The Colour of Beijing
Researchers have spent eight years analysing Beijing’s “geography of colours.” Understanding the city’s unique colour palettes helps preserve and protect its ancient features.
Beijing is a city filled with vitality. The first traces of its construction date back to 1000 BC when the Zhou Dynasty (11th century–256 BC) established a city in the area. It is also a city with profound culture, having served as a secondary capital of the Liao Dynasty (AD 916–1125) and the capital of the Jin (1115–1234), Yuan (1276–1368), Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. Its urban planning during each of these periods represented the finest achievements in the planning of ancient Chinese cities.
China's capital city has accumulated extensive and profound culture during its long history which is invaluable in the study of urban layout, historic and cultural blocks, ancient buildings, modern structures and urban landscapes. However, with the rise and fall of each dynasty, many of the vestiges of old Beijing have disappeared as the city rapidly develops.
It is for this reason that Chen Jingyong and his research team have spent eight years analysing Beijing's “geography of colours” and protecting the appearance of this ancient city.
Beijing has 3,000 years of history as a city and 800 years of history as a capital. It is necessary to thoroughly understand the city's history and culture, and explore both the evolution of colour usage and the rules governing it. Only then is it possible to answer the questions of where the city's colours originated and how they should be carried forward.
Beijing was the epitome of urban construction in China during the country's 2,000 years of feudal dynasties. The city's modern urban layout came into being after it served as the capital for the Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Beijing is composed of the Imperial City at its centre, containing palace buildings decorated with yellow tiles and red walls, with different colours being used to symbolise varying ranks. Surrounding the Imperial City is the Inner City and Outer City, which are covered by a network of hutong (lanes) and siheyuan (traditional courtyard residences) with grey tiles and walls. Among these residential houses, buildings decorated in various colours belonging to officials are spread out.
The year 1840 is considered the start of the modern era. At this time, Beijing launched a project to rebuild buildings and blocks which had been destroyed during wars. It was also at this time that buildings with classical western features emerged. For example, the embassies and banks on Dongjiaominxiang and Xijiaominxiang reflected architectural styles in western countries during the early 19th century; and clusters of commercial buildings at Qianmen and Dashilar combined traditional northern Chinese and classic western architectural styles. Later, the Beiyang (Northern Warlords) Government of China renovated the old city walls and constructed the Jingshi Huancheng Railway, which changed the traditional layout of old Beijing. During this period, government departments, schools, churches and hospitals broke with tradition and introduced elements more commonly found in western buildings.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Beijing launched a programme of urban renovation with Tian'anmen as its core to improve the city's functions as the capital. In the following 20 years, many historical buildings were either demolished or renovated, with new buildings emerging to help improve transportation and economic development within the capital. The disappearance of traditional buildings and increase in commercial activities damaged the traditional “yellow tiles and red walls” and “green tiles and grey walls” of the city and the once-neat layout became disordered.
In modern times, many traditional buildings in Beijing suffered because of changes in construction materials and colour palettes. The increased height of new buildings also greatly impacted the city's traditional “geographical colours” and caused serious consequences. Many of the siheyuan and former residences of well-known figures were now gone and important cultural sites had been occupied. The widespread use of new paints, large glass windows, strange contours and advertising signboards could be seen across the city, leading
to the city's traditional demeanour and colour palette disappearing.
Colours are one of the most direct ways people experience a city and the palette of a city mainly depends on the colour of its buildings. For example, people often speak about the “ink-andpastel coloured” buildings when referring to Suzhou in the south of China. As an ancient city, Beijing will lose its soul if its central area loses its traditional colouring.
Colours of Old Beijing
Several years ago, cities across China launched “Urban Colour Planning and Practice Programmes” to cope with problems caused by rapid urban development, such as the disappearance of cities' colour palettes. As an ancient cultural and historic city, Beijing was no exception.
In August 2000, Beijing issued the Regulations on the Management of Building Exteriors for Urban Buildings which proposed the concept of a “composite grey.” In November that year, the Beijing Municipal Commission of City Administration issued a document which recommended colours and patterns for use on the exterior façades of buildings and determined “composite grey” to be the dominant colour. The question is however: “Will this always be the dominant colour?”
