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Colors and their symbolic values in Chinese culture

While the color of red in modern days is very popular color in modern China red was not recognized as any special color before the time of the Ming Dynasty.

In today's Chinese the word yanse means color while in ancient China the word yanse meant "facial color". A litterally translation would rather translate yanse as "energy (qi) between one's eyebrows (yan) referring to moods as shame, regret, joy and worries. Not before the Tang Dynasty did yanse start to carry the meaning of colors in general.

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.

From the oldest time; during Huangdi (myth.: The Yellow Emperor) through the Shang, Tang, Zhou and Qin dynasties the emperors selected symbolic colors based on the theory of the five elements. According to Daoistic principles the order of the five elements and their corresponding colors and meanings are:

Over the time people established the relationship between the colors and the principle of the five elements as a guide towards the natural movement of heaven and earth. People 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.

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.

Dynastic colors of element

During the pre-Qin period Confucius defined the symbolic values of the five colors and related them to benevolence, virtue and kindness and, incorporated them into the formal ceremonies of the Zhou Dynasty. In this school, red was worshipped. Lao Zi, on the other hand, said that "five colors make people blind," so in his school black was choosen as the symbol of the Dao.

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."

Architectural colors

After the Qin dynasty, color gradually assumed a decorative function. 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 following dynasties, clothing for officials of different ranks were also of different 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.

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, carved beams and columns could be were colorful.


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.

The five colors of ink

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.

The color of water

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.

Colors in 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.

Color in Chinese folk traditions

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 today. In modern times the color red has widely become recognized as associated with the Chinese Communist Party.