Buried within Chinese culture and traditions, the ancient sages left examples of the underlying links that connect colors with their meanings in nature and their correspondence with the Celestial Kingdom. In this article, we will analyze the meaning behind the color yellow. It’s no coincidence that yellow has been the standard color in Chinese culture for five thousand years – the superior color that was exclusively worn by the members of the Imperial court, while commoners were not allowed to wear it.
Some think that the color yellow has always been identified with Chinese culture because of a mere coincidence – because Nature decided to dye their skin tone with said hue. But the story behind this connection is not that simple. For deeper reasons than mere coincidence, the color yellow has marked this civilization from the very beginning. It is said that Chinese culture originated in the “Yellow Earth Plateau,” that this nation’s cradle was located in the “Yellow River,” and that the Chinese are descendants of the “Yellow Emperor.”
Confucius (551 B.C. to 479 B.C.) defined black, red, cyan (blue with a greenish hue), white, and yellow as “pure and supreme colors.” He applied these colors to rites as a manifestation of traditional values – such as “benevolence, righteousness, ritual, wisdom, and trust.” Until the Han Dynasty, which ended in the year 220 A.D., the emperors used to choose a symbolic color that would represent their reigns depending on the correspondence between the five pure colors with the five elements – water, fire, wood, metal, and earth – based on the Yin Yang theory.
The Yellow Emperor
The ancient Chinese civilization thought that the five elements are components that construct every single thing in Nature. They are also the origin of everything, including colors. These are, therefore, inextricably related to the principles of the five elements when Celestial Laws’ operation is concerned. The ancestors even chose the color of their clothes according to the natural change of seasons and the theory of the five elements.
During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 D.C.) the theory that yellow was the symbol that represented the earth element was accentuated. According to the theory of the five elements, earth surpasses water, and since yellow symbolized the earth element, yellow became very popular during this period. At the time, horoscope tellers would combine the theory of the five elements and the concept of the five dimensions to foretell the future. In their horoscopes, the tellers assumed that the color yellow symbolizes earth as well as the center of the universe.
According to this theory, cyan was considered as the synonym of wood, and it symbolized the East. Red was synonymous with fire, and it symbolized the South. White represented metal, and it symbolized the West. Finally, black represented water and the North. Since the color yellow laid in the middle of the five elements, it was considered a neutral color and the first of all colors.
Being the noblest of all, during the Han Dynasty, yellow naturally took its place as the main color at court, gracing the emperor’s clothes. The court’s Prime Minister was granted the “Gold Seal” decorated with a purple silk ribbon, which symbolized the highest power next to the emperor’s. Thus, yellow together with purple reigned as supreme colors in traditional Chinese culture.
During the Tang dynasty, yellow broadened its spectrum, spreading its influence throughout traditional culture and the arts further. In the Dunhuang caves, there are thousands of valuable frescoes, which cover a total area of almost 54,000 square feet. The colors of the frescoes vary depending on the different periods. For example, the frescoes made in the Northern Wei period were mainly red-brown, accompanied by blue and black – yellow was still exclusive at the time. Starting from the Tang dynasty, yellow became more popular and started to be used in these frescoes. The resulting pictures were diverse, alluring, bright, and beautiful.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, when Beijing became the capital, yellow became the imperial family’s exclusive color – ordinary people were not allowed to wear it. The emperors wore “yellow tunics,” their vehicle was called the “Yellow Cart,” their path was called the “Yellow Road.” Even the flags used during their travels were yellow, and so was the packaging material for their seals.
Yellow was once again an exclusive symbol of supreme power. Only members of the imperial family and their relatives could live in houses decorated with yellow glazed tile roofs and red walls. Ordinary people could only use the color cyan to paint their houses’ bricks and partitions.
Even today, when observing the Forbidden City from Jingshan’s summit, one can see the beautiful; yellow glazed tile roofs. On both entrances, one in the front and one in the back, huge gilded tubs made out of bronze and animal statues adorn and embellish the place. The ensemble looks magnificent and imposing, its elements enhance the city’s collective brilliance, which in turn represented supreme sovereignty.
Furthermore, yellow was the predominant color in Buddhist schools. The Buddha’s figure was called a “Golden Body,” and the temples that used the color yellow were called “Golden Temples.” The monks’ robes were made of yellow fabric, and the Buddha figures were gilded to show their nobility and preciousness because, since ancient times, Chinese people believe that the color yellow comes from the skies.
According to traditional Chinese culture, “Heaven” represented the high-level Gods, and an emperor could only rule his empire on Earth because that honor was granted directly from Heaven itself. Therefore, though the emperor was the supreme ruler and reigned by divine right, he was only a “Son of Heaven” and not Heaven itself. Therefore, he had to abide by its laws and be constrained by them.
In other words, the emperor’s actions were limited by morality. This restriction indicated that the Gods’ powers were superior to those of the emperor, who had to respect Heaven and act in line with his duty.
The emperors had to deal with earthly matters according to the will of the Heavens. Those who ruled obeying these laws would prosper in Heaven, and those who opposed them would fall into ruin and disgrace. Only those who followed the will of Heaven could become what they called “emperors with clear vision and morality.”
Thus, the color yellow – which accompanied the emperor dynasty after dynasty and represented the sacred and noble power bestowed upon him by the Gods – manifests itself as a reflection of the Divine on Earth even today.