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Brief Introduction to Chinese Culture
Colors in Traditional Chinese Culture
PureInsight.org
10/15/2006

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.

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