The symbolism of colors

Visitors to Korea soon notice the predominance of intense primary colors in the painting that decorates temples and palace buildings, on traditional clothing and accessories, and on handicrafts. The colors are combined in ways hat may appear clashing or garish to the Western or the Japanese eye. Nevertheless, the choice of colors is not haphazard but is based on a somewhat complicated system of symbolism, and an attentive observer will guickly spot certain patterns and combinations that are used over and over.


Colorful doncheong painting decorates nearly all traditional government buildings, temples, shrines, and pavilions. It serves not only to decorate but also to protect the wooden structures from weathering.

Like their Chinese neighbors, Koreans traditionally classify all colors under five primary ones. Two of these primary colors are black and white. Black includes the darker shades of gray, and white embraces also the transparency of crystal and glass as well as silver metallic colors. Although all modern Koreans are well acqainted with the Western division of the spectrum into the seven colors of the rainbow, the traditional classification lumps the spectral colors and their various mixtures into three groups. One of these groups, called parang (파랑) in Korean, includes all shades of green and blue. This is not to say that Koreans are incapable of distinguishing green from blue — far from it, they have a richly varied vocabulary for describing colors. Another group, called norang (노랑), comprises the yellows and earthy browns. The third group, called ppalgang (빨강), is a catchall for the various reds, oranges, vermilions, and reddish browns.

Since ancient times in both the East and the West, mankind has sought to relate everything in the cosmos to everything else in a coherent system of symbolic correspondences. The notes of the scale were related to the structure of the heavens in the theory of the music of the spheres. Each of the signs of the zodiac was thought to govern a specific part of the human body. The colors were seen to correspond to the planets, the divisions of the calendar, personality traits, and so on. Even medical diagnosis and treatment was often based on such correspondences, the doctor comparing the colorations of the complexion, the eyes, the tongue, and so on with the influences indicated by the patient's horoscope.

Although in the analytical, scientific West such systems of correspondences have for the most part been put aside, they remain very much a part of traditional culture in China and Korea. In Korea in particular, color plays a fundamental symbolic role in clothing, crafts, and both religious and secular art. In old Korea, the colors of official banners, uniforms, royal garments, and many other things were selected on the basis of their symbolic connections. A person's rank or social status could usually be determined by observing the color of his clothing and its accessories, and sometimes the court issued decrees ordering the citizenry to don only certain hues.

Basic to the Korean system of correspondences is the relationship of the five color groups to the five cardinal directions, which is why the five primary colors are generally referred to as obangsaek (오방색 五方色), or 'five-direction colors.' In the Orient, the center is included as a cardinal direction along with the points of the compass. The color black corresponds to the north, blue and green to the east, red to the south, and white to the west. The yellows and browns belong to the center. All the colors have both positive and negative meanings, which are seen as complementary in Oriental philosophy.

As the color of the north, which is guarded by the Black Tortoise (현무 玄武), black is related to winter and its long, dark nights. It is often regarded as a color of evil and death, but is also associated with the disintegration of the old in preparation for the emergence of something new. Sometimes black is thought to stand for youth because in the Orient everyone has dark hair when young. Black is also associated with poverty and with frugality and modesty. Of the five basic emotions, black stands for sadness, but it also represents the virtue of wisdom. Black's element is water, and it rules the kidneys. The black planet is Mercury, and thus black is Wednesday's color. As a taste, black stands for saltiness.

The Black Tortoise

The Black Tortoise is the guardian of the north.

As you might guess, the blues and greens are associated with spring, new beginnings, and everything that goes with them: initiative, adolescence, exuberant creativity, and organic growth. They are also associated with youthful folly and inexperience as well as sexual pursuits. Commoners and low-ranking officials were often required to wear blue or green during the Joseon Dynasty (조선 朝鮮), while those with higher rank wore red garb. The Blue Dragon (청룡 靑龍) is the guardian of the east, and blue is the color of benevolence and kindness. Blues and greens correspond with happiness, the liver, wood and growing plants, and sour or acidic foods. Jupiter is the planet of blues and greens and these colors govern Thursdays.

The Blue Dragon

The Blue Dragon is the guardian of the east.

The reds, which include maroons and reddish browns, belong to summer and lush growth. They represent the culmination of solar energy, fire and heat. Reds govern etiquette, the sense of smell, bitter-tasting foods, speech and communication (and therefore writing and literature, as well). These colors rule the tongue, the heart, and the small intestines. Red is the color of Mars and thus governs Tuesdays. The Vermilion Bird (주작 朱雀) is the guardian of the south.

The Vermilion Bird

The Vermilion Bird is the guardian of the south.

White is the color of completion, of harvesting the fully ripened crops. It is the color of autumn, of joy and pleasure, of entertaining and having fun. White represents sounds and music, justice and righteousness. It is also the color of mourning. The White Tiger (백호 白虎) is the guardian of the west. White's planet is Venus and therefore rules Fridays.

The White Tiger

The White Tiger is the guardian of the west. This painting is by master artist Seon Seung-bok, who is renowned for his many beautiful paintings of tigers.

The yellows and earthy browns are the colors of kings and emperors because the monarch rules his land from a central position. These are the colors of stability, balance, thought, and trust. Fragrances and sweet-tasting foods belong with the yellows, which also govern the stomach. Interestingly, there is no governing mythical animal to guard the center—the king or emperor himself has that duty. The yellow planet is Saturn and therefore yellow is the color of Saturdays.

A royal marching band

A reenactment of a royal parade of the Joseon Dynasty, featuring a marching band dressed in yellow, the color that symbolized the king.

There are many more associations than I could not include in such a short column, but perhaps this was enough to give you some idea of just how full of meaning the traditional use of colors is.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Korea Herald on 10 April 2000.