Brief Introduction to Chinese Culture: Colors in Traditional Chinese Culture

PureInsight | July 16, 2006

[] For several thousand years in the history of China,
other than the Pre-Qin and Qin dynasties, the Chinese people have used
brilliant colors. Today, red is a very popular color in modern China.
But the ancient people before the Ming Dynasty did not pay special
attention to the color red, contrary to modern people's assumptions.


"Yan Se" means color in today's Chinese; however, in ancient China, the
word "Yan Se" had a meaning that was not completely the same as it is
today. It actually meant "facial color." For instance, there is the
expression "Yan Se Qiao Cui" (weary-looking) in the book Chu Ci Yu Fu (Verses of Chu State). In the book Shuo Wen Jie Zi (Explaining Characters and Expressions), "Yan" means the area between one's eyebrows, and "Se" means qi
(or energy). In the commentaries added by the noted scholar Duan Yu
Cai, it says, "All the shame, regret, joy and worries are called Yan Se
(facial color)" because "one's heart reaches qi and qi
will reach the eyebrows." So it is obvious that initially "Yan Se"
referred to one's facial color and not the color of everything in the
world. Only in the Tang Dynasty did "Yan Se" start to carry the meaning
of all colors. For example, Du Fu, a poet of the Tang Dynasty wrote in
his poem "The Bottoms of the Flowers," "Knowing the good colors
clearly, and do not be content with being sand or mud." The Chinese
idiom "Wu (five) Yan Liu (six) Se," which is used to describe a myriad
of colors, also reflects the meaning that "Yan Se" means colors.

About five thousand years B.C., during Huang Di (The Yellow Emperor)'s
time, people worshiped a single color. After Huang Di and through the
Shang, Tang, Zhou and Qin dynasties, the emperors selected colors as
symbols based on the theory of the  five elements. The order of
five elements is water, fire, wood, metal and earth. These correspond
with the colors black, red, greenish blue, white and yellow,
respectively. Ancient Chinese people believed that the five elements
were the source of everything in nature. As the source of everything
comes from these five elements, the colors come from the five elements
as well. Based on the understanding that "colors come naturally while
black and white are the first," people gradually established the
relationship between the colors and the principle of the five elements,
which guided the natural movement of heaven and the heavenly Dao.
People also selected their attire, food, transportation and housing
according to the natural changes in the seasons, going from spring, to
summer, to autumn, and then to winter, which further formed the theory
of five colors.

In the traditional Chinese system, five colors, black, red, greenish blue, white and yellow are regarded as standard colors.

The color black was regarded as the color of heaven in the Yi Jing
(Book of Changes). The saying "heaven and earth of mysterious black"
was rooted in the feeling of ancient people that the northern sky shows
a mysterious black color for a long time. They thought that the North
Star is where the Tian Di (heavenly emperor) is. Therefore, black was
regarded as the king of all colors in ancient China. It is also the
single color that was worshipped the longest time in ancient China. In
the Taiji diagram of ancient China, black and white are used to
represent the unity of Yin and Yang.

In the ancient Chinese concepts of color, the color white represents
multiple things. In the theory of "Five Elements", white corresponds to
gold, which shows that the ancient Chinese people felt that the color
white symbolizes brightness and classifies it as a standard color,
representing the nature of purity, brightness and fullness.


The color red symbolizes good fortune and joy to the Chinese people.

The color yellow is the color of the center, symbolizing the color of
the earth. In China, there is a saying, "Yellow generates Yin and
Yang," regarding yellow as the center of all colors. Yellow is the
orthodox color positioned in the center and is the color of neutrality.
It is placed above the color brown and regarded as the most beautiful
color of all.


The color green-blue symbolizes the spring when everything is brimming over with vigor and vitality.

During the pre-Qin period, the symbolic colors of ancient China started
to show a tendency towards diversification. In order to support the
Zhou Dynasty's ceremonial observances, Confucius defined the colors of
yellow, greenish blue, white, red and black as the standard colors and
superior colors. He related the five colors to benevolence, virtue and
kindness and incorporated them into the formal ceremonies. During the
Zhou Dynasty, the color red was worshipped. Lao Zi, on the other hand,
said that "five colors make people blind," so the Dao School chose
black as the symbol of the Dao.

During that period of time, the symbolism of various colors was widely
incorporated into the naming of seasons and directions. Each season was
given a color and a direction. Spring was represented by greenish blue
sun, its main guardian god was a green-blue dragon, and its direction
was east. Summer was represented by reddish brightness, guarded by a
red sparrow, and its direction was south. Autumn was represented by
white, guarded by a white tiger, and its direction was west. Winter was
represented by black, guarded by a black tortoise, and its direction
was north. The color yellow was the symbolic color of the five
legendary emperors of ancient China. In China, yellow had a special
symbolic meaning and was the center of the five colors, symbolizing the
color of earth.

In 211 B. C., Qin Shi Huang unified China. He still followed his
ancestors' traditions by observing objects and deciding symbols,
distinguished black from white, respected the virtue of water and
"decided that October was the beginning of winter and its color was a
superior black." When Qin Shi Huang ascended to the throne, "the color
of the clothing and flags was black."

