Posted 08 April 2005 - 10:39 PM
The element-colour system was quite complex, because each new dynasty had to take the colour that would succeed the previous dynasty's one in the cycle. In the Western Han, the Conquest Cycle (Xiangke) was used, in which earth (yellow) overcomes wood (blue), which overcomes metal (white), followed by fire (red) and water (black) and then earth again. Hence the sequence was:
Huangdi (Earth, yellow)
Xia (Wood, blue)
Shang (Metal, white)
Zhou (Fire, red)
Qin (Water, black)
Western Han (Earth, yellow) - however, Liu Bang is said to have personally preferred red, and had to be dissuaded from using red by his advisors.
However, Wang Mang reformulated this cycle into the Generation Cycle (Xiangsheng), in which Earth creates Metal, Metal creates Water, Water creates Wood, and Wood creates Earth. This was done so that he could identify himself with Yellow (earth), since he claimed to be a descendant of Huangdi. The sequence then became:
Huangdi (Earth, yellow)
Xia (Metal, white)
Shang (Water, black)
Zhou (Wood, blue)
[Qin not counted because Wang Mang considered it to be evil]
Western Han (Fire, red)
Xin (Earth, Yellow)
Liu Xiu, after founding the Eastern Han, adopted Wang Mang's system and also had prophecies produced identifying himself with fire, showing that he was the legitimate Han emperor. The sequence from then on was:
Eastern Han (Fire, red)
Cao-Wei (Earth, yellow)
Jin (Metal, white) - but for some reason its ruling house preferred red
Later Zhao, Liu-Song and Northern Wei after 492 (Water, black)
Southern Qi and Northern Qi (Wood, blue)
Liang and Sui (Fire, red)
Tang (Earth, Yellow)
By the Age of Fragmentation, the system was breaking down because of the proliferation of states and short-lived dynasties. For example, the Northern Zhou are said to have used black even though they should have succeeded Northern Wei as Wood (blue). The Chen dynasty is also said to have used blue despite succeeding Liang (red) - they should have used yellow. [This information comes from Liu Yonghua's Ancient Chinese Armour book] Furthermore, armies were no longer sticking to the colours of their dynasty, and were basing the colours of their armour and clothing more on fashion. Red and white were popular colours for soldiers throughout the Age of Fragmentation, regardless of the colour of the dynasty. We are also not clear about what colours the various northern Fragmentation states (other than Later Zhao) actually used.
The Northern Wei is an interesting case. They originally took yellow as their colour in 398 because they claimed to be descended from Huangdi. But in 491-492 there was a debate between two Wei ministers, Gao Lu and Li Biao, whether yellow or black should be the right colour.
Gao Lu said that the sequence from the Western Jin onwards should be:
Western Jin (Metal, white)
Later Zhao (Water, black)
Former Yan (Wood, blue)
Former Qin (Fire, red)
Northern Wei (Earth, yellow)
But Li Biao argued that all the states after Western Jin were not legitimate, and therefore Northern Wei should succceed Western Jin as Water (black). 12 other senior ministers supported Li Biao's argument, and the colour of the Northern Wei was changed from yellow to black in 492.
After the Tang dynasty, the element-colour system seems to have been abandoned. Officials were then classified or ranked according to the colour of their robes, rather than all wearing the colour of the dynasty.
The dead have passed beyond our power to honour or dishonour them, but not beyond our ability to try and understand.