Beijing's Five Architectural Colors, and the Symbolism Behind Them

It sometimes seems like the dominant color in Beijing is “Socialist Taupe.” The streets. The bricks. The roads. Getting away from the gray and the beige is hard.

That wasn’t always the case. In imperial times, builders and architects relied on five colors to add life to their creations: red, yellow, blue, white, and (yes) gray. 

These colors were not just aesthetic choices; each was associated with a complex schematic that involved everything from astrology and metaphysics to food and medicine: 五行 wǔxíng. This concept sought to explain all phenomenon as an interaction between five different elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Later each element became associated with different colors, which then became the dominant palette in Chinese architecture.