Sunday, 20 March 2016

Chinese Red - Temple Vermillion

The moment you take even a step into the Sino-Asiatic world - any part of east Asia with a significant Chinese population or under Chinese influence, or else into your nearest Chinatown - you enter a world coloured with red. It is very conspicuous. The Chinese adore the colour red. It features in all of their adornments, both domestic and public. But it is not just any colour red - it is a very particular type of red. Not fire engine red. Not Santa Claus red. Not Red Cross red. Not communist red, either. No. It is Chinese lantern red. Chinese temple red. It is a particular, unmistakeable shade of red usually identified as "vermillion" or else, in the past, as "cinnabar". See the colour square above for an example. 

There is no official definition of the exact shade but in the sample given above "vermillion" has the Hex value #E34234. Any shade of red near to it will pass as "Chinese red" as we will call it here. You will find it used in a thousand different ways. Red lanterns. Red ribbons. Red signs. Red seals. The present author has recently arrived in the Chinese section of George Town on the Prince of Wales Island and this "Chinese red" is on display everywhere. He recently ate at the "Red Garden Food Paradise" which is literally "Chinese red" from top to bottom - red tables, red chairs, red writing, red uniforms on the waiting staff. Everything in this distinctive "Chinese red". 

The standard explanation for the love of this colour among the Chinese is entirely unsatisfactory. We are told, unhelpfully, that the Chinese regard it as "auspicious" and that it brings "good luck." More detailed explanations are equally uninformative. We are told that it "symbolises fire" and this "represents spring" and the "direction south" and is therefore "lucky" or "auspicious" for this reason. Certainly, the Chinese are given to preoccupations of "luck", but surely something more lies behind the ubiqitous use of red, and this particular red. How do we explain that this red - this "vermillion" - is regarded as "auspicious", and also why it is so completely and comprehensively "auspicious" that the Chinese use it so extensively in all contexts great and small? What is it about this red, this particular red, that renders it so important to the Chinese? In the pictures below we see some examples of its many uses:

Tradition lacquerware

Temple entrance with lanterns 

Row of lanterns

Traditional seal (or "chop")

Chinese wedding 


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The present author offers the following explanation for this characteristically Chinese phenomenon. It is not difficult to piece together the symbolism of this colour in the Chinese tradition:

Until the development of synthetic alternatives, this particular shade of red was traditionally prepared from 'cinnabar', which is to say from Mercury Sulphide (HgS). Cinnabar is a sulphide of mercury that, when ground into a powder, yields a strong, stable permanent red that can be used in paints and lacquers. Good, stable red colourings are relatively rare in nature, so this preparation - a by-product of mining and metallurgy - was especially valued. 

It was not exclusive to the Chinese, though. Cinnabar (the name comes from Greek but is probably Persian in origin) was known and used in other cultures as well.  We see it used as a red ink in medieval European manuscripts, for example, and as a paint used in the murals of Roman Pompei: 

But the Chinese adopted it as their own. The reason for this is that the Chinese tradition - and especially Taoism - is essentially alchemical and cinnabar, as a metallic essence, is a key ingredient in Taoist alchemy. In the Occident alchemy is, and has always been, a peripheral or 'fringe' tradition. In the Chinese spiritual order it is far more central and mainstream. The colour symbolism of 'Chinese red' and its associations with 'good luck' have a basis in and are to be explained by the significance of cinnabar in Chinese alchemy. 

The primary alchemical significance of cinnabar is this: during the mining of gold the miners might encounter 'veins' of red cinnabar (Mercury sulphide)in the bedrock. Gold and cinnabar are often found together. This is because both gold and mercury are heavy metals and such metals tend to be found in the same geological strata. (For the same reason, arsenic and other heavy metals are often found with gold.) 

Thus cinnabar is associated with gold and in the alchemical mythology of gold mining is often called 'Dragon's blood'. Dragons are believed to store and protect gold in their 'lairs' in the womb of the earth. When miners encounter 'veins' of blood-red pigments running through rocks near and around gold deposits they imagine them to be veins of Dragon's blood. This idea is suggested by the word 'vermillion' too, since it comes from the same root as the word 'worm', and a dragon is a 'worm' in many languages. 'Vermillion' means 'the colour of the dragon/worm'. 

The basic idea here is simple and straightforward. Vermillion - dragon's blood - is "lucky" because it signifies the proximity of gold. When a miner encounters cinnabar (dragon's blood) he is in luck, because he knows there is likely to be gold nearby. When he strikes dragon's blood he has struck gold. 

By extension, this colour is associated with gold and with the auric properties of gold in a general sense. Gold here carries its alchemical significance. It is not merely a precious metal valued in terms of wealth; it also signifies spiritual perfection. Accordingly, the Chinese surround themselves with things the colour of 'dragon's blood' because it points to the perfections of gold. Indeed, as we see in the case of the calligraphy illustrated above, we often find the colour gold with 'Chinese red'. Cinnabar/vermillion/dragon's blood goes with gold in Chinese colour symbolism. You can walk into any Chinese temple and see instances of this. 

By understanding these alchemical associations, and by appreciating the inherently alchemical character of the Chinese tradition, we are in a position to appreciate why this particular colour red is so highly regarded by the Chinese. To a large extent, of course, the traditional connections may be forgotten, and so people will merely regard 'Chinese red' as "lucky" in a superstitious way, but the reasons behind the superstition can still be discerned and understood. In effect, the colour signifies gold, as well as all the things that gold itself signifies, especially the spiritual perfection of the 'Golden Race' and such other parallels. It is remarkable that this metallurgic symbolism has persisted and become so pervasive in the Chinese order. Understanding the symbolism of 'Chinese red' is one of the keys to the entire Chinese tradition. 


Harper McAlpine Black

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