Bingata robe, 19th century, Japan (Okinawa, Ryūkyū Islands), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Project (2017-)

Dyeing for Permanence: Communities of Practice and the Making of Bingata

Celebrated as a traditional Okinawan craft, bingata (vermilion patterns) refers to a technique of printing colorful and intricate patterns on fabric that originated in the Ryūkyū Kingdom (1429–1879), the center of a vibrant web of tributary and trading networks linking China, Japan, Southeast Asia and, after 1600, Europe. Produced exclusively for the court, these textiles were dyed using multiple stencils, paste-resist techniques, and the repeated application of dyes and pigments with a brush. What struck observers of bingata, including the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) envoy Li Dingyuan, was the depth of color achieved by the craftsmen. In Li’s account of the 1801 investiture mission to the Ryūkyūan court, he remarked: "They must be in possession of a production secret that they do not reveal to others. For this reason, the patterned cloth of the East Sea is highly valued" (Shi Liuqiu Ji 1802).

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, traders and envoys from the Ryūkyū Kingdom encountered a range of colorful textiles: block-printed "chintzes" of Indian origin, wax-resist batiks from Java, and "flower cloth" patterned fabrics from China. Connections to the all three regions can be seen in bingata textiles. Through the insights of material culture studies and history of technology, this project investigates how the circulation of experts, technique, and raw materials between China, Japan, and Southeast Asia informed the making of specialized knowledge at the local level. More broadly, the research seeks to develop a framework for understanding the non-verbal and embodied process by which such skills as mordant dyeing and stencil-printing, requiring knowledge of chemistry and botany, were transmitted across cultures.