Traditionally, Koreans incorporated five cardinal colours into many aspects of daily life and tradition. The cultural integration of colour stems from principles of Eastern religions such as Confucianism and Buddhism. The cardinal colours are associated with the five directions and elements. They often appear in Korean clothing, celebrations, martial arts, architecture, art, food and symbols. A sixth colour, green, has also grown to have cultural significance in Korea.
White is the most commonly used colour in Korea. Koreans were sometimes referred to as "the white clad people." Historically, commoners wore white hanboks, a traditional Korean form of attire. Only royalty and the upper class were permitted to wear colourful hanboks. White is still worn for weddings, new years celebrations and funerals to celebrate the journey to the afterlife. The colour white symbolises purity, innocence, peace and patriotism. Traditionally, white represents the element metal and the direction West.
The colour black is associated with mastery and the ending point of a cycle in Korea. Black represents the darkness after mastery has been achieved, the place beyond light. However, because Koreans believe that everything is based on a balance of opposites, darkness is also necessary as an origin for light. Black corresponds with the element of water and the direction North.
The colour blue is associated with the element wood and the direction East. In the Korean flag, blue symbolises eum or yin, which is cool, feminine energy. Eum energy is associated with the moon and is passive, yielding and receptive. Blue is balanced by red in the Korean flag. While red represents the passionate energy of life, blue represents its opposite, death.
Traditionally red is associated with fire and the southern direction. Red is symbolised by yin energy, which represents masculine energy, the sun and the life force. In the Korean flag, red is balanced by its opposite colour, blue. The colour red also symbolises passion and, historically, it was inappropriate for Koreans to wear the colour red. However, in modern Korea, red is associated with a passion for sports and it is common to wear red to sporting events to show support.
The colour yellow symbolises earth and the centre direction. Yellow represents the starting point for developing knowledge and expanding the mind. As one of the five cardinal colours, yellow was traditionally worn, along with the other four colours, as part of a stripe on Korean clothing. Wearing the five-color stripe was historically thought to give children and royalty protection from evil spirits.
Blue and green were traditionally represented by a single word in Hangul, the Korean language. Western influence brought a change in the view that green and blue are variations of a single colour and separate words for each colour now exist in Hangul. Currently, the colour green symbolises prosperity, a fresh start and auspicious beginnings. Many Korean storefronts are green to draw prosperity and success to the business.
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- "Korea JoongAng Daily"; The Meaning of Colors; Apr., 2007
- Peabody Essex Museum A Teacher's Sourcebook for Korean Art & Culture
- The Colors of the Korean People; Ji Hyun Kim; Sept., 2008
- AsianInfo: The Five Cardinal Colors of Traditional Patterns
- Official Site of Korea Tourism: Overview
- ITA Institute; Meaning of Belt Colors in Korean Martial Arts; James S. Benko, Ph.D.