The Rich Meaning Within Traditional Chinese Colours
Centuries of wisdom produce nuanced visual taste in classical Chinese colour theory.
The story of China can be told through many arts, but all of those arts rely on colour to at least some degree. Colour runs through everything, including music, since classical performances have always used colour in backdrops and costumes to add layers of meaning and story to their music. Traditional Chinese colours are more than just descriptions of specific hues. Even the calendar was connected to colour theory in ancient China.
The ancient Chinese calendar isn’t organized around weeks the way ours is today. Instead, the year is divided into 24 half-months called solar terms. Each solar term has a relationship to the events in the natural world, such as the colours displayed by plants, animals, and the skies during that time. These terms all have great names that tell the story of the season, such as “Insects Awaken,” which describes the term at the end of winter when the forests and fields wake up.
Through the centuries of artistic conversation and thinking, colours came to take on stories of their own. For example, the phrase Twilight Mountain Purple (暮山紫) was coined when a writer climbed to the summit of mountains and watched the sunset. There’s also a fantasy world described in the ancient Chinese text The Classic of Mountains and Seas, which is defined by beautiful ocher, azurite, and fine-grained cinnabar.
The ancients paid close attention to the natural movements of heaven and earth, and how those movements played out visually in colour. They recognized the interconnectedness of all things and saw that colour was an expression of those connections. For instance, the five primary colours of red, blue, yellow, white, and black combine to complete a rich spectrum that contains all the colours within it. Each of those primary colours corresponds to one of the five elements: fire, wood, earth, metal, and water. Those five elements combine on a material spectrum to create all things in the galaxy.
Differences in light produce colour changes. In ancient China, the principles of aesthetics promoted harmony between humans and nature. Artists and craftsmen made simple dyes from minerals, plants, and animals. These simple materials were then used to reflect seasonal colours in architecture, crafts, calligraphy, and textiles.
This beautiful approach to life was almost lost following China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76) when all aspects of traditional culture came under attack from communist forces. But there are some who keep to the old ways and pass on the lessons from the past. For such people, the Chinese colours and their correspondences with nature reveal a historical cycle of appreciating beauty and life.
The seasons of traditional Chinese colours
Chinese New Year kicks off with the Spring Festival. Spring carries the connotation of hope and renewal, and has come to host many celebrations.
The eastern wind thaws the snow and ice. Everything awakens. The three colours of sky: Piao (天縹), Water Azure (滄浪), and Bamboo Green (蒼筤) emerge one after another. The text Analytical Dictionary of Chinese Characters notes, “Piao refers to blue and white silk.” This colour is just like a clear sky in early spring with a bit of chill.
In the text Li Lou (I), the great philosopher Mencius says, “When the water of the azure river is clear, it can wash my tassel; when the water of the azure river is muddy, it can wash my feet.” When the ice and snow first melt, the water in rivers and streams is azure and full of vitality.
Kong Yingda, a great scholar of the Northern Qi Dynasty, said, “When the bamboos break out, their colour is green with the beauty of spring.” The young green bamboo shoots breaking out of the ground are sending a message of spring.
When speaking of Chinese colours, it’s impossible to overlook the allusions to spring’s flowers. The first to bloom right as winter ends are the light yellow pine flowers mentioned in one of Li Bai’s verses, “As light as pine flowers from which golden pollen falls.” Soon the white jasmine flowers appear, followed by one colour after another, spreading over the earth. The ladies of the Middle Kingdom would take the succession of flower colours as inspiration for their choice of dress.
In the Ming Dynasty, the Bureau of Weaving and Dyeing would make luo, a mesh cloth, in the colour of Sea-Sky Clouds (海天霞). It was used to make spring clothes for palace ladies. The colour that best matches the solar term “Insects Awaken” is the alkanet mentioned in the Book of Han, “After the spring rain, red alkanet sprouts.” After spring rain, little bright red flower buds suddenly bloom at the top of the grass. They’re like thunder that awakens everything in hibernation.
In early summer, even richer colours appear, such as Blushed Beauty (朱顏酡), Tiao Rong (苕榮) and Qin Dan ( 檎丹) derived from poetic representations.
From Li Bai’s Two Poems with a Bottle of Wine in Front:
Falling flowers fluttered in the feast
And the beauties almost got drunk
Blushing like peach blossoms
From Yang Shen’s Fang Lan Yin:
Southern beauty in the Eastern family
Is as beautiful as the Lingtiao flowers
From Yang Wanli’s Spring Hope:
All flowers blossom in spring
Even those of the Chinese pearleaf crabapple and the begonia
The Chinese colours Blushed Beauty and Tiao Rong are both used to describe the beautiful faces of women. Chinese pearleaf crabapple is a bright red wild fruit. These colours are as loud as the summertime birds and cicadas.
In the scorching summer, twilight is more welcome than in other seasons. After the day’s heat, it’s a relief for the cooling down that comes with sunset. The clouds and mists in the mountains glow slightly with red, like hot embers, and then fade into a hazy dark colour, quietly waiting for the starry sky of the summer night.
In the autumn, a little coolness returns in the early morning. This is the essence of the colour White in the East, which was coined in the essay Former Red Cliff Rhapsody by Su Dongpo 1,000 years ago. The poet and his friends were floating down a river drinking wine and sharing songs. Su Dongpo recognized the red cliffs and knew of a battle that had occurred there 800 years earlier. He said, “My companion and I slept staggered in the boat, without realizing the sky was already white in the East.” It’s the colour of the sky that contrasts the red cliffs and captures the mood of autumn.
The light also possesses cooler tones of blue during the day. In the blue glaze of the Ming Dynasty, this kind of soft blue was called Stealing Blue (竊藍), which has a playful connotation.
White Dew is the verdant colour of the forests. It’s a soft green that’s so light it can almost be white, just like the colour of the Yue Ware porcelain.
Qianshan Cui (千山翠) is a mature and warm colour. After the autumnal equinox, the main brilliant golden colour spreads across the mountains and plains. This colour is captured in Du Fu’s Four Poems on Riverside: Gardenia:
Gardenias, in comparison to other trees
Are not that many in this world
Its pigments can be extracted for colour-dyeing
It also helps improve blood circulation and cure ailments
Gardenia was one of the most important yellow dyes of ancient times.
Right before giving way to winter, Autumn Blue (秋藍) appears. It’s a kind of grass, the raw material used for indigo dyeing, similar to what’s used in modern denim.
In the blink of an eye, the year has passed. Winter arrives, and the earth becomes silent again. The cold colours of Moon White (月白) and Xinglang (星郎) are present in the winter air. Moon White is actually a light blue. The Ming Dynasty’s Tiangong Kaiwu, which translates to Exploitation of the Works of Nature, states, “The two colours of moon white and grass white are both slightly dyed with indigo water. The present method uses amaranth decocting in water, and dye when half-cooked.” Therefore, moon white is light indigo dye, while XingLang is a silver-grey colour that refers to the stars in the night sky.
The cold naturally needs a warm response. Just light a Dragon Cream Candle (龍膏燭) in the snowy night, as it is said in Wang Jia’s classic Forgotten Tales, “Use dragon cream as a candle, it shines over a hundred miles, and the smoke is red and purple.” This colour is a blessing of heat that has the power to push away the cold.
The ancient world was beautiful and tender. Readings of classical poetry, visits to museums, and walks through the Forbidden City and Suzhou gardens all prove that the ancient colours are still telling China’s story even after the last century of communism nearly destroyed it.