Yellow is the color between green and orange on the spectrum of visible light. It is evoked by light with a dominant wavelength of roughly 570–590 nm. It is a primary color in subtractive color systems, used in painting or color printing. In the RGB color model, used to create colors on television and computer screens, yellow is a secondary color made by combining red and green at equal intensity. Carotenoids give the characteristic yellow color to autumn leaves, corn, canaries, daffodils, and lemons, as well as egg yolks, buttercups, and bananas. They absorb light energy and protect plants from photodamage. Sunlight has a slight yellowish hue, due to the surface temperature of the sun.
Because it was widely available, yellow ochre pigment was one of the first colors used in art; the Lascaux cave in France has a painting of a yellow horse 17,000 years old. Ochre and orpiment pigments were used to represent gold and skin color in Egyptian tombs, then in the murals in Roman villas. In the early Christian church, yellow was the color associated with the Pope and the golden keys of the Kingdom, but was also associated with Judas Iscariot and was used to mark heretics. In the 20th century, Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe were forced to wear a yellow star. In China, yellow was the color of the Middle Kingdom, and could be worn only by the Emperor and his household; special guests were welcomed on a yellow carpet.
According to surveys in Europe, Canada, and the United States, yellow is the color people most often associate with amusement, gentleness, humor, and spontaneity, but also with duplicity, envy, jealousy, avarice, and, in the U.S., with cowardice. In Iran it has connotations of pallor/sickness, but also wisdom and connection. In China and many Asian countries, it is seen as the color of happiness, glory, harmony and wisdom.
Symbolism and associations
In the west, yellow is not a well-loved color; in a 2000 survey, only six percent of respondents in Europe and America named it as their favorite color. compared with 45 percent for blue, 15 percent for green, 12 percent for red, and 10 percent for black. For seven percent of respondents, it was their least favorite color. Yellow is the color of ambivalence and contradiction; the color associated with optimism and amusement; but also with betrayal, duplicity, and jealousy. But in China and other parts of Asia, yellow is a color of virtue and nobility.
Yellow has strong historical and cultural associations in China, where it is the color of happiness, glory, and wisdom. In China, there are five directions of the compass; north, south, east, west, and the middle, each with a symbolic color. Yellow signifies the middle. China is called the Middle Kingdom; the palace of the Emperor was considered to be in the exact center of the world.
The legendary first emperor of China was called the Yellow Emperor. The last emperor of China, Puyi (1906–67), described in his memoirs how every object which surrounded him as a child was yellow. “It made me understand from my most tender age that I was of a unique essence, and it instilled in me the consciousness of my ‘celestial nature’ which made me different from every other human.”
The Chinese Emperor was literally considered the child of heaven, with both a political and religious role, both symbolized by yellow. Only members of the Imperial household were permitted to wear yellow. Distinguished visitors were honored with a yellow, not a red, carpet.
In Chinese symbolism, yellow, red and green are masculine colors, while black and white are considered feminine. In the traditional symbolism of the two opposites which complement each other, the yin and yang, the masculine yang is traditionally represented by yellow. Just as there are five elements, five directions and five colors in the Chinese world-view, there are also five seasons; summer, winter, fall, spring, and the end of summer, symbolized by yellow leaves.
Light and reason
Yellow, as the color of sunlight, is commonly associated with warmth. Yellow combined with red symbolized heat and energy. A room painted yellow feels warmer than a room painted white, and a lamp with yellow light seems more natural than a lamp with white light.
As the color of light, yellow is also associated with knowledge and wisdom. In English and many other languages, “brilliant” and “bright” mean intelligent. In Islam, the yellow color of gold symbolizes wisdom. In medieval European symbolism, red symbolized passion, blue symbolized the spiritual, and yellow symbolized reason. In many European universities, yellow gowns and caps are worn by members of the faculty of physical and natural sciences, as yellow is the color of reason and research.
Gold and blond
In ancient Greece and Rome, the gods were often depicted with yellow, or blonde hair; which was described in literature as ‘golden’. The color yellow was associated with the sun gods Helios and Apollo. It was fashionable in ancient Greece for men and women to dye their hair yellow, or to spend time in the sun to bleach it. In ancient Rome, prostitutes were required to bleach their hair, to be easily identified, but it also became a fashionable hair color for aristocratic women, influenced by the exotic blonde hair of many of the newly conquered slaves from Gaul, Britain, and Germany. However, in medieval Europe and later, the word yellow often had negative connotations; associated with betrayal, so yellow hair was more poetically called ‘blond,’ ‘light’, ‘fair,’ or most often “golden”.
Visibility and caution
Yellow is the most visible color from a distance, so it is often used for objects that need to be seen, such as fire engines, road maintenance equipment, school buses and taxicabs. It is also often used for warning signs, since yellow traditionally signals caution, rather than danger. Safety yellow is often used for safety and accident prevention information. A yellow light on a traffic signal means slow down, but not stop. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uses Pantone 116 (a yellow hue) as their standard color implying “general warning,” while the Federal Highway Administration similarly uses yellow to communicate warning or caution on highway signage. A yellow penalty card in a soccer match means warning, but not expulsion.
