Ancient Chinese ‘Five Colours’ Theory: What Does Its Semantic Analysis Reveal?

Victoria Bogushevskaya

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The conceptual scheme found throughout traditional Chinese thought is pentamerous. It represents complex and cosmic interrelationships among the Five Agents (also known as Elements or Phases) (Metal, Wood, Fire, Water and Soil), the Five Directions (North, South, East, West and ‘Middle’), the Five Colours, the Five Tastes, etc. The origins of the colour symbolism extend far back into the earliest records of Chinese intellectual history, to the Late Shang era (ca.1300-1046 BC) oracle bone inscriptions (used in divination rituals). The earliest records on five “pure” and five “intermediate” colours are found in several Confucian classics of the Warring States period (V-III cc. BC). The theory matured and developed to its present form during the Later Han dynasty (25-220 AD), when the term ‘wu se’ (Five Colours) was coined: GRUE (qing) was associated with spring, East and Wood, red (chi) represented summer, South and Fire, white (bai) was the colour of autumn, West and Metal, black (hei) related to winter, North and Water, yellow (huang) was the colour of the special season, the end of the summer, the time of ripening grain, and therefore was associated with the ‘Middle’ and Soil. The existence of the set of these five colours is also confirmed by the archaeological discoveries. However, the explanatory dictionary of graphic etymology Shuowen jiezi (ca.100 AD) limits the description of the above lexemes only as the colours of the relevant Directions.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEssays in Global Color History: Interpreting the Ancient Spectrum
EditorsRachael Goldman
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • colour categorization, colour names, Chinese wuxing theory


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