Korean Temple Colors and Designs

CONTRIBUTED BY JANVIKA SHAH

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By the time you’ve spent a few months in Korea, you’re bound to have visited a temple. Every major city has one worth observing or photographing. They are beautiful in all four seasons and offer a place of solitude, unless it’s a Korean holiday when they are teeming with visitors and holiday cheer. By now, I’m sure you have noticed that the eaves, walls and pillars of the traditional wooden temples share a similarity in design and color.

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Dancheong, literally meaning “red and green,” refers to the vibrant five-colored designs found on the temples. Dancheong patterns have three main functions: decoration, preservation (preserving a building’s wood from rotting due to wind, rain, vermin and corrosion,) and spiritual protection (defending the building from evil spirits.)

Korea Temple Colors

Dancheong’s color scheme consists of five basic colors and correspond to five elements: blue, yellow, red, black and white. These five colors are the primary colors used but were often mixed to form others. Blue represents east, the dragon, spring and the element of wood. Yellow signifies the center, the transitions between seasons and the element of Earth. Red symbolizes the south, birds, summer and fire. Black signifies the north, a hyeonmu (an imaginary sacred animal that’s part turtle and part snake) and black. White characterizes the west, a tiger, autumn and the metal, gold. The incorporation of these five colors and matching elements portray the Koreans’ desire for stability and harmony.

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The designs are intricate and whether they are natural, geometric, religious, floral or Chinese in origin, they are rich in symbolism. The most common designs are lotus flowers, circles, triangles, lattice, squares, birds, dragons and the Buddhist symbol 卍. There are also scenes that represent everyday life of farming, fishing, banquet dining and playing musical instruments.

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Dancheong dates back to ancient times and was found on ceremonial altars and even Korean homes. Traces of Danheong can be found on tomb wall paintings from Goguryeo, one of the ancient Three Kingdoms of Korea, and temple sites. The Goguryeo Wall Paintings still impress visitors today and have been designated as a Word Heritage Site by UNESCO.

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