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The Meaning of Color in Chinese Culture (Download)

by Kate Walker
August 31st, 2017  |  Design

Any­one ac­quain­ted with Chinese cul­ture has heard about its the­ory of the five ele­ments. Wood, fire, wa­ter, met­al and earth – the five sub­stances that make up everything and guide the nat­ur­al move­ment of Heav­en and Earth.

These five ele­ments each have their own char­ac­ter­ist­ics and cor­res­pond to five "main" col­ors. It should also be noted that in Chinese art one main col­or is of­ten mixed with a shade of an­oth­er, thus adding even more con­nota­tions and depth to the in­ter­pret­a­tion.

1. Black – Water

Black (also en­com­passing the darkest shades of blue) was con­sidered the col­or of Heav­en, ac­cord­ing to The Book of Changes. So it was wor­shiped for a long time as “the king of all col­ors”. Winter was also de­pic­ted in black – guarded by a black tor­toise headed North.

In Chinese cul­ture black rep­res­ents im­mor­tal­ity, flow­ing and calmness, along with know­ledge, trust and sta­bil­ity. It is be­lieved to carry con­serving en­ergy.

This was also the col­or of Lao Zhi's school – he claimed that “the five col­ors make people blind” and hence his school chose black as a sym­bol of the Tao.

2. Red – Fire

In tra­di­tion­al Chinese cul­ture red sym­bol­izes good for­tune and joy, cel­eb­ra­tion, vi­tal­ity and cre­ativ­ity, and can be seen any­where on fam­ily gath­er­ings and fest­ive oc­ca­sions. It was used to rep­res­ent sum­mer, guarded by a red spar­row headed South.

Un­for­tu­nately today, un­der the com­mun­ist reign in China the col­or red has been used as a sym­bol of blood, ter­ror and vi­ol­ence.

3. Blue-green – Wood

In Chinese it is called “the col­or Qing 青” which is used to de­note all shades from light and yel­low­ish green to deep, dark blue.

It is the sym­bol of spring, vig­or and vi­tal­ity, heal­ing, hope, re­new­al and fer­til­ity. Spring is de­pic­ted as a blue-green sun whose guard­i­an is a green­ish-blue dragon headed East.

Shades of blue and green are com­monly used for home dec­or­a­tion for they are be­lieved to bring har­mony and longev­ity.

4. White – Metal

It rep­res­ents strength and cour­age. This is also the col­or of mourn­ing worn at fu­ner­als. Some­times white also cor­res­ponds to gold which is a sym­bol of pur­ity, ful­fill­ment and bright­ness.

White rep­res­ents au­tumn, guarded by a white ti­ger headed West.

5. Yellow – Earth

Yel­low is viewed as the col­or of the earth and a sym­bol of its treas­ures. Chinese have a say­ing, “yel­low gen­er­ates Yin and Yang”, thus mak­ing it the col­or of neut­ral­ity placed in the cen­ter of all col­ors – the “golden middle” of everything. It rep­res­ents the “cen­ter”, or “zenith” – a sta­bil­iz­ing en­ergy and the bal­ance of Yin and Yang.

After the Han dyn­asty yel­low be­came the spe­cial roy­al court col­or due to its bril­liance and re­semb­lance to gold, and or­din­ary people were not al­lowed to wear it.

This is the sym­bol­ic col­or of the five le­gendary an­cient Chinese em­per­ors and was re­garded as the most beau­ti­ful and pres­ti­gi­ous one. It can be found as a dec­or­a­tion of palaces, temples and al­tars. In Chinese Buddhism yel­low rep­res­ents free­dom from earthly wor­ries and monks wear yel­low robes.

6. Purple

Though not one of the “main” col­ors ac­cord­ing to the the­ory of the five ele­ments, purple was an im­port­ant col­or in Chinese cul­ture. Dur­ing the Han dyn­asty, bright purple was viewed as pre­cious and rare. Purple was also favored by the roy­al court of the Tang dyn­asty.

It is be­lieved to rep­res­ent im­mor­tal­ity, spir­itu­al awaken­ing, as well as phys­ic­al and men­tal strength.

This week we present you a richly or­na­men­ted tra­di­tion­al Chinese seam­less pat­tern – down­load it for free and try it in dif­fer­ent col­ors.

This pat­tern is re­cre­ated from the carved dec­or­a­tion of a wooden piece of fur­niture, so we took its ori­gin­al geo­metry and ex­per­i­mented with a col­or scheme based on Chinese clois­onne – the dec­or­at­ing tech­nique whose vi­brant col­ors made it so pop­u­lar even to this day.

Free seamless pattern
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