As we entered the new era, discussions on Beijing's old colour palette and how to protect it were top of the agenda. In September 2017, the Beijing Urban Master Plan (2016–2035) proposed several projects to develop and carry forward the best parts of traditional Chinese culture. These projects would protect the old city area, central area, and the historic and cultural region of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei Province. The Capital Core Function Area was also identified as a key area in the protection of the city's “urban colours,” ancient charms and modern characteristics.
The “geography of colour” analysis method has been applied in several foreign countries, but is new to China. It is a comprehensive method based on the protection of architectural heritage which examines the “colours” of different cities, influenced by several disciplines including geography and the social humanities.
Factors that affect a place's colour palette include folklore, geography, design, aesthetics and ethics. Urban design and management form a foundation for the study into the causes behind the formation of urban colour in old Beijing. Other factors, such as urban colour planning, architectural colour design, landscape design, greening, industrial design and visual design, were also taken into consideration. Together, they offered theories and practices to help track the colours of this historic city.
This shows that “geography of colour” is a comprehensive discipline that combines geography, colour science, architecture and urban-rural planning. Because of this, members in Chen Jingyong's team come from a wide range of different backgrounds. Chen Jingyong himself has been engaged in teaching and studying various subjects including architecture, environmental design and the protection of architectural heritage. Ruji Xiaoxiao holds a bachelor's degree in environmental design and is currently a postgraduate student studying colour in Buddhist structures and buildings of traditional Chinese time-honoured brands. Zhang Kefan has a Bachelor of Arts in convention and exhibition economy and management, but is now working on ethics and theories related to the geography of colour and its use in temples and ancestral halls. Other members of the team, such as Sun Xiaopeng, Pan Yang and Zhao Shuai, all majored in architectural studies and are now working on the genealogy of colour, buildings in the imperial city and colours of Daoist structures. Finally, Zhang Mengyu holds a BA in urban-rural planning and completed research into the protection of the colour palette of the old Beijing area.
Since 2010, Chen Jingyong has led his team in the in-depth study of the geography of colour in Beijing. At the time, Chen and his team of postgraduates majoring in architecture and design joined a project launched by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage named “2010 Compass Plan Programme— Precision Mapping of the Ancient Taisui Palace in the Temple of Agriculture.” The Temple of Agriculture was included in the fifth batch of Major Historical and Cultural
Sites Protected at the National Level, with the Taisui Palace as its main structure. The team used traditional manual mapping techniques, modern 3D laser scanning and precision-measurement technology, to create accurate maps of the wooden structures, drawings and paintings. The project obtained valuable data on the construction of ancient structures and digital archive information on Taisui Palace. Through material and colour analysis, the team aimed to explore how the city's geography of colour and rules governing it changed when influenced by different environments, light and other objective factors.
The project was a huge and complicated venture. Team members examined roof tiles, columns, brackets, brickwork and drawings, cataloguing their data and carrying out systematic analysis. Chen and his team created a “Geographical Colour Information Management System” database, with data from Taisui Palace used as the first sample. This study into Beijing's “geographical colour” has now been underway for eight years.
Systematic Collection and Research
What the special research series on the geographical colours of Beijing needs to do is to start from the Chinese ritual system centred around colours. From the currently fragmented shades, researchers will measure the original sequence of colours used in the old city and where they appeared. Guided by the new urban master plan of Beijing, the program will continue the traditional use of the “fivecolour system“of the ancient capital. To gain the base of knowledge to make this possible, Chen Jingyong and his team of “Art Troops” started by analysing 30 major historical and cultural blocks as well as the Central Axis region. “The historical features here are almost intact,” said Chen. There is a good foundation from which we can start our search for the historical, cultural and colour context of the old city and reconstruct the five-colour system of the ancient capital.
As mentioned above, features of the ancient capital were formed through a changing process of the times. Therefore, physical geography, human activities and man-made urban factors all had an impact on the final formation of the urban colour palette. Although buildings are the main unit of the city, the study of urban colours did not stop there. Instead, an entire investigation was dedicated to human factors. For example, even buses, taxies, advertising signboards and public facilities were all within the colour measurement study's scope.
