Image 1: A dye label of BASF synthetic indigo packaging for the Chinese market. (© BASF Corporate Archives.)
image 2: Chemists at BASF's indigo laboratory in Ludwigshafen. Synthetic indigo became one of the bestsellers in China. (© BASF Corporate Archives.)
Image 3: Defag employee Rudolf Schiffler explaining the correct application of chemical dyes to a Chinese customer. (© Estate of Marion Schiffler.)
Colorful Encounters: Nature, Science, and Dyes between Europe and China, 1880–1950
In the context of the industrialization of chemistry and global modernization from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, Lejie Zeng’s project examines how the encounter between synthetic dyes from Europe and natural dyes from China shaped the exchange between “nature-based” and “science-based” bodies of knowledge in different regions.
By recovering the materiality of color and tracing how dyes operated across local, cross-regional, and global boundaries, bringing together seemingly disparate human actors (dyers, chemists, compradors) and gender groups (male elites, modern women) to co-compose global knowledge, the project challenges long-established dichotomies between East and West and between experimental science and traditional crafts.
Knowledge and material exchanges across uneven borders have never presented a romantic picture, but are intricately entangled with the redistribution of global resources and geopolitical power. Lejie seeks to mark out a dynamic space of frictions, confluences, and negotiations, asking why and how these boundaries were formed.
Lejie Zeng holds a BA in media arts from Tongji University in Shanghai and an MA in media studies from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, where she won a Humboldt Research Track Scholarship in 2021. During her studies, she was a research assistant at the Humboldt-Universität and a researcher at the Berliner Werkstatt für Sozialforschung.