As far as tradition in China is concerned, there is no such thing as a colour system as a Western dictionary would define it. In the Western world,
Chinese tradition regards mankind, society and the world equally, as the objects of a global knowledge — a knowledge which incorporates the macrocosm and the separate microcosms it contains. There are no laws for the Chinese; only models. This distinction is central if Chinese culture is to be understood in the West. At the same time, the Western concept of a spirit separate from matter is inconceivable to the Chinese, to whom the universe is merely a system of behavioural entities which draw no distinction between spirit and matter.
Equivalents are fundamental to Chinese thought, and because there are so many, cataloguing is essential. This also means that areas which to the Chinese are closely associated are subject to strict separation in Western thought: cosmic and social order, philosophy and medicine, geography and nutrition, art and the seasons. To a knowledge oriented towards equivalents, the idea of analogy is of great significance: contrasts are preferred to opposites. At its centre, then, is the reciprocity of terms (alternance) and the references which exist between them (correlation): a “marriage of the gods”, in the sense that human and divine attributes are exchanged. In the
In the illustration, the five basic colours of the Chinese tradition are arranged according to their equivalents:
Red: fire, reaching upwards, corresponds to the south as dictated by the traditional Chinese cardinal points, and coincides with the warm season of summer.
Black: water, delving into the depths, is in the north. Its season, winter, is marked by the absence of water, which at this time gathers in the northern «shallows of the world».
Green: wood, is in the east and relates to spring. Green, the colour of spring, is also the colour of the world of plants.
White: metal, is in the west, with its season autumn with white as its colour — a white with a blue tint. Incidentally, contrary to Western colour-systems, black and white are part of the same circle in Chinese colour-systems.
Yellow: earth. In the code of the five elements, the earth has a carrying, supporting function, and thus also assumes the function of primary source and nutrition: the plants sprout from the earth, from where fire, too, breaks out; metals are extracted from its mines, and water flows from its wells. The earth is the centre — the colour yellow; its taste is sweet, and its aroma is that of perfume. Mankind as the yellow race, the inhabitants of this world, stems from this equivalent.
Two options for interpreting the large illustration are shown in the
The System of Generation is explained in the lower illustration. Its servant Cheng is a «constructor» — an anabolic — and his characteristic is continuity. With this servant as an aid, each element becomes the procreator of its follower and the offspring of its predecessor (and is thus mother or father, and son or daughter). In the system of equivalents, each colour, each animal or each season creates the next, while sustaining the essence of its predecessor.
The armoured animals like the tortoise, which correspond to the north, water and the colour black, procreate the scaled animals like the dragon, which are always green, since these belong to wood and are located in the east. The scaled animals in turn create the fowls and poultry, to which the south and the colour red are ascribed. The feathered birds in turn create the fur-covered animals, such as the tiger or the horse, which are associated with the west, the metals and the colour white.
Water brings forth wood, and wood nourishes the fire. Fire (ash) fertilises the earth, and the earth brings forth metals. Metal creates water.
The Principle of Dominance is shown in the upper illustration. As opposed to Cheng (the servant of dominance), K’ev, is a leveller — a catabolic — and his characteristic is moderation. According to this principle, each element dominates another: the earth sucks up the water; water extinguishes fire; fire melts metal, and metal splits wood. The sequence can no longer be continuous, as is the case with the principle of generation, but merely alternating. The figure thus formed is a star — shaped pentagon with an asymmetric centre. This portrayal illustrates the asymmetry implied by Chinese thought — which prefers the principle of movement to a structure of stability.
For a more complete understanding of the traditional Chinese system of colours, one principle element is still missing, and this is the Chinese term Ts’ing. Ts’ing describes a particular condition of colour, more specifically of two colours: green and blue. In Chinese, the single term Ts’ing refers to both blue and green. Parallel to this term are two further ones: Lu for green and Lan for blue. Naturally, the Chinese have no difficulty in distinguishing between green and blue, although the term Ts’ing could indeed be misconstrued in this respect. Ts’ing means something more sophisticated, namely a specific blue and a specific green, in a specific season under a specific sky. Ts’ing is the green and the blue found in sprouting nature; it is a green-blue that relates to wood and therefore, simultaneously, to the east and to springtime. The quality of Ts’ing relates to that part of the system which connects the elements, the cardinal points, the animals, the parts of the human body and so forth. Ts’ing provides the idea of purity and lightness, and signifies everything that is tender, bright, clear and fine. When related to colours, the quality of Ts’ing signifies their dynamic element, while Lu and Lan represent the static aspect of green and blue. Ts’ing is motion, while Lu and Lan describe a purely geometrical arrangement of colours. Blue and green contain a duality — they are of dual value, but never of dual meaning.
The five colours also contribute to the organisation of the world and its place within the harmony of the cosmos. The world system suggests the idea of a combination of forces or influences and, to an equal degree, the same mechanism — the same interplay — can be transferred to both the physical and the social world. In line with their chosen sequence, the relationships between the five colours can be portrayed in varying ways, and the resultant figure will either be a convex or a star-shaped pentagon.
Here, the question will also arise as to whether the terms for intermediate chromatic hues are known to the Chinese language. Those that do exist are evidence of an historical deterioration in the perception of the material world in favour of a concentration around the five basic colours.
In addition to green, yellow also corresponds to the Ts’ing. From another perspective — that of the physical world — this
Bibliography: J. Needham, «Science and Civilisation in China», Cambridge University Press; Collin A. Ronan, «The shorter Science and Civilisation in China», Cambridge University Press, from 1978; Institut für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften der Chinesischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, «Wissenschaft und Technik im alten China», Birkhäuser, Basel 1989.