Why the Color Yellow Filled the World of Ancient Chinese Culture

A golden buddha statue with a yellow robe.

Yellow has been regarded as the color from Heaven since ancient times. (Image: Protects Tachapanit via Dreamstime)

According to legend, the patriarch of Chinese civilization was the Yellow Emperor. The birthplace of Chinese civilization was the Yellow Earth Plateau (Loess Plateau). The cradle of the Chinese nation was the Yellow River, and the descendants of the Yellow Emperor have yellowish skin. Since ancient times, the color yellow has been an integral part of ancient Chinese culture.

During the Qin and Han dynasties, emperors selected a specific color to symbolize their respective dynasties. They chose a color from black, red, green, white, and yellow. Each of these colors corresponds to the element water, fire, wood, metal, or earth. These are the five elements of the Yin-Yang Theory. In ancient China, people believed that the five elements were the fundamental constituents of everything in nature, and color was no exception.

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Yellow River, China.
Yellow River, China. (Image: via Pixabay)

The rulers of the Qin Dynasty chose water to symbolize their dynasty’s reign, and Han Dynasty rulers picked yellow as the iconic color of Han Dynasty culture. This choice was based on the Chinese view of yellow being the color of earth, and of earth succeeding water.

Yellow was designated the exclusive imperial color

During that period of time, astrologers also combined the concept of the five elements with the five directional concept of Chinese astrology. They believed that the color of earth is yellow, and it signifies the center; the color of wood is green, and it signifies east; the color of fire is red, and it signifies south; the color of metal is white, and it represents west; that of water is black, and it symbolizes north. Yellow is in the center among the five colors because it is the most precious, and was thus designated the color worn by the emperor.

Duhuang Cave mural of Avalokiteshvara (Bodhisattva Guanyin), Worshipping Bodhisattvas and Mendicant.
Duhuang Cave mural of Avalokiteshvara (Bodhisattva Guanyin), ‘Worshipping Bodhisattvas and Mendicant.’ Early Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In the Tang Dynasty, yellow was also widely used in works of art. The Dunhuang Caves are one of three major grotto sites in China. Dunhuang contains over 10,000 precious frescoes in an area spanning some 60,000 square yards (50,000 m²).

As exemplified by these grottoes, frescoes painted in different eras used different colors. Ones painted in the Qin Dynasty were mainly mahogany, mixed with blue and black. Most of the works painted in the Tang Dynasty were basically yellow, which makes them rather bright and exquisite-looking. They are considered the most magnificent of the Dunhuang frescoes.

Portrait of Yongle emperor from china wears yellow traditional robe and black hat has a long beard
The Yongle Emperor (May 2, 1360 – August 12, 1424) was the third emperor of China’s Ming Dynasty. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the color yellow became exclusive to the imperial court. Civilians were prohibited from wearing yellow clothes. The clothing worn by emperors was called Yellow Robes. The carriage used by the emperor was called the Yellow House, the roads walked by the emperor were called the Yellow Path, and the banners flown by the emperor during royal inspection tours were yellow. The seal of dynastic power was wrapped with yellow fabric. And only the imperial family could dwell in the special buildings built with red walls and yellow tiles.

The glittering Forbidden City

If you climb Jingshan Hill in Beijing and look down, you will see the Forbidden City and its glittering yellow tile roofs. All around, there are gigantic gold-plated bronze vessels and bronze beasts. This gives the palace a look of brilliance and glamor.

In fact, yellow is the color most commonly used in Buddhism. Buddha statues are called Gold Bodies, and Buddhist temples are called Gold Temples. Buddhist robes and religious artifacts are also yellow. Buddha statues are plated with gold because golden yellow has been regarded as the color from Heaven since ancient times.

The Forbidden City and its glittering yellow roof tiles.
The Forbidden City and its glittering yellow roof tiles. (Image: Nick Fewings via Unsplash)

In traditional Chinese culture, Heaven represents the seat of the supreme gods. The reason emperors could govern the country was due to the power granted by Heaven. Though emperors were the supreme lords of the country, from the standpoint of Heaven, they were considered sons.

Heaven governed from above. They had to follow the will of Heaven and govern the country and rule their subjects according to ethics and morality.

Yellow was used by emperors in history to symbolize this investiture of divine power, and it stood for sacredness and nobility.

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