The Yellow Dragon of the Yellow River
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Dragon medallion, 16th century, China. Source: MET (public domain)
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The Yellow Dragon of the Yellow River

The Colour Yellow in China
Aleksandra Woźniak-Marchewka
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The colour yellow is central to Taoist cosmogony – it brings happiness and for centuries has been considered the colour of the emperor. At the same time, it connotes death and decline… How did the Chinese manage to contain so many different meanings in a single colour?

In the year 2500 BCE, one of the five legendary Chinese emperors ruled in the Yellow River Delta: the Yellow Emperor. He was the one that laid the groundwork for the development of the entire civilization. In addition to the basic methods of traditional Chinese medicine, he also invented the potter’s wheel, writing and mathematics. From that point onwards, the country established in the meanders of the Yellow River grew in power, while its culture flourished… It is true that there is no evidence to support this story, but it can be clearly seen that the colour yellow is of prime importance for the Chinese. For many centuries, it was reserved for the emperor and represented good fortune. But, as it turns out, it has its darker side, too.

Let’s first look at the hierarchy of colours. The Chinese divided them into two groups: basic (zhengse) and intermediary (jianse) colours. The former hold positive associations, while the latter hold negative ones. Traditionally, the Chinese recognize five basic colours: bai (white), hei (black), chi (red), qing (green-blue, dark blue) and huang (yellow). Their shared name is wucai. To better understand

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Qi (气) is like air: we can’t see it, but we wouldn’t be able to live without it. The life force, vitality, inner fire, life-giving breath – none of these terms render tangible its significance and versatility. In Chinese philosophy, it is viewed as a force representing the essence of life.

I understood that it exists thanks to acupuncture, which relives pain by balancing the flow of qi in the body. I sprained my shoulder while carrying a scooter up the long stairs of the Beijing metro. A young doctor working at the local hospital asked me to lie down on a couch separated by a thin curtain from the rest of the room. She inserted a few needles into my body and stimulated them with low-voltage for a better effect. It didn’t hurt, since she managed to accurately locate the acupuncture points instead of searching for them endlessly. I was prepared for 10 sessions. After 30 minutes, she said we were done. The same evening the pain in my shoulder suddenly went away.

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