Han Purple: The two,800-Yr-Previous Thriller Solved by Quantum Physicists

Han purple, a man-made pigment created by the Chinese language over 2,500 years in the past, was utilized in historic artworks similar to wall work, the famed terracotta warriors, ceramics, metalware and jewellery. A technological marvel, the pigment was made by way of a posh means of grinding up uncooked supplies in exact proportions and heating to excessive temperatures. So intricate was the method that it remained a thriller till 1992, when chemists have been lastly capable of determine its composition.

However this was just the start. Analysis since then has found wonderful properties of Han purple, together with the power to emit highly effective rays of sunshine within the near-infrared vary, in addition to the aptitude to break down three dimensions down to 2 below the precise situations.

Some of the details on the famed Terracotta Warriors are believed to have been painted using Han purple pigment. (chungking / Adobe Stock)

A few of the particulars on the famed Terracotta Warriors are believed to have been painted utilizing Han purple pigment. (chungking / Adobe Inventory)

The Rise and Fall of Han Purple

The manufacturing of Han purple, in any other case referred to as Chinese language purple, dates again so far as 800 BC. Nonetheless, it seems that it was not utilized in artwork till the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC to 220 AD), when it was utilized to the world-famous terracotta warriors, in addition to ceramics and different objects.

“Previous to the nineteenth century, when fashionable manufacturing strategies made artificial pigments frequent, there have been solely massively costly purple dyes, a few unusual purplish minerals, and mixtures of crimson and blue, however no true purple pigment – besides throughout a number of hundred years in historic China,” wrote Samir S. Patel in  Archaeology.

For an unknown motive, Han purple disappeared completely from use after 220 AD, following the tip of the Qin and Han Dynasties. It remained absent till its rediscovery by fashionable chemists within the Nineteen Nineties, sparking renewed curiosity in its historic and scientific significance.

"Egyptian blue" tripodic beaker imitating lapis lazuli from South Mesopotamia. The composition of Han purple differs from Egyptian blue only in the use of barium instead of calcium. (Public domain)

“Egyptian blue” tripodic beaker imitating lapis lazuli from South Mesopotamia. The composition of Han purple differs from Egyptian blue solely in using barium as an alternative of calcium. (Public area)

Exploring Historical Shade Chemistry: Han Purple and its Artificial Origins

Pure dyes, similar to Tyrian purple (from c. 1500 BC), are natural compounds and usually comprised of crops or animals, just like the murex snail. Han purple, nevertheless, was an artificial pigment comprised of inorganic supplies. This distinction marked a big departure within the strategies of pigment manufacturing throughout historic instances.

Solely two different man-made blue or purple pigments are identified to have existed within the historic world. These embrace Maya blue (from c. 800 AD), comprised of a heated combination of indigo and white clay, and Egyptian blue, which was used all through the Mediterranean and the Close to and Center East from 3,600 BC to the tip of the Roman Empire.

Scientist Elisabeth FitzHugh, a conservator on the Smithsonian, was the primary to determine the complicated artificial compound that makes up Han purple. It’s barium copper silicate, a compound that differs from Egyptian blue solely by way of its use of barium as an alternative of calcium.

The similarities between the colours Han purple and Egyptian blue led some early researchers to conclude that the Chinese language could have realized to make the pigment from the Egyptians. Nonetheless, this idea has been largely discounted as Egyptian blue was not discovered additional East than Persia.

“There isn’t any clear motive why the Chinese language, if they’d realized the Egyptian method, would have changed calcium with barium, which necessitates growing the firing temperature by 100 levels or extra,” wrote Patel.

So how precisely did the Chinese language come upon the intricate method to make Han purple, which concerned combining silica (sand) with copper and barium in exact proportions and heating to about 850-1000 °C? A crew of Stanford physicists revealed a paper within the Journal of Archaeological Science, proposed a solution.

In keeping with these Stanford physicists, Han purple was a by-product of the glassmaking course of, as each glass and the purple pigment include silica and barium. “Barium makes glass shinier and cloudy, which implies this pigment might be the work of early alchemists making an attempt to synthesize white jade,” claimed Gizmodo when discussing this work.

Fluorescent Properties of Han Purple / Han Purple and the collapsing of dimensions

Since its composition was first found, scientists have continued to analyze this distinctive pigment. Researchers on the British Museum found that, when uncovered to a easy LED flashlight, Han purple emits highly effective rays of sunshine within the near-infrared vary.

In keeping with their research, revealed within the journal Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, the Han purple pigments present up with startling readability below the precise situations. This meant that even faint traces of the coloration, that are invisible to the bare eye, might be seen with infrared sensors.

A Western Han ceramic bowl from Hebei or Hanan province which contains traces of Han purple. The purple pigment becomes strongly fluorescent under infrared sensors (right). (Avery Brundage Collection)

A Western Han ceramic bowl from Hebei or Hanan province which accommodates traces of Han purple. The purple pigment turns into strongly fluorescent below infrared sensors (proper). (Avery Brundage Assortment)

The fluorescent properties of Han purple weren’t the one shock. Quantum physicists from Stanford, Los Alamos Nationwide Laboratory and the Institute for Stable State Physics (College of Tokyo) reported that when Han purple is uncovered to excessive chilly and a excessive magnetic area, the chemical construction of the pigment enters a brand new state referred to as the quantum vital level, by which three-dimension materials “loses” a dimension.

“We’ve proven, for the primary time, that the collective habits in a bulk three-dimensional materials can truly happen in simply two dimensions,” Ian Fisher, an assistant professor of utilized physics at Stanford stated within the Stanford report. “Low dimensionality is a key ingredient in lots of unique theories that purport to account for numerous poorly understood phenomena, together with high-temperature superconductivity, however till now there have been no clear examples of ‘dimensional discount’ in actual supplies.”

The scientists have proposed that this impact is because of the truth that the elements of barium copper silicate are organized like layers of tiles, so they do not stack up neatly. Every layers’ tiles are barely out of sync with the layer beneath them. This may increasingly frustrate the wave and drive it to go two dimensional. The invention could assist perceive the required properties of recent supplies, together with extra unique superconductors.

“Han Purple was first synthesized over 2,500 years in the past, however we’ve got solely not too long ago found how unique its magnetic habits is,” defined Fisher. “It makes you marvel what different supplies are on the market that we have not but even begun to discover.”

Prime picture: Element of a mural from an Jap Han tomb (25 to 220 AD) at Zhucun, Luoyang, Henan province. The portray makes use of Han purple and Han blue pigment. Supply: Public area

By Joanna Gillan


Inglis-Arkell, E. 21 November 2014. “This 2,000-Yr-Previous Pigment Can Eradicate the Third Dimension” in  Gizmodo. Obtainable at:

Liu, Z. et. al. November 2007. “Affect of Taoism on the invention of the purple pigment used on the Qin terracotta warriors” in Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol. 34, Challenge 11, pp. 1878-1883. Obtainable at:

No identify. 30 March 2007. “Historical Warriors and the Origin of Chinese language Purple” in Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource Science Highlights Archive. Obtainable at: material/science/spotlight/2007-03-30/ancient-warriors-and-origin-chinese-purple

Patel, S. S. September / October 2007. “Purple Reign: How historic Chinese language chemists added coloration to the emperor’s military” in  Archaeology, Vol. 60. No. 5.

West FitzHugh, E. & Zycherman, L. A. August 1992. “A Purple Barium Copper Silicate Pigment from Early China” in  Research in Conservation, Vol. 37. No. 3, pp. 145-154. Obtainable at:  

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