Photo by Donald Erickson Because Chinese Emperors wore yellow. Imperial Dressing in Tang Dynasty What??? Photo by Donald Erickson Pencils are yellow because the emperor wore yellow. Long long ago in China, a complicated system of social rank began to develop, and it developed with color codes. As early as the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC), social hierarchy emerged to be graded by costume color. Over generations, this system of social hierarchy was refined, and eventually regulations were issued, dictating precise instructions about what people of different ranks were allowed to wear. The grading of costume color began in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), when the color of a ribbon indicated the owner’s rank. For example, in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the color of official dress was graded with fei 緋 (red) as high, qing 青 (dark blue) as medium, and lv綠 (green) as representing low social rank. Three colors, xuan 玄 (reddish black), huang 黃 (yellow) and zi 紫 (purple), were regarded as imperial colors. Their use was prohibited for officials and common people. Imperial Yellow Yellow, one of the five colors derived from the theory of Five Elements, rose in rank above the other colors when it became the color of the emperor. It was believed that the emperor was located in the center of the five directions. The center was represented by the element earth and the color 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 color of the sun. Just as there cannot be two suns in the sky, there cannot be two emperors in a nation. From then on, yellow was worn only by emperors. Imperial Yellow Satin Embroidered Dragon Robe Regulations on yellow for costumes were developed over time, and in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) regulations decreed that bright yellow could be only used for the robes of the emperor and the empress, the 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 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 court and the purpose of discerning rank was achieved. The imperial household records kept the recipe of the dyes: the bright yellow is dyed with pagoda bud and alum, while golden yellow and apricot yellow are dyed with pagoda bud, smoketree and alum. Alum is used both to strengthen the bond to the fabric and to brighten the shade. Pagoda buds Ok, but what about the pencil? At the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, right between Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and the Eiffel Tower, was a humble —but no less influential—innovation from a Czech manufacturing company named Hardtmuth Pencil. Its latest creation was formed, as all pencils are, of a graphite core housed in a protective wooden sheath. Most astonishingly, Hardtmuth’s “luxury pencil” was painted yellow. Prior to 1889, high quality pencils were natural polished wood colors. Paint was used to mask imperfections in lower quality wood. Typical paint colors for pencils were purple, red, maroon, or black. But Hardtmuth was looking for a way to advertise the quality of its graphite, not the wood. Previously, the highest quality graphite came from England, but the British supply of graphite ran out, and soon “a new and superior source was found in Siberia.” said Duke University professor Henry Petroski, author of The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. (OMG a book on pencils! Make a note for Xmas!) Imperial China was represented by yellow, so Hardtmuth chose yellow paint to communicate the graphite came from China, while also linking its product to the associations of Chinese royalty. To emphasize the point (cough), Hardtmuth dubbed its new line of yellow pencils “Koh-I-Noor” after the diamond from the British Crown Jewels. The yellow pencil was so popular that the company actually changed its own name to Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth. Although Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth was the first to produce yellow pencils, Faber and Dixon Ticonderoga were hot on the yellow… tail? Ticonderoga manufactured the HB #2 pencil. Soon many of the competing pencil makers painted their pencils yellow and gave them Oriental names, and the reputation of yellow pencils made their mark. Faber conducted a pointed experiment of this yellow marketing: the company distributed 1,000 pencils (half green, half yellow) to a test group. While both sets of pencils were identical apart from their color, the green pencils were returned with complaints about their shoddy quality. Today, most of the pencils sold in the United States are painted yellow, and what was once perceived as “regal” has now become “common”. Sources: The Myth of the Yellow Pencil, Artsy, AsiaDialogue Want to put that pencil to good use? The League just added a new drawing class!Beginning Drawing Tuesdays from 6:30-9:30We start Oct 8 REGISTER TODAY!