Color symbolism for oriental rugs

From materials to the colouring of them!
A charming pursuit, and one that has always had about it a mysterious
fascination, and in some cases almost a supernatural element!

To steal from flower, leaf, and root that
which has made it a thing of distinctive beauty ; to match the rainbow
tints which of all marvels seem the greatest ; to acquire from nature
secrets that seem past finding out ; to wait upon ripening fruit for exactly
the right mellowness and hue of its rine,— is to so associate the
human with the Divine that a colour-maker and a colour-mixer among primitive
peoples was considered gifted beyond others of the clan.

What wonder that gems, and rocks, and ores,
the most enduring of things created, suggested most beautiful colour schemes,
and, as such, both the gems and their colours became sacred. So when,
in the form of ” totem,” or ” idol,” the thing worshipped
was personified, it was of course made of appropriate material and colour.

This we find exemplified perhaps in jade
more truly than in anything else,— jade, that substance so idolised
by the Chinese that everything concerning it is governed by regulations
which control even the smallest details. Jade (yu), as a standard for
character, has been likened to virtue, the high value attached to it by
all proves it to be truth.

Its polish and brilliancy suggest honesty,
its compactness accuracy, its sharp angles justice, and its pearl-like
pendants politeness, while its pure sound when struck suggests music,
and the fact that all internal cracks are visible from the outside prove
its sincerity. ” Its lustre is permanency, its substance represents
the Earth, and its scheme of colour, one shade not obscuring another,
proves its loyalty.”

The colours of jade vary, but not so the
Chinese use of them. Absolute fidelity to tradition marks the colour scheme
of the Mongolian, and in the life of no other people can we better trace
back the beginnings of colour-worship than among the Chinese.

Our study of colour to-day in India, Persia,
and Turkey is of what, in spite of overturned governments and alien influences,
has survived, but with the loss of the absolute quality which characterises
adherence to tradition in a country like China, a living country to-day
without break in its legend or history. Mongolian thought has left its
impress on the art of the entire Orient, and a study of the rugs and textiles
of China, and especially of such as show Buddhist thought, throws great
light upon many of the Eastern combinations and shadings.

Originally, without any doubt, all peoples
attributed to the elements great powers of control of human life and conduct
; and to the five elements, earth, water, fire, air, and ether (or the
beyond), were given significant forms and colours. These have regular
precedence in the primitive art of all nations, though not enough definite
proof exists for us to claim and demonstrate this fact save in Chinese
art. It seems to have been an early idea that forces should be personified,
and given various powers and attributes.

A sort of nursery tale method of teaching
the control of one force by another has led to a theory which is somewhat
as follows: Earth (yellow) exists, and is conquered by the wood (green)
which grows upon it. The destroyer, metal (white), is used to conquer
wood by cutting it down. Metal in turn submissively yields itself to the
heat of the fire (red) and only water (black) can subdue flame. This reasoning
led to a primitive use of colours that obtains to-day, and may be detected
in ceremonial objects of the far East.

Colour controls everything even now in China,
the imperial yellow most often alluded to as a Chinese colour being the
very last note of a scale which had its beginning in past centuries. During
the present dynasty yellow has been used by the Emperor, and in varying
shades has been allowed to princes of high rank, but the adherence to
old custom was observed in its selection and adoption. ”

On the accession of a new dynasty, one of
the five elements is always chosen as a symbol and affected as a colour,”
and it is thought by many that to this system, which has endured through
thousands of years, may be traced the possible origin of ” national

We cannot expect, even in so old a country
as China, where laws and regulations have been established for centuries,
to find these elemental thoughts in their primitive purity, but they have
so influenced the past that no history of colour would be complete without
recognition of these great underlying truths. Were this a study of symbolism
we should consider the relation of other peoples toward colour-demonstration
of their beliefs, but it is only by way of suggestion that the foregoing
hints have been given.

The obtaining of colours from natural sources
has always been the chief glory of the Oriental craftsman, who thus secured
what we term ” fast ” or fixed shades. Certain of these were
known, and could be made by following formulae, but many others were the
result of accident and could not be developed at will.

There were few places where the custom was
unknown of making holes in the beds of brooks during the dry season, into
which, when the rain fell, all sorts of vegetable and mineral substances
were deposited and left to act upon each other until, when again the dry
season arrived, the contents of the holes were removed by the dyers, who,
grinding all together indiscriminately, made shades which vied with the
pigeon’s breast in beauty, and with the clouds of sunset in variety.

Little care was taken in old times in the
preparation of hair and wool, one lot being dyed in a pot that had been
previously used, and in which some of the dye still remained to tint,
without intention, the next colour employed. A beautiful softness was
the result of this carelessness, and the reds and blues were rarely of
the same shade throughout.

Whatever is to be said about present methods,
and the disastrous effects of aniline dyes, we may speak with absolute
authority about the past. Old rugs made by people who dyed their wools
with vegetable dyes prepared according to traditional recipes have a beauty
all their own, which entitles them to our respect and enthusiastic appreciation.

Colour has been handled in widely differing
ways, and it is wrong and leads to erroneous conclusions to attempt to
interpret the ideas demonstrated in one part of the world, by the key
to mysteries elsewhere.

Hence it is apparent that the Churchman,
however thoroughly he understands and adheres to ecclesiastical symbolism,
could not make the slightest use of such knowledge in the interpretation
of Oriental colours. Nor would a thorough comprehension of the Chinese
use of the same colours as those made by the American Indians serve to
enlighten the student who has discovered the similarity of intent that
causes both the Indian and the Mongolian to endow all natural forces with
form and colour.

An important table has been furnished by
Mr. Stewart Culin, director of the Museum of Archaeology of the University
of Pennsylvania, which he offers us for purposes of comparison with the
Chinese classifications, taken from ” Mayer’s Chinese Reader’s Manual.”

Chinese direction and colour symbolism

Directions Seasons Colours Elements Planets Metals
North Winter Black Water Mercury Iron
East Spring Green Wood Jupiter Lead, tin
South Summer Red Fire Mars Copper
West Autumn White Metal Venus Silver
Middle Yellow Earth Saturn Gold

Zuni Indian colour symbolism, etc

Directions Seasons Colours Elements
North Winter Yellow Air (wind or breath)
West Spring Blue Water
South Summer Red Fire
East Autumn White Earth (seeds of)
Upper Day Many-colour Waking, or life condition
Lower Night Black Sleeping, or death condition
Middle Year All colours All elements and conditions

will materially help us to detect similarity of method, and deference
paid by primitive thinkers to situations and conditions that are not always
emphasised when civilisation has advanced.

“The five directions” have each
one of them been associated with a colour among early art-workers, who
include the ” centre ” or ” middle ” as one of the
directions, this personal relation to the universe being characteristic
of all primitive belief. Standing at the centre, the colour yellow, or
the earth, fortifies the individual whose needs call for protection.

  • From the cold North come winter, water,
    and the colour black.
  • From the East comes the gracious sunlight,
    bringing spring, wood, and the colour green.
  • From the South come fire, summer, and
    the colour red.
  • From the West come autumn, metals, and
    the colour white. The Zuni Indian adds to his divisions “upper”
    and ” lower,” giving various colours to the ” above,”
    and black to the lower regions and to oblivion.

With these extreme cases it is easy to demonstrate
the relation of colour to the thought life of all the peoples of the earth,
and the undesirability of touching too lightly so important a subject.
Our observations should and will lead us to a recognition of the facts
that seem to have evolved from human ingenuity and effort to comprehend
natural phenomena, and we finally find ourselves equipped with an intelligent
system with which we may approach the rainbow-tinted textiles of the Orient.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *