At the turn of the 20th century, the German organic chemical industry began exporting coal tar-based synthetic dyestuffs to China. Surprisingly, China, which for centuries had been the leading manufacturer of exquisite textiles and natural dyestuffs, became the world’s largest buyer of chemical dyestuffs. However, making the supply chain operate across different geographic landscapes was far more complicated than imagined. Synthetic dyestuffs turned out to be vulnerable to various uncertainties (climate, manpower, transportation infrastructure) along the Eurasian maritime routes and inland China. This talk suggests that the bumpy ride should not be merely seen as a physical barrier to material circulation and knowledge exchange, but rather as a mobile laboratory, providing dynamic testing grounds for the German actors to study hidden materialities of chemical dyestuff, and encouraging them to investigate the synthesis of natural colors from local plants observed during their China voyages.
Lejie Zeng is a Ph.D. Candidate at the International Max Planck Research School ‘Knowledge and its Resources: Historical Reciprocities’ (IMPRS-KIR), a PhD program based in the history and philosophy of science, technology, and medicine.
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