Chinese culture created a close and binding relationship between color and ceramics, murals, paintings, and poetry…even city planning. After the Ming Dynasty, only the Emperor’s relatives could have homes with red walls and yellow roof tiles. His subjects lived in houses with blue bricks and roof tiles. However, carved beams and columns used rich hues. Many buildings used black tiles and white walls.
In the Dun Huang Caves, dating back 1500 years, there are more than 10,000 mural fragments of various dynasties. Each dynasty used different color combinations. Murals of the Northern Wei Dynasty incorporated red and brown, supplemented by blue and black. Tang Dynasty murals featured yellow. Song Dynasty murals were dominated by blue and green.
Highly-skilled Chinese paintings express the artist’s idea through the ink’s thickness and thinness. The practice is described as “ink holds five colors” and “shinning brilliantly without the usage of bright colors.” “Ink holds five colors” refers to five ink shades—charred, thick, ash, thin and clear. In a painter’s eye, the color of water is clearly different in each season. In “Lin Quan Gao Zhi” (A Book about Paintings), Guo Xi wrote, “The color of water is green in spring, bluish green in summer, aqua in autumn, and black in winter.”
As recorded in “Selections of Famous Paintings of the Tang Dynasty”, Emperor Xuan Zong praised Li Si Xun’s landscape paintings with their strong green and blue hues as “the best landscape paintings in the nation.” The ancient Chinese people were good at extracting colors from minerals and plants. This type of painting is often outlined with brilliant paints 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). With these advances in painting, the result became bright and rich.
Chinese poems and paintings share the same origin. The relationship is described as “a painting recites a poem and a poem draws a painting.” Poets could expertly describe color and poems often alluded to vibrant colors. Poet Cui Hu created wonderfully colorful scenes as shown in two lines from his poem, “Ti Du Cheng Nan Zhuang (“For the Southern Village in the Capital”). These lines express the beauty of colors for people to ponder for thousands of years:
Last year inside this court,
peach flowers reflect 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
A“silk radical” character attached to another Chinese character can describe different shades of the color of silk. According to “Shuo Wen Jie Zi” (Explaining Characters and Expressions), 24 characters 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. From this, we can surmise the variety and richness of silk fabrics from the silk manufacturing industry in ancient China. During the Warring States Period, lacquerware decoration reached a highly skilled level. The state of Qi was especially well-known for its brightly colored silk products. Many of the silk goods unearthed from ancient tombs have maintained their original colors of brown, red, black, purple, and yellow.
Chinese pottery and lacquerware uses rich color even more extensively. The formulation of richly colored glazes infuses these pieces with a brilliant and lustrous appearance. From the renowned tri-colored glazed pottery of the Tang Dynasty (Tang San Cai) to five-colored glazed pottery, from the celadonware to white glazedware, from white and blue porcelain to ceramics with lustrous glazes, color plays a key role in the creation of pottery. Ancient Chinese pottery-making reached its zenith in colored and black pieces. Chinese lacquerware had exquisite patterns and dazzling color.
Ancient Chinese people understood that color feeds the spirit and expresses the depth of human experience. The 2007 Chinese New Year Spectacular celebrates color in all it intensity and richness through lighting, costumes and scenery and harkens back to the traditional meanings of color.
Celebrate color! Celebrate a spectacular Chinese New Year!
– For the Celebration in Vancouver, Canada, please check out this post: