Korean color symbolism has been influenced by several factors, such as the systems of religion and thought, Yin and Yang, Buddhism, Confucianism, as well as the Five Elements. However, this traditional symbolism has undergone many changes over the past few decades thanks to western influences and international trends.
Since we have a lot of ground to cover, let us dive straight into the symbols of colors reflected in traditional Korean culture.
Use of colors in Korean history
Traditional Korean color symbolism was governed mainly by the different dynasties and era. Of particular importance is the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted for five centuries, from 1392 to 1897.
The use of colors in the rich history of Korea can be summarized as having two main characteristics: the focus on the use of white and other natural colors that were not bleached or dyed, and the other, the use of 5 of the Korean primary colors called obangsaek: white, blue, black, red, and yellow. These colors were derived from the natural elements in the environment – fire, water, trees, precious metals (gold and silver), and the earth.
Importance of white in Korea
Tremendous importance is given to the meaning of white in traditional Korean color symbolism, particularly due to its relation to the harvest ceremony and the sun. It is little wonder that the color white has appeared extensively in Korean mythological tales and legends.
Till date, Koreans are known to prefer wearing white clothes, and have done so for thousands of years to the extent that it has earned them the moniker of ‘white-clad Koreans’.
To ancient Koreans, the color white represented the starting point, the origin, and the very foundation of humanity. They believed that white was the most basic symbol. This explains their preference for wearing white clothes, something that has become a distinct characteristic of the Korean people.
Koreans devoutly believe white to be a symbol of purity, cleanliness, and humility, and its usage implies devotion to all things natural, pure, and non-decorative.
During the Joseon period, scholars who followed Confucius were known to wear white robes having black trimming to visually express and honor the scholar’s asceticism. Here, black and white represent harmony while white symbolizes purity, knowledge, and innocence.
The use of black and white also represents calmness and serenity of the atmosphere. Some believe that this color choice is linked to the symbolism of crane birds that were not caught up in worldly desires, but glide peacefully in the skies with grace, honor, and unyielding spirit.
Traditional color symbolism in early Korean weddings
During the Joseon period, people wore bright colors like red, yellow, and blue during weddings, festivals, and shamanistic rites performed for the benefit of the community. These colors helped announce the people’s cheerful mood to the whole world.
The bride and groom were also allowed to adorn bright and vibrant colors – colors that were otherwise restricted to officials. Brides, in particular, wore green wonsams (ceremonial topcoat) lined with red fabric, while the grooms wore blue or green dallyeongs. The couple-to-be was also encouraged to wear yellow colored underclothes. In this sense, the colors used in weddings were symbolic of the following:
- Red – worn by the bride is a prosperous color that represents fire.
- Yellow – worn by both bride and groom and represents the earth.
Yin and Yang
In addition to these colors, certain color combinations were very important to have at weddings because they helped balance Yin and Yang elements. That is why red and blue (which are also seen in the Korean flag) were considered an important pairing with red representing the male or Yang and blue symbolizing Yin or the female.
When a couple-to-be chose red and blue for their wedding attire, it represented their willingness and longing to keep Yin and Yang balanced.
Apart from the yin and yang concept, blue and red also belonged to the five primary colors, which are very important to the Korean people because they symbolize the cardinal directions.
Blue and red symbolized life itself as they respectively represented south and east, which receive solar energy. That is why people believed that choosing red and blue in weddings would chase away negative energy and spirits.
Color restrictions in Joseon-era Korea according to status
Ladies of status or those in the courts had to follow court color restrictions as shown below (in the wonsam or topcoat):
- Empress – Yellow
- Queen – Red
- Princess – Purplish red
- Wives of officials – Green
Exceptions to the above color restrictions were shamans, female entertainers, and kids. These people were allowed to wear colors as per their statuses. Another exception to this dress code was birthdays, weddings, holidays, and special events.
Changes in color symbolism in contemporary times
Quite surprisingly, the use of color for depicting status or identity still takes place in modern times in different ways. The difference here is that in the past, colors of clothes showed position in court or academia. Today, colors represent brands, colleges, occupations, genders, and companies.
Just as in the west, babies clothing is seen mainly in pink and light blue colors for girls and boys.
In modern Korean weddings, the groom’s mother is expected to wear a blue hanbok (a 2-piece traditional dress), whereas the bride’s mother is to wear a pink hanbok. This practice has been weakening a bit for the last 20 years and many women simply choose what colors they want to wear.
College graduation gowns
Thanks to the introduction of the western education system, many universities encourage the use of black graduation gowns having different colors based on the student’s academic major subject:
- Orange – represents engineering majors
- Light blue – different educational majors
- White – liberal arts
Just like in the west, Korean judiciary officials also wear black gowns. The color black was chosen for its symbolic representation of power, dignity, and authority. By 1998, a few design changes were implemented in the judiciary black gowns and they were embellished with purple jacquards for emphasis on traditional Korean beauty.
Influence of international trends
Traditionally, Koreans thought of gray, taupe, beige, and brown as ‘unclean’ colors. However, thanks to movies, western trends, globalization, and interrelationships with other countries, trench coats in these colors have now become popular. Black has also been accepted as the color that symbolizes the west and modernism.
Reemergence of black
The white-clad Koreans are now increasingly favoring black suits for formal events, business meetings, award ceremonies, weddings, school uniforms, and funerals. Black clothing now represents an avant-garde, noble, elegant, and fashion-forward image. Entertainers and businessmen alike are selecting black because of the color’s ability to represent elegance, sophistication, and high-class.
Korean singles black day
April 14th is celebrated by Korean singles as Korea’s Black Day. These are the people who haven’t received any gifts on February 14th (Valentine’s Day) and on March 14th (Japan’s equivalent of Valentine’s Day, also called White Day). On Black Day, Korean singles wear black nail-polish, black clothes, black lipstick, and eat noodles made with black bean paste.
Color symbolism in Korean politics
As in most other places of the world, colors are a very powerful tool used in Korean politics for delivering the right messages to the people.
- Red – reminds people of communism. It is also the color of labor strikes and management disputes.
- Blue and green represent stability, honesty, harmony, and growth. President Myung Bak Lee often wore light blue for this very meaning along with emphasis on economic growth.
- Vivid yellow – this happens to be the most successful political color in Korea. Two former presidents (Moo-Hyun Roh and Dae-Jung Kim) chose this color to emphasize a message of hope and peace.
FIFA World Cup and its influence on the popularity of red colors in Korea
Red had many negative perceptions in the past for Koreans, especially in politics and industry. Mainly, it symbolized the communist ideology, riots, labor unions, and unrest. However, the FIFA world cup of 2002 (Korea-Japan) gave the color a whole different symbolic meaning, and it started being viewed as the color of vitality, energy, joy, and festivity. Koreans now believe that red evokes passion and excitement in people and connects them in oneness.
Red, purple, and black have become representative of Korean luxury and high-quality. Many businesses use these colors in their marketing materials, logos, brochures, business cards, etc. as they are supposed to boost sales and profits.
Color symbolism in Korea has changed a great deal over the past few decades. A study of these changes and trends provide us with an opportunity to understand the Korean way of living and thinking, as well as the people’s aesthetic consciousness.
Thanks to the mix of traditional elements, western influence, and international trends, Korean color symbolism has acquired a deeply complex meaning today. Several colors have taken on different connotations, primarily red and black. Red, especially in politics, was viewed upon as a negative color before. Today, it has become a color of hope and unity. Similarly, black is increasingly being favored by the ‘white clad Koreans’ for its international fashion appeal.
Despite all these changes, we can hope that future Korean generations continue to honor the color symbolism laid down by centuries of tradition, and utilize their symbolic meanings at least in weddings and community rituals.