Chinese culture attaches certain values to colours, like which colours are considered auspicious (吉利) or inauspicious (不利). The Chinese word for "colour" is yánsè (顏色). In Classical Chinese, the character sè (色) more accurately meant "colour in the face", or "emotion". It was generally used alone and often implied sexual desire or desirability. During the Tang dynasty, the word yánsè came to mean 'all colour'. A Chinese idiom with the meaning "many colours" or "multi-coloured", Wǔyánliùsè (五顏六色), can also mean 'colours' in general.
In Chinese mythology, the goddess, Nüwa, is said to have mended the Heavens after a disaster destroyed the original pillars that held up the skies, using five coloured-stones in these five auspicious colours to patch-up the crumbling heavens, accounting for the many colours that the skies can take-on.
Traditionally, the standard colors in Chinese culture are black, red, 'grue' (青; qīng), white, and yellow. Respectively, these correspond to water, fire, wood, metal, and earth, which comprise the 'five elements' (wuxing) of traditional Chinese metaphysics. Throughout the Shang, Tang, Zhou and Qin dynasties, China's emperors used the Theory of the Five Elements to select colors. Other colors were considered by Confucius to be "inferior".[better source needed]
|Blue, azure, green
|Change of seasons
(Every third month)
Yellow of a golden hue is considered the most beautiful and prestigious color. The Chinese conception of yellow (黃, huáng) is inclusive of many shades considered tan or brown in English and the primary association is with the earth rather than the sun. (It was formerly also inclusive of many oranges, although speakers of modern Standard Mandarin increasingly map their use of huáng to shades corresponding to English yellow.) The Chinese saying Yellow generates Yin and Yang implies that yellow is the center of everything. Associated with but ranked above brown, yellow signifies neutrality and good luck. Yellow is sometimes paired with red in place of gold.
The Yellow River is the cradle of Chinese civilisation. Yellow was the emperor's color in Imperial China and is held as the symbolic color of the five legendary emperors of ancient China, such as the Yellow Emperor. The Yellow Dragon is the zoomorphic incarnation of the Yellow Emperor of the centre of the universe in Chinese religion and mythology. The flag of the Qing dynasty featured golden yellow as the background. The Plain Yellow Banner and the Bordered Yellow Banner were two of the upper three banners of Later Jin and Qing dynasty.
Yellow often decorates royal palaces, altars and temples, and the color was used in the dragon robes and attire of the emperors. It was a rare honour to receive the imperial yellow jacket.
Yellow also represents freedom from worldly cares and is thus esteemed in Buddhism. Monks' garments are yellow, as are elements of Buddhist temples. Yellow is also used as a mourning color for Chinese Buddhists.
Yellow is also symbolic of heroism, as opposed to the Western association of the color with cowardice.
Black (黑, hēi), corresponding to water, is generally understood as a neutral color although appearing in many negative contexts in idioms and common names. "Black cult" (黑幫, hēibāng) is the usual name for Chinese organized crime and the Thick Black Theory of the late Qing intellectual Li Zongwu (李宗吾, 1879–1943) is an exhortation to Machiavellianism. In modern China, black is used in clothing, especially in professional contexts. Black has less association with mourning than white in traditional Chinese culture but formal black jackets and slacks have become associated with international professionalism.
The I Ching or Book of Changes regards black as Heaven's color. The saying "heaven and earth are black" was rooted in the observation that the northern sky was black for a long time.[dubious ] Ancient Chinese people believed Tiandi or the Heavenly Emperor resided in the North Star. The Taiji symbol uses black and white or red to represent the unity of yin and yang. Ancient Chinese people regarded black as the king of colors and honored black more consistently than any other color.[dubious ] Laozi said know the white, keep the black and Taoists believe black is the color of the Tao.[dubious ]
White (白, bái) corresponds with metal among the Five Elements and represents gold[dubious ] and symbolises brightness, purity, and fulfilment. White is also the traditional color of mourning. Nevertheless, since the Chinese economic reform and influx of Western cultural values, white wedding gowns have become more popular. Light-colored skin is also valued by many Chinese, especially in consideration of women as potential brides, presumably due to the association of dark-color skin with manual labor and poverty.
See also: Vermilion § Chinese red
Red (t 紅, s 红, hóng), vermilion (丹, dān), and crimson (赤, chì) are associated with masculine yang energy and fire, good fortune and joy. Red is the traditional color used during Chinese New Year and other celebrations, including weddings and wedding gowns. Chinese reds are traditionally inclusive of shades English might consider orange or warm brown.
A hongbao—a red envelope stuffed with money, now frequently red 100 RMB notes—is the usual gift in Chinese communities for Chinese New Year, birthdays, marriages, bribes, and other special occasions. The red color of the packet symbolizes good luck. Red is strictly forbidden at funerals as it is traditionally symbolic of happiness. The names of the dead were previously written in red, so it is generally somewhat offensive to use red ink for Chinese names in contexts other than official seals.
In the People's Republic of China, red remains a very popular color and is affiliated with and used by the Communist Party and the government.
Main article: Qing (color)
Old Chinese did not make a blue-green distinction, having a single "verdant" color (青, qīng) that covered both. The clear blue sky and fresh green vegetables were considered shades of a single color which could even include black as its darkest hue in some contexts. Modern Standard Mandarin does make the blue-green distinction using lǜ (t 綠, s 绿, "leafy") for green and lán (t 藍, s 蓝, "indigo") for blue.
Qīng was associated with health, prosperity, and harmony. It was used for the roof tiles and ornate interior of the Temple of Heaven and in other structures to represent heaven. It is also the color of most jade as well as the greenware pottery that was developed to imitate it.
Separately, green hats are associated with infidelity and used as an idiom for a cuckold. This has caused uneasiness for Chinese Catholic bishops, who, in ecclesiastical heraldry, would normally have a green hat above their arms. Chinese bishops have compromised by using a violet hat for their coat of arms.
The five intermediary colors (五間色 wǔjiànsè) are formed as combinations of the five elemental colors. These are:
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