern University.  She holds her degrees from Harvard University (Ph.D.) and the University of Chicago, and held a Fulbright Fellowship at Beijing University; her areas of expertise are East Asian art history, and the art and archaeology of early China.  Professor Miller’s current publication projects are Kingly Splendor: Materiality and Royal Art in Han China (in prepration), and “Jade, Imperial Identity, and Sumptuary Reform in Jia Yi’s Xin Shu” (Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 15.1, 2016).


In the ancient near East and the Mediterranean, no color embodied kingship like purple. However, in China, purple is often thought to have been relatively unimportant because it was not one of the five colors and was famously reviled by Confucius. Purple’s eventual popularity with Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) of the Han dynasty has often been attributed to the color’s association with Daoism. This presentation will re-examine the status of purple in ancient China and propose that by the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE) if not earlier, purple had assumed the same status that it had in other parts of the ancient world—as the ultimate sign of royal or imperial authority. Examining new evidence from archaeology, I will analyze the sources of purple dye in ancient China, presenting new evidence that the Chinese may have used dyes extracted from shellfish (often loosely referred to as “murex purple”) rather than zicao (gromwell) as has been previously assumed. I will also show that purple textiles had a longstanding relationship with Shandong province, particularly the ancient city of Linzi. The popularity of purple fabrics produced in this region fueled demand for the color in other media, catalyzing the development of paints colored with synthetic purple pigments.

The First Emperor’s (r. 221-210 BCE) terracotta army has captured the world’s attention since its first discovery in the 1970s. The thousands of marionette-like figures standing in formation testify to an administration that had achieved unprecedented military power. The First Emperor’s famous assemblage, however, was not the last terracotta army to be commissioned. His original assemblage inspired a long line of clay armies in the Western Han dynasty (202 BCE-9 CE). This presentation will examine these new army figurines and their relationship to the Qin precedent, reflecting on their unique style and considering what the armies reveal about warfare and politics in China’s first long-lasting empire.

The jade suit represented one of the most important burial accoutrements utilized by Han dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) elites. The jade suit covered the deceased’s entire body from their head to the soles of their feet and were fashioned from thousands of jade plaques sewn together with expensive gold thread. Unlike other burial goods, the jade suit was used consistently by the Han imperial house from its introduction all the way until the dynasty’s fall. The suits then became such a notorious sign of luxury that the Cao-Wei Emperor Wen had them banned in 222 AD.

This presentation will analyze the circumstances surrounding the use of jade suits in the Western Han, considering their connection to prior jade burials, which began in Neolithic. I will demonstrate that the particular conditions of the early empire, such as certain material notions of virtue, a political situation that required clear expressions of status in burial, changing access to precious materials, new technologies, and the ability of these suits to reflect the local statuses of kings, all made the form particularly successful. I will propose that the jade suit experienced prolonged use in the Han because of the flexibility of the form itself. Although it was a genre established by the imperial house, the suits were individualized creations that not only expressed the kings’ affiliation with the imperial house, but also communicated other meanings as well.

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