In his research, Chen's “Art Troops” followed the requirements of the Beijing City Master Plan (2016-2035). Adhering to the Munsell colour system—an international standard—the team mainly adopted “affixing colourimetry” and “gradation calculations” to measure the colours of more than 3,000 research samples in historical and cultural blocks. The collected colour data were accumulated and logged in a database called the Geographic Colour Information Management System, which facilitated the application of management, collection, analysis and spectrum compilation. The system provided a big data platform for future recognition, study and control of geographical colours.
Before beginning their study, Chen's “Art Troops” defined the factors that affected geographical colours of the old city, whilst also taking into consideration Beijing's urban and rural planning system, and the city's overall conservation needs. Then, in the actual investigation, researchers scouted the city and collected colour features along streets in 30 major historical and cultural blocks as well as the traditional axis area. They analysed six kinds of architectural buildings in addition to landscape greening, pavements, and building facades. Through colour measurement and statistical analysis, the team collected data on geographical colour image elements relating to the history, nature, function, form, size, surface area, material and colour value of buildings as well as their historical context, spatial layout and cultural characteristics. After a comprehensive exploration of geographical colour factors, researchers selected the keynote hues of each block, reflecting its geographical palette, the reference values of other representative colours, and the reference value of the thematic and accent colours. This was compiled to create the geography colour pedigree of historical and cultural blocks as well as other quintessential areas of Beijing.
In the geographical colour pedigree, the old city of Beijing, represented by 30 major historical and cultural blocks as well as the traditional axis area, was classified into five types of colour palettes, including “Palace as the Background,” “Religious
Features,” “Core of an Ancient City,” “Characteristic Features” and “Residential Features.” These five palettes correspond to a five-colour system of green, red, yellow, white and grey that respectively represent “elegance, classics, solemnity, harmony and quietness.”
To be specific, the palette “Palace as the Background” covers 14 blocks including Nanchang Street (literally “South Long Street”) and Beichang Street (“North Long Street”). As the blocks are near the Palace Museum (the Forbidden City), they were influenced by the imperial garden planning. In this area, there are a great deal of landscapes, bodies of water and imperial gardens that are brimming with greens and reds. The theme for its colour palette is “green,” showing the “elegance” in the colour pedigree.
“Religious Features” includes historical and cultural blocks such as the Guozijian (Imperial Academy) area, Fayuan Temple and others. In these areas, the spatial texture of “hutong-siheyuan courtyards” is continued, highlighting important historical buildings such as the Confucius Temple, Guozijian, Yonghe Lamasery, Fayuan Temple and others. Therefore, the theme here is “red,” standing for “classics” in the colour pedigree.
“Core of an Ancient City” involves an area with a geographical palette of the highest historical and cultural values in the ancient capital of Beijing. It is also the concentrated embodiment of the traditional Chinese “etiquette colour.” This area is mainly composed of the traditional axis area and the imperial palace historical and cultural blocks. Therefore, the theme for its geographical colour palette is “yellow,” representing “solemnity” in the colour pedigree.
The “Characteristic Features” area is mainly composed of nine street blocks including Shichahai and Dashilan. It is the area with the most man-made geography features, such as cultural venues, in the ancient city. The theme here is “white,” a symbol of “harmony.”
In the same manner, “Residential Features” are four blocks including Xisibei Toutiao to Batiao (North Lanes 1-8 adjoining West Lane 4) and Zhangzizhong Road. They reflect the traditional residential features of Beijing. In this area, the palette is “grey,” or “quietness,” in the colour pedigree.
“As long as we could find the pedigree and the corresponding reference values of the colour ‘genes,' we had the grounds to identify and control the colours,” said Chen Jingyong. After a statistical analysis and the definition of the colour study elements, the “Art Troops” will give the reference values— hues, brightness and saturation—of the corresponding principal colours, auxiliary colours and embellishment colours for the buildings themselves, the landscape greening and the pavement, to ensure the future coordination and unity of the overall features.
Real Knowledge Comes from Practice
Researchers wanted to identify the socalled colour “genes” and find out the theoretical, traditional and legal basis for identification and control of colour features of the ancient city. To do this required more than just intensive knowledge from “reading 10,000 books.” Real-world knowledge from “walking 10,000 miles” was also necessary.
