When Something is so Red, it is Purple: Purple in Chinese & Japanese Symbology

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Colours are powerful symbols in their own right and colour symbolism is found in every age and every culture. I have previously published Pontifex Maximus & The Imperial Purple of Rome, about the association of purple with Roman imperial rank. But what about China & Japan? What does purple mean in traditional Chinese & Japanese cultures?

For the Chinese, purple had royal and imperial connotations, although it was secondary to yellow and the Emperor himself wore yellow as a symbol of him being the centre. This is based on Chinese Alchemy. It counted five elements (fire, water, wood, metal, earth), as opposed to the traditional four of the West, even if the latter was completed with the "quintessence" and practically changed to five. Thus Chinese metaphysics added a "centre" to the four Cardinal points, actually making them five, as everything was five, even their music was pentatonic; and the colour system was made of five colours: red, green, black, white, and yellow.

Wood corresponds to green; East; spring.

Fire corresponds to red; South; summer.

Metal corresponds to white; West; autumn.

Water corresponds to black; North; winter.

The fifth element is Earth, which corresponds to yellow; centre.

Imperial officials, however, wore different colours according to their rank and purple was second only to yellow. When the prime minster, for instance, wore a purple robe held together with a yellow/golden ribbon, it symbolised his powerful rank.

If someone wore a purple ribbon, something that could be bestowed only by the emperor himself, he was inviolate, untouchable. Touching him would be to touch the emperor, and that did mean death.

The Forbidden City in Beijing, the Imperial Residence, was sometimes referred to as the Purple City. Its design was based on Feng Shu and Lagerstroemia astrology/Zi Wei Dou Shu. The latter is a branch of Chinese astrology that is sometimes called Purple Star Astrology.

Zi Wei is crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia), its colour is purple, it is also the name of the Emperor Star, or the Purple Star, purple denotes the king/emperor.

Dou is the Big Dipper constellation, and Shu means calculation. Some sources claim Zi Wei to be Rosa multiflora, also purple in colour, which referred to the North Star. Being the brightest star in the sky, it is the same as the one the Chinese call the Emperor Star. That zi wei is myrtle, however, cannot be questioned. Identifying it with a rose, albeit a purple one, is, as far as I can understand it, completely wrong. It would also be inconsistent with the fact that a rose in Chinese symbology has very negative connotations.

There is a saying, 紫氣東來, which means "propitious omens", or literally “purple Qi coming from the east”. This is because the sun rises from the east. In TMC [Traditional Chinese Medicine], sunlight is good for the health when the sun looks like an egg yolk (sunrise and sunset). The east also symbolises good. The queen, the emperor’s first official wife, had her room located in the east, while the second official wife was in the west.

Finally, for the Chinese red symbolises good, and when something is too red it turns to purple. Thus purple is better than good, it is the best. That is what is behind the saying "When something is so red, it is purple."

It is tempting to believe in a connection of the association of purple with emperors or rulers in both East and West, but I have not found anything indicating that the meanings of purple in Chinese symbology would in any way be related to the tradition of purple in the Middle East and Europe.

In Japan, Purple, murasaki (紫), has been reserved for rulers or high-ranking people throughout history. Exactly who was allowed to wear it varies slightly between periods, but it was always reserved for the elite. During the Edo period, also common people started carefully to use it on the linings of their dresses.

As well the Chinese as the Japanese extracted purple from the root of a plant, purple gromwell [Japanese: shigusa]. One could think that this would provide cheaper purple than the Roman one, extracted from a mollusk. Purple gromwell, however, is very hard to grow, so it was still an expensive and exclusive colour.

(This article is partly based on material previously published in Meriondho Leo and in my e-booklet “Purple”, 2018.)

Related articles:

Pontifex Maximus & The Imperial Purple of Rome

Purple Earth

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