Chinese Color Theory—The Symbolism of Color in Traditional Chinese Culture

Tin Christopher Hang

The underlying idea in traditional Chinese thinking is that the opposite, but complementary forces of yin and yang arise as a fundamental fact of the universe. Yin can be viewed as female, dark, cool, passive, and ultimately death, while yang, on the contrary, can be seen as male, light, warm, active, and life. These two forces, however, cannot exist in vacuum. They depend on one another for their very existence—without darkness there can be no light, without death there is no life (1). The Chinese firmly believe that the universe needs a balance between yin and yang, and that efforts should be geared towards harmonizing the two.
Furthermore, the Chinese believe that everything under the sky can be classified under the Five Elements, namely Gold, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth (2). Similar to the theory of yin and yang, balancing the Five Elements is central to Chinese thinking. The Five Elements can either interact in a productive or counter-productive manner (1). The productive combinations include Water with Wood, Wood with Fire, Fire with Earth, Earth with Gold, and Gold with Water. The counter-productive combinations, on the other hand, are Earth with Water, Water with Fire, Fire with Gold, Gold with Wood, and Wood with Earth. As seen in Table 1 below, each of the Five Elements relates to a color, which, in turn, has its own significance and symbolic value for the Chinese (2).


Table 1: Color/Element/Nature Relationships



















Red, a bright, auspicious color associated with warmth, life and the Fire Element, denotes good fortune and happiness (2). It emerges as a sacred and vitalizing color used on festive occasions (3). In China, the color red not only serves to express joy, but also to ward off evil influences (4). The Chinese regard red as the "lucky color." At Chinese New Year, children in Chinese families are given little red packets or envelopes packed with money or treats as tokens of good wishes (1). The color red is also featured prominently in the clothing and other ritual objects pertaining to the traditional Chinese wedding (4). In fact, Chinese brides wear red dresses and wedding invitations are printed on red paper (1). Figure 1 is a picture of a bride decked out in her red gear at her wedding.  

Figure 1: Red at Chinese Weddings.

   Figures 2: Ancient Chinese Emperors in Yellow/Gold


Yellow, the royal color used by the emperors, represents power and authority. It is associated with the Earth Element, which symbolizes growth (2). The Chinese word for yellow, huang, sounds like the word for "royal," and thus was chosen thousands of years ago as the exclusive color for the imperial household. Under the penalty of death, no Chinese person other than the emperor was permitted to be clothed in any shade of yellow or gold (1). Figure 2 below displays some portraits of some ancient Chinese emperors bearing the national color of old China, yellow/gold.

The colors green and blue, associated with the Wood Element, both symbolize growth and are used to represent longevity and harmony (2). The ancient Chinese used the same word to describe the blue of the sky and the green of growing things (1). Further, blue is also sometimes used to denote heavenly blessings (2). Figure 3 on the top of the following page is a picture of a fireworks display during Chinese New Year in Hong Kong. Notice the excessive green and red used to represent growth and good fortune for the New Year, respectively.  
fireworks display - click for next
Figure 3: New Year’s Fireworks

White is associated with the Gold Element and is used to represent mourning (2). White is considered to be the opposite of red and is used to express sorrow and grief (4). For the Chinese, white is the ominous color of funerals and death (3). Black is associated with the Water Element and symbolizes darkness (2). In China, black was considered the color of bruises, and thus a sign of evil and remarkably unpopular (3).

Traditional Chinese buildings were not designed with the exclusive consideration of form but also with respect to the symbolism of colors. The application of paint served the dual purpose of protection and providing symbolic significance to the building elements. Color schemes for buildings were developed from the Chunqiu era to the Ming dynasty (2). Bright colors were very popular during these early periods. The importance of a building was insinuated by the color scheme of the walls and roofs in the following sequence: yellow, red, green, blue, black, and gray. The roofs of the imperial palaces were yellow, while those of the less distinguished buildings were green (2).

Works Cited:

  1. Lagatree, Kirsten M. Feng Shui: Arranging Your Home to Change Your Life. Random House, Inc. New York. 1996.
    2. Lip, Dr. Evelyn. Feng Shui: Environments of Power, A Study of Chinese Architecture. Academy Editions. London. 1995.
    3. "Color at your Fingertips."
    4. "Chinese Wedding Traditions."\/wedding.html.