Yellow in Chinese Culture Is Very Significant

A reclining buddha statue.

During the Tang Dynasty, yellow became the prominent color used in the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang. (Image: Hoang Bao Nguyen via Dreamstime)

The color yellow in Chinese culture is very significant. It is believed that all Chinese people are the descendants of the “Yellow Emperor,” the birthplace of Chinese culture was the Loess Plateau, a country of windblown “yellow earth,” the cradle of Chinese culture was located on the “Yellow River,” and the descendants of the Yan Huang ethnic group were known as having “yellow skin.”

The first bend of the Yellow River, located in Tangke village Sichuan Province China.
The Yellow River basin was the cradle of Chinese civilization. (Image: Savvygogh via Dreamstime)

These examples show that the color yellow in Chinese culture has been prominent since ancient times beginning from the reign of the Yellow Emperor in 2697 B.C. The Yellow Emperor is said to be one of the ancestors of the Yan Huang, the name of an ethnic group of ancient China that inhabited the Yellow River basin area. The Yan Huang were also said to be the origin of the Chinese people and the initiators of Chinese culture.

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The Emperor of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C-A.D. 220) believed that after the Han inherited the system of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C), this was due to the merits of the earth element. According to the theory of the five elements, earth surpasses water, and since yellow symbolized the earth element, yellow became an integral part of the Chinese culture.

At that time, astrologers combined the theory of the five elements with the concept of the compass and said that the color yellow symbolizes earth as well as the center of the universe, cyan represents wood and symbolizes the east, red represents fire and symbolizes the south, white represents metal and symbolizes the west, and black represents water and symbolizes the north. Since the color yellow is in the center of the five elements, it is considered to be the color of neutrality. The color yellow in Chinese culture is above all other colors and is considered the noblest, therefore, it is also the color of the Emperor.

A Seated Portrait of Ming Emperor Taizu.
Yellow became the color of royalty very early in Chinese culture. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

At that time, the court’s prime minister, as the assistant to the Emperor, was granted the “Golden Seal decorated with a Purple Silk Ribbon,” which was a symbol of the highest power below the Emperor and above all others. This established yellow and purple as supreme colors in traditional Chinese culture.

Yellow in Chinese culture: The Tang Dynasty

During the Tang Dynasty, yellow was used in all aspects of Chinese traditional culture and arts. In the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, there are more than 10,000 precious murals, covering ​​more than 50,000 square meters. The colors of the murals differ depending on the period they were created. For example, during the Northern Wei period, red-brown accompanied by blue and black were the prominent colors. During the Tang Dynasty, yellow started to be the most used color in the murals and the resulting pictures were alluring and bright.

It was in the period of Emperor Gaozong of Tang that reddish-yellow could only be used by the emperor because it is the color of the sun. From then on, reddish-yellow was used exclusively for garments worn by emperors.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties when Beijing became the capital, yellow became the exclusive color of the imperial family; ordinary people were not allowed to wear yellow. The “Ninth Five-Year Lord” of the Qing Dynasty wore a yellow robe, his vehicle was called the yellow cart, his path was called the yellow road, yellow flags were used during his travels, and his official seals were wrapped with yellow material. Yellow became the symbol of power.

View of Shouhuang Palace in Jingshan Park - Beijing, China.
Yellow tile roofs can still be seen from Jinshan Park. (Image: Leonid Andronov via Dreamstime)

Only members of the imperial family and their relatives could live in houses with red walls and yellow glazed tile roofs, while houses of ordinary people could only have green walls and green tile roofs. Even today, when viewing from Jingshan’s summit overlooking the Forbidden City, you can see the yellow glazed tile roofs.

Furthermore, yellow was the most commonly used color in Buddhist schools. The Buddha’s figure was called a “golden body,” and temples that used the color yellow were called “golden temples.” Robes worn by monks were yellow, and the Buddha figurines were gilded to show their nobility. The Chinese people believe that the color yellow comes from the skies and has been considered to be the color of Heaven since ancient times. According to traditional Chinese culture, Heaven represented the highest level of the Gods. The reason why the emperor was able to rule his empire on earth was due to the honor granted by Heaven.

Translated by Chua BC

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