For more than 2000 years, the Chinese people have used brilliant colors. Today in modern China, red is a very popular color. However, contrary to popular belief, ancient peoples did not pay special attention to the color red
The Chinese character for “color” is 颜色 (Yan Se). In ancient China, however, 颜色 carried a slightly different meaning. It more accurately meant “color in the face.” For instance, “Verses of Chu State” (Chu Ci Yu Fu) might use the expression “Yan Se Qiao Cui” which means that one appears weary. In “Explaining Characters and Expressions” (Shuo Wen Jie Zi), “Yan” means the area between one’s eyebrows, and “Se” means qi, or energy. The commentaries added by the noted scholar Duan Yu Cai says, “Shame, regret, joy and worries are called “Yan Se” because “one’s heart reaches qi and qi will reach the eyebrows.” So it’s clear that “Yan Se” referred to color in one’s face and not colors in general
“Yan Se” began to mean all color during the Tang Dynasty. Noted Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu, in his poem “The Bottoms of Flowers,” wrote: “Know good colors clearly, and do not be content with sand or mud.” The Chinese idiom “Wu (five) Yan Liu (six) Se,” which is used to describe many colors, also suggests colors in general.
Traditional Chinese physics taught that the five elements are water, fire, wood, metal and earth, in that order. They correspond to black, red, blue-green, white and yellow, respectively.
Ancient Chinese people believed that the five elements made everything in nature. Five thousand years ago during the reign of Huang Di (known as the Yellow Emperor) people actually worshiped the color yellow. From that period forward, through the Shang, Tang, Zhou and Qin dynasties, China’s emperors used the Theory of the Five Elements to select colors.
Because people understood that “colors come naturally while black and white are first,” they gradually established a relationship between colors and the principle of the five elements, which guided the natural movement of heaven and the heavenly Dao.
People chose clothing, food, transportation and housing according to natural changes in the seasons—from spring to summer and autumn, and then to winter. Traditional Chinese views regard black, red, blue-green, white and yellow as standard colors
The I Ching, or Book of Changes, regards black as Heaven’s color. The saying “heaven and earth of mysterious black” was rooted in the observation that the northern sky was black for a long time. They believed Tian Di, or Heavenly Emperor, resided in the North Star.
The Taiji symbol also uses black and white to represent the unity of Yin and Yang. Ancient Chinese regarded black as the king of colors and honored black longer than any other color. Lao Zi said that “five colors make people blind,” so the Dao School chose black as the color of the Dao.
White represented gold and symbolized brightness, purity, and fulfillment. White also 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.
The Chinese people, both ancient and modern, cherish the color red. Red is everywhere during Chinese New Year and other holidays and family gatherings for it symbolizes good fortune and joy. Unfortunately, since the Communist takeover of China, red has been used by the Chinese Communist Party to represent danger, blood, violence and radical actions.
Blue-green indicates spring when everything overflows with vigor and vitality.
Yellow symbolizes the earth. The old saying, “Yellow generates Yin and Yang,” meant that yellow is the center of everything. Yellow was the symbolic color of the five legendary emperors of ancient China. Placed above brown, yellow also signifies neutrality and is considered the most beautiful color. Yellow also represents freedom from worldly cares and is thus esteemed in Buddhism. Monks’ garments are yellow as well as Buddhist temples.
Color embodies an even richer culture in Chinese folk traditions. Yellow is the color for emperors. Yellow often decorates royal palaces, altars and temples. Yellow also represents being free from worldly cares. Therefore it is also a color respected in Buddhism.