Colors in Chinese art

color design, colour design
Chrysanthemum design motif (Plate 33) available under a Creative Commons License

The Chinese make substantial use of color symbolism. Throughout history colors have had specific associations and meanings. Each dynasty had its own dynastic color that was used for its robes and emblems. According to the theory of ‘fives’ of five elemental properties there are five primary colors: red; yellow; blue (including green); white and black. Traditionally colors have been vivid and brash, so that they brightened up the drab houses of the time. In ancient days the character was also used as a word for conjugal sex as in Confucius's dictum ‘Eating and sex are given by nature’.

Red is the color of joy and celebration and is the lucky color. Red paper is often used for writing expressions of good wishes. White is the color of mourning and funerals. It represents purity. Blue/Green is the color of growth and vegetation and so life itself. Black is the color of illness and criminality. Yellow is the national color and the color of the emperor. Roofs are yellow to represent yin and earth while walls were painted red to represent yang and heaven.

To this should be added later introductions to the spectrum: green; blue (as separate colors) and purple. Purple is an imperial color and also used in the robes of high officials. In Buddhist symbolism red; blue and black are fierce forms while white and yellow denote mildness. Propitious gods are generally white and demons black.

Here is a list of the principal colors that are noted for their symbolism in Chinese art:

Black Blue Color Green Purple Red White Yellow

Black hēi

black
Papercut design of birds and fishes.

In the Feng Shui system black is associated with water; from the destruction cycle black (water) extinguishes red (fire). And so what follows a dynasty associated with 'red' should be a 'black' dynasty. The first Qin Emperor therefore chose black as his emblematic color to extinguish the red of the preceding Zhou dynasty.

Black denotes darkness and death but also honor; so in Chinese opera a blackened face is used for grim but honorable characters. The character for black hēi originates from the process of producing soot which was then made into ink. The character represents a blackened window over a flame.

赤,
Jìn zhū zhě chì, jìn mò zhě hēi [jin zhu zhe chi, jin mo zhe hei]
near vermilion that red, near ink that black
He who stays near vermilion is stained red; he who stays near ink is stained black
Taking on the color of the company kept. Adapting to surroundings
A person is known by the company he keeps

Blue lán

blue

Generally blue has a negative connotation. Opera characters with blue make-up are usually ghosts or bad characters. The wearing of blue flowers or ribbons in the hair is considered unlucky. Blue eyes, considered beautiful in the West, are very rare amongst Han Chinese. However a bluebird is the messenger from the gods, principally associated with the Queen Mother of the West.

Pure blue is an expensive dye and for centuries a blueish-green was all that was available, this is called qīng the character is used in the name of Qinghai province after the color of the lake from which it takes its name. As in other cultures separate words for ‘blue’ and ‘green’ were not originally used, qing was used for both colors.

Kuixing the god of examinations is painted with a blue face and as he committed suicide, he is not a particularly lucky figure. Studying into the night was called to ‘study under the blue lamp’ and blue was the color associated with scholars; blue was used as the color for the sedan chairs of one grade of senior officials.

Qīng chū yú lán ér shèng yú lán [qing chu yu lan er sheng yu lan]
indigo blue comes out foremost blue but excel foremost blue
Indigo is obtained from the indigo plant, but such color is bluer than the plant itself
Wise schooling has produced excellence beyond the teacher. The follower has surpassed the master.

Green 绿

bamboo, forest
Looking up in a bamboo forest

Green is the color of vegetation and so is the symbol of Spring and future harvest. It is generally a propitious color and the color of the God of Literature's robes.

Green is the color associated with the element 'wood' and the lucky number 8. The character for green uses the radical for silk denoting the use of green as a dye. It has long been known as the complementary color to red in decorations and paintings. Originally the character qīng used to be used to cover both the colors blue and green.


Purple

dragon, purple
Purple china dragon in the China garden, St.Petersburg. Image by Lvova Anastasiya available under a Creative Commons License

As in Rome, the color purple is associated with the Emperor because of its rarity and expense (Han purple ). The Imperial capital district was formally called the 紫禁 Zijin Cheng the ‘Purple Forbidden City’ which matches the ‘Purple Forbidden Enclosure’ 紫微垣 in the stars around the North pole.

In Chinese opera a face is painted purple to represent an incorruptible, loyal mandarin. In color symbolism it represents grief and introspection.


Red hóng

lantern
Red lantern

Red is the color of blood and so by association the color of life itself. In the Feng shui system of five elements red is associated with south and summer. Red is the luckiest color and is widely seen at festivals and marriages to bring good luck.

Cinnabar gives the red color to official seals and in itself was considered a potent elixir for long life. From cinnabar the pigment vermillion was made and this was the color reserved for the Emperor. The Emperor would write his own comments on documents in vermillion ink.

Red was the dynastic color of the Zhou dynasty so many things had to be colored red during that period, a red raven was the emblem of the dynasty. The Red Eyebrow Rebellion brought about the fall of Wang Mang's brief reign at the middle of the Han dynasty. The preponderance of red had a resurgence in Mao's Communist Era and it may well be the ancient auspicious associations of red helped the communist cause. In opera a painted red face indicates divinity and is often used for Guandi the god of war.


White bái

white

White, which is really the absence of color rather than a true color, is associated with the direction west, and autumn in the theory of five elements and five colors. White, or un-dyed cloth is worn for funerals in contrast to black in the West. White was the dynastic color of the Shang dynasty. In Opera white make-up symbolizes treachery and a white flower in women's hair is considered unlucky.


Yellow huáng

temple, roof
Yellow glazed tiles on a temple roof

Yellow is a very auspicious color in China, it is probably best translated as ‘golden’ as that gives to a non-Chinese a better idea of its attributes. It is associated with Earth and ‘central’. The loess soils of northern China are Yellow earth huáng tǔ and the Yellow River flows through this cradle of Chinese civilization. The Yellow Emperor was the mythical founder of China and yellow is the color of Imperial robes and the roofs of Imperial buildings. The stars on the Chinese flag are all yellow. From all this it should be evident how important the color yellow is in China.


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Citation information: Chinasage, 'Color Symbolism in Chinese art', last updated 14 Jan 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/symbols/colors.htm.

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