The Significance of the Color Yellow in Traditional Chinese Culture
(Clearwisdom.net) The earliest ancestor of the Chinese race was the "Yellow Emperor." Chinese culture originated on the "Yellow Plateau," the cradle of the Chinese nation was the "Yellow River," and descendants of the Yan Emperor and the Yellow Emperor have "yellow skin." Since ancient times, the color yellow has been inseparably linked with Chinese traditional culture. During the time of the Yellow Emperor, about 5,000 years ago, Chinese society advocated single colors. Confucius, a philosopher and educator at the end of the Spring-Autumn period, in his effort to uphold the "Rites of the Zhou Dynasty," defined black, red, cyan (blue-green), white, and yellow as the "pure colors" and "superior colors." He applied these colors to the rites and incorporated them into the traditional values of "benevolence, righteousness, rites, wisdom and trust." Up until the Qin and Han Dynasties, the emperors had each chosen a symbolic color for their respective reign based on the correspondence of the colors of black, red, cyan, white, and yellow to the five elements of water, fire, wood, metal, and earth based on the Yin Yang theory. The ancient Chinese believed that the five elements were the fundamental elements that created all things in nature; they were the origin of everything, including colors, and were inseparably related to the principle of five elements in the operation of heavenly laws. They also chose the color of their clothing according to the natural change of seasons and the theory of the five elements.
The emperors in the Han Dynasties believed that, after the Han took over from the Qin Dynasty, it symbolized the virtue of earth. According to the theory of five elements, the earth overcame water, and the earth was yellow, so yellow was very popular in the Han Dynasty. At that time, the horoscope fortune tellers also combined the theory of five elements and the concept of five dimensions in the horoscope, and believed that the color yellow stood for earth, symbolizing the center of the universe; cyan stood for wood, symbolizing the east; red stood for fire, symbolizing the south; white stood for metal, symbolizing the west; and the color black stood for water, symbolizing the north. Because the color yellow was in the middle of the five elements, it was viewed as a neutral color and came first of all colors. It was also viewed as the most noble color, a color for the clothing of emperors. The prime minister of the court at that time was granted a "gold seal with a purple silk ribbon." It was a symbol of the highest power next to that of the emperor. This was how the colors yellow and purple gained their important places in Chinese traditional culture.
In the Tang Dynasty, yellow was widely used in traditional culture and arts. In the Dunhuang Caves, there are over 10,000 precious frescoes, covering a total area of over 50,000 square meters. The frescoes from different time periods vary in color. For example, the frescoes done in the Northern Wei period are mainly red-brown, accompanied by blue and black. From the Tang Dynasty onward, yellow became more popular, and these frescoes are diverse and charming, bright and gorgeous--a brilliant page in the frescoes of the Dunhuang Caves.
During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Beijing became the capital city, and the color yellow became the exclusive color for the imperial family. Ordinary people were not allowed to wear yellow. The emperors wore "yellow robes," their carriage was called a "yellow carriage," the path they walked on was called a "yellow path," the flags used on their tours were "yellow flags," and the wrapping material for their seals was also yellow. Consequently, the color yellow became a symbol of supreme power. Only the imperial family members and their relatives could live in residences with red walls and yellow-colored glazed tile roofs. Ordinary people could only use cyan-colored bricks and tiles. If you climb up to the top of Jingshan and overlook the forbidden city, you can see a stretch of yellow glazed tile roofs. On both sides of the halls, front and back, there are huge, gold-plated bronze vats and animal figures. They look magnificent, enhancing each other's brilliance and radiance, representing the supreme sovereign.
In fact, yellow was the most common color in the Buddha school. The Buddha figure was called a "golden body," temples used yellow and were called "golden temples," the monks' robes were made of a yellow material, and the Buddha figures were plated with gold to show their nobility and preciousness, because since ancient times, the Chinese people believed that the color yellow came from Heaven. In traditional Chinese culture, "Heaven" represented gods at higher levels, and the reason that an emperor could rule the land was because "Heaven" had granted him the power to rule. Therefore, although the emperor was the supreme ruler of a country, he was only a "son of Heaven," not the Heaven, and beyond him there was "Heaven" to restrain him. In other words, an emperor was restrained by morals, and such restraint indicated that the power of gods was superior to that of an emperor, and the emperor had to "respect Heaven and act in line with his duty." The emperors had to handle affairs in the human world according to the will of Heaven, and those who obeyed Heaven would thrive, and those who went against Heaven would perish. Only those who followed the will of Heaven could become "clear-sighted emperors with morals." Yellow was used by emperors, dynasty after dynasty, representing their divinely-entrusted power, boundlessly sacred and noble.
January 19, 2008