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Colors in Chinese Culture

In traditional Chinese culture, color sometimes conveys a special meaning.

For several thousand years during China’s history, other than in 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." 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. Only in the Tang Dynasty did Yan Se start to carry the meaning of all colors.

About 5,000 years B.C., during the time of Huang Di (The Yellow Emperor), 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.

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 ancient belief 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 worshiped the longest in ancient China. In the Taiji diagram of ancient China, black and white are used to represent the unity of Yin and Yang.

According to ancient Chinese concepts of 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 symbolized brightness. They classified it as a standard color, representing the nature of purity, brightness, and fullness.{mospagebreak}

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

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.

Greenish 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 toward 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 and superior colors. He related the five colors to benevolence, virtue, and kindness and incorporated them into 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 black became 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.

Since the Qin Dynasty, color gradually assumed a decorative function, and the colors of ancient China also started their rich and colorful development. After the Han Dynasty, yellow became the special symbolic color of the royal court because of its brilliance, and its shade was close to a 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 "fifth class." Purple borders were considered elegant.

Colors were also widely used in city planning, 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 be made only of blue bricks with blue roof tiles.

In Chinese folk traditions, the culture around color is even richer. Yellow is the color for emperors—royal palaces, royal altars, and royal temples often use it. 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. During the celebration of the New Year, holidays, and gatherings, the color red is a must. Purple is the color of a propitious omen and solemnity. 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 to this day.