Since the Qin dynasty, color gradually assumed a decorative function
and the colors of ancient China also started their rich and colorful
development. Throughout the dynasties after the Han Dynasty, yellow
became the special symbolic color of the royal court because of its
brilliance, and its shade was close to the golden color. Ordinary
people were not allowed to wear yellow clothes. Throughout all the
dynasties, clothing for officials of different ranks were also of
different colors. Usually, people regarded the five secondary colors as
the inferior five colors. During the Han Dynasty, bright purple was
often regarded as an extremely precious and rare color. In the Tang
dynasty, the color purple was used in the clothing of officials ranking
above the "fifth class" and was a color favored by royal court members.
Purple borders were considered elegant.


In Chinese culture, the relationship between color and craftsmanship,
color and art, color and poetry, and color and custom are very close
and unbreakable.

Colors were widely used in city dplanning, murals and paintings. For
example, after the Ming Dynasty, only those who were related to the
Emperor could live in houses with red walls and yellow roof tiles.
Ordinary people's houses could only be made of blue bricks with blue
roof tiles. However, the colors used in carved beams and columns were
very rich. A lot of buildings had black tiles and white walls.

In the Dun Huang Caves, dating back 1500 years, there are more than ten
thousand pieces of rare murals. The colors uses in the murals of
different periods of time are different. For example, in the murals
painted during the Northern Wei Dynasty, red and brown were the main
colors, supplemented by blue and black. In the murals painted during
the Tang Dynasty, yellow was added as a major color, and the
application of the colors was also varied, bright and magnificent. In
the murals painted during the Song Dynasty, blue and green were the
dominant colors.

In Chinese paintings, the romantic charm of a picture is mainly
expressed by the thickness of its ink. The practice is described as
"ink holds five colors" and "shinning brilliantly without the usage of
bright colors." The superb artistic realms are realized in the
thickness and thinness of the ink. "Ink holds five colors" refers to
five types of shades, charred, thick, ash, thin and clear. In a
painter's eye, the color of water is clearly different throughout the
four seasons, as expressed in Guo Xi's book Lin Quan Gao Zhi
(A Book about Paintings), "The color of water is green in spring,
bluish green in summer, aqua in autumn, and black in winter." Different
colors do get used in traditional Chinese paintings. It was recorded in
Selections of Famous Paintings of the Tang Dynasty
that Li Si Xun's paintings of landscapes with strong green and blue
colors were praised by Emperor Xuan Zong as "the best landscape
paintings in the nation." This type of court painting is often outlined
with colors extracted from various minerals such as Shi Qing (azurite),
Shi Lu (mineral green), Shi Huang (mineral yellow), Zhu Sha (cinnabar),
Yan Zhi (cochineal), Qian Fen (lead powder), and Ni Jin (golden paint).
Their colors were bright and magnificent. The ancient Chinese people
were good at extracting colors from large amount of minerals and
plants. Because of that, the colors in Chinese paintings became more
systematic and abundant in their brightness and richness.

Chinese poems and paintings share the same origin. They often have a
relationship described as "a painting recites a poem and a poem draws a
painting." Poems are often filled with vibrant colors and many poets
were experts at describing colors. Poet Cui Hu created a wonderful
artistic conception with colors. Two lines from his poem "Ti Du Cheng
Nan Zhuang (For the Southern Village in the Capital)" are very
well-known, "Last year inside this court, the beauty and peach flowers
reflect on each other in red." Poet Bai Juyi wrote in "Verse on River
Mu", "Paving in water is a streak of the setting sun, turning red is
the rustling river." The two lines painted an imagery of the beauty of
colors for people to ponder for thousand of years. This type of poet
and poems are numerous in the history of Chinese culture.


Many modern Chinese characters that are used to describe different
shades of color carry the "silk" radical. According to the book Shuo Wen Jie Zi
(Explaining Characters and Expressions), there are 24 characters used
to describe colors of silk fabrics, including red, green, purple, deep
red (crimson), bright red, dark red (dark purple), light blue, orange
red, white, and so on. All the brilliant shades of colors show how
vibrant the silk manufacturing industry was in ancient China.

Chinese pottery and lacquer ware use colors even more extensively. The
invention of various colored glazes gave these pieces brilliant and
lustrous appearances. From the famous Tang San Cai (tri-colored glazed
pottery of the Tang Dynasty) to five-colored glazed pottery, from the
celadon ware to white glazed ware, from white and blue porcelain to the
colored ceramic glazes, different colors play a key role in their
beautiful appearances. Ancient Chinese colored pottery and black
pottery represent the first peak in ancient China's pottery-making
technology. Ancient Chinese lacquer ware and textiles also had
exquisite patterns and gorgeous colors. During the Period of the
Warring States, lacquer ware decoration reached an unprecedented level.
The state of Qi was especially well known for its brightly colored
fabric and silk products. Many of the silk products that have been
unearthed from ancient tombs maintain their original colors, including
brown, red, black, purple, and yellow.

In Chinese folk traditions, the culture of color is even richer. Yellow
is the color for emperors. Royal palaces, royal altars and royal
temples often use the yellow color. Yellow also represents being free
from worldly cares. Therefore it is also a color respected in Buddhism.
Monks' garments are yellow and temples are also yellow. Red is one of
the colors beloved by the Chinese people. In the celebration of the New
Year, holidays and gatherings, the red color is a must. Purple is the
color of a propitious omen and solemnity. Among the Chinese people,
there is the saying "purple sparrows in beams, carries mud in pairs,
coming and going." White is the color of mourning. Ancient Chinese
people wore white clothes and hats only when they mourned for the dead.
That tradition is still practiced right now.

In modern times, especially after the Chinese Communist Party took
power, the color red is used widely and has started to represent
danger, blood, violence and radical actions.

Translated from:

Add new comment