Obangsaek: What Traditional Colors Mean in Korea

Obangsaek (Obangsaek, mean five-position-color) is the color scheme of the five Korean traditional colors white, black, blue, yellow and red. In Korean traditional arts and patterns, Obangsaek colors represent five cardinal directions: [1] Obangsaek theory is a combination of Five Elements and Five Colors theory and originated in China.

  • Blue: east
  • Red: south
  • Yellow: center
  • White: west
  • Black: north

They are also associated with the Five Elements of traditional Korean culture:

Color symbolism in Korea is influenced by several factors, including religion and philosophy, Yin and Yang, Buddhism, Confucianism, as well as the Five Elements. Western influences and international trends have, however, led to many changes in this traditional symbolism over the past few decades.

Use of Colors in Korean History

Color symbolism in traditional Korean culture was mainly influenced by the different dynasties and eras. Joseon Dynasty, which lasted for five centuries, from 1392 to 1897, is particularly noteworthy.

It can be summarized that colors played an important role in the rich history of Korea, with two main characteristics: the use of white and other natural colors not bleached or dyed, and the use of five primary colors called obangsaek: white, blue, black, red, and yellow. Nature provided the colors – fire, water, trees, gold, silver, and earth.

The Five Traditional Colors and their Variants

Each of the colors of obangsaek has its own significance. 

1. White

Purity, innocence, rectitude and temperance. Since long ago, white has been associated with purity and temperance, i.e., a ‘clean state of mind without greed’. The concept of colorlessness has been closely associated with the Korean people since ancient times, as they have been called “Baeguiminjok” (white-clad people) by foreigners. White porcelain also represents the rectitude and integrity of the scholars of the Joseon Dynasty through its beauty of purity and temperance.

2. Black

Death, darkness, formality, dignity and rules. Black has been associated with negative connotations, such as night, death, darkness, etc. However, the black official attire of the Joseon Dynasty was meant to represent ‘formality’ and ‘dignity,’ and through the simplified black official attire and school uniforms worn after the Japanese occupation, it is also understood to represent ‘institutions’ and ‘rules.’ On the other hand, black today is favored for its perception as a color that represents ‘exclusivity’ and ‘chic,’ ridding itself of its gloomy nuances. 

3. Red

Authoritarianism, exorcism, pursuit of happiness, anti-communism, cohesion, and solidarity. The color red has long been believed to have shamanic properties to ward off evil spirits or bad luck. As a protection against bad energy, people have used red in writing amulets, dyed their fingernails with garden balsam, or eaten red bean soup (Patjuk). Red gained a negative connotation after the Korean War, but has recently become a symbol of passion and a color that promotes social cohesion since the 2002 World Cup.

4. Blue

Youth, spring, hope, utopia. Blue is a symbol of utopia in East Asian philosophy. Mountain, sea, and sky hues, ranging from light to dark blue, were considered to signify ‘life’ and ‘hope.’ In western culture, this color has been associated with ‘the blues’ in a negative sense, but it has now become a color associated with hope for a brighter future. 

5. Yellow

Holiness, wealth, authority, fertility, warning. A color associated with nobility, dignity, and holiness, yellow is the main color used by the Emperor. It symbolizes the earth soil and fertility since it is the main color of Yin-Yang and Ohaeng (Five Elements of the Universe). It is often used in modern times for children because of its bright and pleasant image, but also as a warning color implying danger because it draws attention.

In addition to obangsaek, ogansaek is another set of five colors which is created by combining each of the colors of obangsaek. Ogansaek colors are made by mixing two obangsaek colors; green (yellow + blue), light blue (blue + white), bright red (red + white), sulphur yellow (yellow + black), and violet (red + black). Even though obangsaek is more representative of Korea’s traditional colors than ogansaek, both of them are harmonious in traditional Korean design.

Ogansaek colors are created by mixing two colors of obangsaek.

Color Symbolism in Korean Politics

The use of colors in Korean politics is a very powerful tool for conveying the right messages to the people, as it is in most other places.

  • The color red reminds people of communism. It is also the color of labor strikes and management disputes.
  • The colors blue and green symbolize stability, honesty, harmony, and growth. The president Myung Bak Lee wore light blue for this reason, as well as to emphasize 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.

Color Symbolism in Early Korean Weddings

The Joseon period was characterized by bright colors such as red, yellow, and blue worn by the people during weddings, festivals, and shamanistic rituals. These colors contributed to a cheerful attitude among the people.

In addition, the bride and groom were allowed to wear bright and vibrant colors – colors that were otherwise restricted to officials. Brides wore green wonsams (ceremonial topcoats) lined with red fabric, while grooms wore blue or green dallyeongs. Couples were also encouraged to wear yellow underwear. Wedding colors 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

Additionally, certain color combinations were extremely important for weddings because they helped balance the Yin and Yang elements. Because of this, red and blue (as seen in the Korean flag) were considered an important combination, with red symbolizing Yang and blue representing Yin.

Choosing red and blue for their wedding attire represents their desire to keep Yin and Yang balanced.

FIFA World Cup and Its Influence on the Popularity of Red Colors in Korea

In the past, the Red had many negative perceptions about Koreans, especially in politics and industry. It was a symbol of communist ideology, riots, labor unions, and unrest. The 2002 World Cup (Korea-Japan) however changed the color’s symbolic meaning, and it became the color of vitality, energy, joy, and festivity. Red is now believed to evoke passion and excitement in people and unite them in oneness.

Marketing Strategies

The colors red, purple, and black have become symbols of Korean luxury and high quality. Businesses use these colors in their marketing materials, logos, brochures, business cards, etc., since they are supposed to increase sales and profits.

Conclusion

Korea’s color symbolism has changed greatly over the past few decades. We can learn about the Korean way of living and thinking through studying these changes and trends, as well as the people’s aesthetic sensibilities.

The combination of traditional elements, western influences, and international trends has given Korean color symbolism a deeply complex meaning today. Several colors have taken on different meanings, primarily red and black. Before, people viewed red as a negative color, especially in politics. Now, it symbolizes hope and unity. Similarly, black is becoming increasingly popular among ‘white clad Koreans’ for its international fashion appeal.

In spite of all these changes, we can hope that future Korean generations will continue to honor the color symbolism handed down by centuries of tradition, and use its symbolic meanings at least in marriages and community rituals.

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Xahra

This is Zahra. I'm in love with different languages and colors. So I decided to be the messenger of the world of colors! Here in Dopely, I write about colors and I like to take you to their world with me.

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