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  • Writer's pictureGuy Shababo

Thinking in Color

Updated: Jul 2, 2023


Just back from the AKSE where I watched the most exciting panel on colors in Chosŏn. This left me thinking a lot about colors.


Chosŏn was indeed colorful. Colors in medicine, in dresses and in flags, but most of all colors in the writings of people caught my imagination. I am curious to learn about the role of color in philosophical witting. This is one of things where digital tools can really make a difference and allow us a quick overview in a cost effective way.


So, I have decided to demonstrate. To do so I chose Yi Hwang 李滉 (1501-1570) T'oegye 退溪. I chose T'oegye because he was indeed a prolific and influential writer, and because I wrote my very first work on him (I still feel that his prose is somewhat easier for me to decipher). In case you need it, here below is T'oegye in what is perhaps the most famous portrait in Korea.



T'oegye on the 1000 won bill
Yi Hwang on the 1000 Won Bill

Color in writing can be both concrete and metaphorical. In Analects10:5 for example:


君子不以紺緅飾、紅紫不以爲褻服。當暑、袗、絺、綌、必表而出之。緇衣羔裘、素衣麑裘、黃衣狐裘。褻裘長、短右袂。…
The noble man did not wear decorative cuffs colored violet and puce; for his house clothes, he would not wear red and maroon. During hot weather, he would wear thin, unlined garments made of fine and coarse vine-fiber when he went out. With a black robe he wore a black sheepskin mantle: with an uncolored robe he wore a fawnskin mantle; with a yellow robe he wore a foxskin mantle. His house robe was long, with a short right sleeve...

On the other hand, the vermillion hue that is called cinnabar after the bright red mercury based mineral, is called dan 丹 in Classical Chinese. The cinnabar field or dan chŏn 丹田 is actually the energy field at the solar plexus, a metaphorical color in this case, but one that is central in culture.


So, which colors are more useful for T'oegye, and how do find find this out? To do so, I took T'oegye's corpus, the T'oegyejib 退溪集 (Work of T'oegye) in this case. After minimal cleaning I collected every text that mentions a color name from a short list I made, and created a co-occurrence matrix: A matrix showing how many time each couple of words appeared at the same text. This ended up yielding almost 2,700 words.


The matrix is actually already enough to see some interesting facts. Two different "reds" were extremely popular - hong 紅 which is just "red" and the previously mentioned dan 丹. To these we can add the very useful white 白 and yellow 黃. Each of these four was connected to hundreds of words in multiple connections. For example, the word hong 紅 and san 山 (mountain) had 51 occurrences. My guess is that the main link here is poetry.


The following tier of words with medium importance included the greens: nok 綠 or general green, pi 碧 for jade-green, and choi 翠 for grass-green. Tailing behind were chŏk 赤 or scarlet, nam 藍 or indigo-blue, hŭk 黑 or black and ŭn 殷 which is deep dark red but also an old word for thunder. Here below is the beginning of the very long matrix:


A co-occurrences matrix in T'oegyejib
Colors and other words

The main problem in this kind of table is that it is quite difficult to see what is going on. We can/should further analyze it, but for the purpose of an overview this is way too much work. Instead, I took the entire matrix (here in the form of a worksheet) and ran it through a network analysis software (Visone). Here I am cheating a little bit: Since some the color-words have hundreds of links, while others but a few, I only took the few most linked words for each color word. That is to say: The full network is very dense and crowded. This is what the initial network looks like (the number on each edge represent the number of links; each node is a word).


A network of colors in T'oegye jib
A network of colors and related words

In this form it is easy to see that words are arranged in separate networks. At the very center, red (hong) is central and connected to many words, and many of the other colors, in dense and heavy edges. The words mountain, wind, life are also central and connected to many colors. Red is a central metaphor, useful for philosophical writing. On the other hand words like white or indigo form the sidelines. They are connected on one side to the main network (white is connected to the greens and reds via the word chun 春 or spring), but also to their own separate sub-networks (which look here like small branches or roots). An example to the later is the link between white and sage (sŏng 聖). White is therefor minor but does have it's own separate uses.


In this stage I can use my color-map as a guide for deeper reading. Now that I can see it I might know what to look for. This is a matter for another post, someday.


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