For a complex, highly integrated discipline like this, the team should first have a solid, profound theoretical foundation. For this reason, Chen and his “Art Troops” held two seminars a week. At the meetings, they shared professional opinions and reported their findings, to bring out their strengths, make up for weaknesses, refine achievements and promote the research project.
The important field research was taken even more meticulously. To improve the database of the Geographic Colour Information Management System for its application in the follow-up collation, research and summary, Chen and his team drew a sample map with all the colour measurement points of the ancient city. They subdivided the survey points and compiled location numbers so that the geographic information of 3,000 survey points can be clearly seen.
These items, including over 1,600 colour cards, spectrophotometers, laser rangefinders, GPRS locators, cameras and notebooks, were the standard field tools of the team members. Before going to the measuring points, the members would do a pre-collecting “warm-up,” which meant a search of relevant information to know the past and the present of the objects. They would also visit the sites beforehand to make sure that information about the sampling points was accurate. This is because “though there was information
for some measuring points on the Internet, when we got to the scene, we found that it had been removed, or had its name changed, or something else made it impossible for the team to get close and collect data,” Chen said. At the collection scene, the team members encountered a variety of difficulties, all of which took time to solve.
At the measuring points, in addition to attaching colour cards to the measuring site for comparison, the team members also needed to record the specifications of the buildings such as widths, depths, heights, and intercolumn distances. Relevant information of architectural components including roofs, beams, columns, doors, windows, stylobates (platforms on which columns are faced, such as a temple floor), and foundations had to be collected as well. In collecting the data, many details required attention. For example, tree shading would change the colour of some buildings. Vegetation also presented different colours in different seasons and weather. Therefore, it was best to take pictures of a facade along the streets in late autumn or early spring, to avoid having lush vegetation block buildings. The team also needed to choose a good location and angle when visiting narrow alleys to avoid an incomplete landscape in pictures.
Even while exercising great care, researchers knew they could still miss features. “The most important thing we do in scientific research is to ensure that the information is accurate,” said Ji Xiaoxiao. “So, a complete facade picture of a certain street is often composed of hundreds of live photos of measuring points. In our research, we took a picture roughly every three or five steps.”
The tremendous workload for field sample data collection has provided a reliable basis for research on colour statistical analysis. However, this was only the beginning. In the follow-up work, the team members needed to collate the data into written reports. In this process, if they found new samples or new information, they needed to follow up on the samples and continue to collect and collate relevant data. In such a repeated process of collecting, comparing, summarising and writing, research on the sample colour data was constantly revised and improved. Sun Xiaopeng, a team member, said that he was responsible for collecting data on geographical colours features of Dongsi and the Xisi neighbourhoods in the Dongcheng District. After countless visits to over 100 measuring points, he was able to, without any exaggeration, remember all the house numbers and the residents living behind them.
After eight years under the leadership of Chen Jingyong, generations of “Art Troops” have optimised and perfected the research on the geographical colours of ancient Beijing on the basis of their predecessors' work and continued with their own stories with the time-honoured capital. As Chen put it, “It's like a relay race where people continue to pick up the baton and run on the track.”
This research has established a framework of geographic colour study, a database called the “Geographical Colour Information Management System” and a geographical colour pedigree. These research results have not only provided the basis for the conservation of the old city of Beijing, but also laid a theoretical and practical foundation for updating colour control. Moreover, it provides a reference for the future management and use of colour in Beijing. The team will soon launch a special exhibition on and off of the campus to show a long scroll of street facades of representative lanes, alleys and hutongs in the historic and cultural blocks of the historical city. With the historical record of the colour trends and colour contrasts of historical buildings in the five- colour system, application of this research will enable more people to feel the genuine colour features of the nation's time-honoured capital.
In the future, the team will continue to carry out sustained thematic research centering on the colours of historical, modern and contemporary buildings as well as landscapes, the environment and human geography. Their efforts will contribute to the construction of Beijing as a capital and a cultural centre, and create a blueprint for building Beijing into a world- class harmonious, liveable capital city.
A member of Chen Jingyong’s team compares the colours on a beam with different coloured swatches.
Chen Jingyong (middle) and two members of his team compile Beijing’s geographical colour pedigree.
A team member measures a structure in Ditan Park.
The yellow tiles and red walls demonstrate the magnificence of the Forbidden City.