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Chinese Colour Symbolism: On the Hidden Layers of Yimou Zhang’s Hero (2002) and the Absence of Chinese Colour Theory in the Academic Debate

Svea Hartle



Chinese director Yimou Zhang’s Hero (2002) is a paramount example of the symbolically charged use of colour in contemporary Chinese cinema and especially within the seventh art form of film. (Zhang, 2002) This verdict is based on the film’s ample use of and reliance on Chinese colour symbolism as a narrative device, that adds additional layers of meaning, further enhancing the story.


While colour – as a pigment – was initially a necessity to create an image atop a surface, the understanding of what can constitute a colour has undergone repeated changes over time. As the perception and understanding of colour is naturally dependent on the particular culture, various theories, rules, applications, and cultural readings have developed.


David McCandless’ Colours in Culture (2009)


The history of colour theory – from the ancient writings of Aristotle – is a history of many concepts as well as changes in context, spanning from the philosophical, to the artistic and scientific, to the technological or digital. In addition to this, colour perception per se proves to be a highly subjective phenomenon that differs between individuals, leading to a plethora of moral and emotional evaluations of colours.


Despite its longevity, it could be considered to still being in its infancy as a theoretical field of research which is not only justified by the manageable amount of literature on this topic, but also in regard to the provenance of said literature, which is predominantly of Greek (Aristotle), Italian (Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci), British (Sir Isaac Newton), French (Eugène Chevreul), German (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Josef Albers, and Arthur Schopenhauer), and (Johannes Itten).[1] In its entirety, the theoretical examination of colour seems to be exclusively tied to European schools of thought, sciences, and arts that have sought to understand and better apply the ephemeral and elusive phenomenon that is ‘colour’.


[Although a comprehensive comparison of the entirety of the theorists mentioned above would offer a richer body of investigation, it will have to fall to future examinations of greater scope to further expand on that. For the extent and purpose of the investigation at hand, the paper will thus settle around the writings of Aristotle, Newton, von Goethe, Itten, and Albers in order to provide a coherent notion of the key issues and debate within colour theory in general.

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