Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Presented at “Textiles and Settlement: From the Plains Space to Cyber Space,” Textile Society of America 12th Biennial Symposium, Lincoln, Nebraska, October 6-9, 2010. Copyright 2010 Textile Society of America


There existed the yin-yang theory and the five color system, including red, blue, yellow, black and white, in ancient Chinese culture. Each color refers to one of the five directions, east, west, north, south and middle, also one of the five planets, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars and Saturn, as well as one of the five materials, metal, wood, water, fire and earth. This idea was also widely used in the Chinese polychrome woven textiles from the Han dynasty (2c. BC-2c. AD), to the Ming dynasty (14-17c). Based on the analysis of all available samples of polychrome woven silks with cloud pattern from the 1st to the 4th century AD, we found that all those pieces were composed of five colors, namely dark blue, green, yellow, red and white. This applied equally to polychrome silks with 1:2, 1:3 and 1:4 warp-faced compound structure. In addition, Han dynasty documents contain references to wushe jin (silks with five colors). This suggests that the five colors on polychrome silks have a special relationship to the five color system in ancient Chinese philosophy. One important example which strongly supports this hypothesis is a polychrome woven silk bearing the word wuxin (five planets) and five stars with five colors. This five color system on Chinese textiles, slightly different from the five color system in philosophy, uses green instead of black. This tradition was adopted by the weavers of the Tang and even the Ming textiles, demonstrated clearly in the collections of Imperial brocades.