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Colors in Chinese & Japanese Culture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In East Asia, colors have some very specific and important meanings. In this lesson, we're going to explore the traditional colors of China and Japan, and examine where they are similar and different.

Colors and Cultures

Red means stop. Green means go. Yellow means speed up and pretend you didn't notice that the light was about to change. In every culture, colors are more than just a pretty part of life. They have meaning. Different colors are used in different ways; they can indicate different things and carry some pretty strong messages. Some of this relates to human psychology (blue has a calming effect, while red is exciting), but much of it is cultural. One place where we can really see a strong association between color and meaning is in the East Asian cultures of China and Japan.

China

Color in Chinese culture has historically been more rooted in philosophy than nearly anywhere else in the world. Much of Chinese society was guided by unified cosmological philosophies, and the colors of art, architecture and daily life were no exception. It's important to note that Chinese artists and designers had access to a plethora of colors over the years, which changed according to the tastes and styles of each era, so for now we're focusing on the main five colors that define the Chinese aesthetic, both historically and today.

The Chinese color scheme is based around the five colors of black, red, 'grue', white, and yellow. These colors are associated with the cosmological philosophy of Taoism, which teaches the balance of cosmological forces to attain spiritual harmony. In Taoism, the cosmos is composed of five elements, each of which has a different relationship to spiritual forces. These can be balanced through the discipline of feng shui, in which elements and colors are used to control the flow of spiritual energy in a specific setting. That's the basic philosophy, now let's look at the actual colors.

Black

The first of China's traditional colors is black. Black is a neutral color and one of the two original colors of the universe (it's partner being it's opposite- white). Black is the color of the heavens, and considered sacred in that respect. In terms of the five elements, it is associated with water. Black appears frequently throughout Chinese art, which traditionally relied on black inks, and is still a major part of Chinese art and fashion today.

Red

Next is red. Red is associated with fire and is believed to bring good luck and happiness. That's why it's so commonly used in festival decorations, notably those surrounding the lunar New Year celebrations. This auspicious color is traditionally prohibited in funerals. Today, red can be found widely across China. This is partly due to its historic legacy, but also because red is the traditional color associated with communism, so it's widely connected to China's communist government.

Red lanterns in China
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Grue

The next of China's traditional colors is what the Chinese call qing. There's no direct color for this in our lexicon, but it's most closely described as grue, a shade of green-blue. (Green-blue…gr-ue…get it?) Grue is associated with the element of wood and represents wealth and harmony.

Yellow

Yellow is the color of the earth, representing also the center of the cosmos. For this reason, yellow (or gold) was historically the color of the Chinese emperor. The emperor was the center of China, which (as anyone in historic China knew) was at the center of the universe. Yellow has also developed another meaning in China: in Chinese Buddhism yellow is a color representing both freedom or detachment and mourning.

Traditionally, yellow was the color of the emperor
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White

Finally, we get to white, associated with metal. White is the opposite of black, both balancing each other in the system of yin and yang. Historically, it was also the color of mourning, worn only in funerals. So, don't expect to find it as frequently in traditional Chinese art as the other colors.

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