Optimism and pleasure
Yellow is the color most associated with optimism and pleasure; it is a color designed to attract attention, and is used for amusement. Yellow dresses in fashion are rare, but always associated with gaiety and celebration.
In other cultures
The ancient Maya associated the color yellow with the direction South. The Maya glyph for “yellow” (k’an) also means “precious” or “ripe”.
Yellow” (“giallo”), in Italy, refers to crime stories, both fictional and real. This association began in about 1930, when the first series of crime novels published in Italy had yellow covers.
The Beatles 1966 album Revolver features the No. 1 hit, “Yellow Submarine”. Subsequently, United Artists released an animated film in 1968 called Yellow Submarine, based on the music of the Beatles.
The March 1967 album by Donovan called Mellow Yellow reached number 2 on the U.S. Billboard charts in 1966 and number 8 in the UK in early 1967. The featured song on the album, “Mellow Yellow”, popularized during the Spring of 1967 a widely believed hoax that it was possible to get high by smoking scrapings from the inside of banana peels, although this rumor was actually started in 1966 by Country Joe McDonald.
Coldplay achieved worldwide fame with their 2000 single “Yellow”.
“Yellow River” is a song recorded by the British band Christie in 1970.
The “Yellow River Piano Concerto” is a piano concerto arranged by a collaboration between musicians including Yin Chengzong and Chu Wanghua. Its premiere was in 1969 during the Cultural Revolution.
In the United States, a yellow dog Democrat was a Southern voter who consistently voted for Democratic candidates in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of lingering resentment against the Republicans dating back to the Civil War and Reconstruction period. Today the term refers to a hard-core Democrat, supposedly referring to a person who would vote for a “yellow dog” before voting for a Republican.
In China the Yellow Turbans were a Daoist sect that staged an extensive rebellion during the Han Dynasty.
Yellow is an important color of anarcho-capitalist symbolism.
The 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines was also known as the Yellow Revolution due to the presence of yellow ribbons during the demonstrations.
Contemporary political parties using yellow include the Liberal Democrats and UKIP in the UK, SNP in Scotland and Libertarian Party in the US.
The banner of the Holy Roman Empire (15th century). The black, yellow and red colors reappeared first in 1848 and then in the 20th century in the German flag.
(1819) The flag of Gran Colombia, which won independence from Spain, then broke into three countries (Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador) in 1830.
Imperial flag of the Qing Dynasty, China (1890–1912), the last dynasty of China, overthrown by the Xinhai Revolution of 1911.
Flag of South Vietnam (1955–75). This was the flag of the anti-communist southern part of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was replaced by the flag of North Vietnam after communist forces took Saigon on April 30, 1975.
The flag of East Germany (1959–90). It differs from the West German flag by the presence of a communist symbol in the center, and it fell out of use when Germany was reunified after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Selected national and international flags
Three of the five most populous countries in the world (China, India, and Brazil) have yellow or gold in their flag, representing about half of the world’s population. While many flags use yellow, their symbolism varies widely, from civic virtue to golden treasure, golden fields, the desert, royalty, the keys to Heaven and the leadership of the Communist Party. In classic European heraldry, yellow, along with white, is one of the two metals (called gold and silver) and therefore flags following heraldic design rules must use either yellow or white to separate any of their other colors (see rule of tincture).
Flag of India (1947). The yellow color is officially called India saffron, and represents courage and sacrifice.
Flag of Germany. Black, red and yellow were the colors of the Holy Roman Emperor, and, in 1919, of the German Weimar Republic. The modern German flag was adopted in 1949.
Flag of Ukraine (1992 (originally in 1918)).
Flag of Belgium (1831). The yellow comes from the yellow lion in the coat of arms of the Duchy of Brabant, founded in 1183–84.
Flag of Bhutan (1956). The Bhutan flag features Druk, the thunder dragon of Bhutanese mythology. The yellow represents civic tradition, the red the Buddhist spiritual tradition.
Flag of the People’s Republic of China (1949). The four small gold stars represent the workers, peasants, urban middle class, and rural middle class. The large star represents the Chinese Communist Party.
Flag of Brazil (1889). The yellow color was inherited from the flag of the Empire of Brazil (1822–1889), where it represented the color of the House of Habsburg.
Flag of Brunei (1956). In Southeast Asia yellow is the color of royalty. it is the color of the Sultan of Brunei, and also appears on the flag of Thailand and of Malaysia.
Flag of Colombia. The asymmetric design of the flag is based on the old Flag of Gran Colombia. The yellow color represents the golden treasure taken from Colombia over the centuries.
Flag of Spain (1978). The yellow in the Spanish flag comes from the traditional Crown of Castille and the Crown of Aragon. The general design was adopted in 1785 for the Spanish Navy, to be visible from a great distance at sea.
Flag of Lithuania (1918 to 1940, restored in 1989, modified in 2004). Yellow represents the golden fields of Lithuania, green the countryside, and red the blood of Lithuanian martyrs.
Flag of Malaysia (original version, 1950, current version 1963.) The yellow crescent represents Islam, the yellow star the unity of the fourteen states of Malaysia. The red and white stripes (like the stripes on the U.S. flag) are adopted from the flag of the British East India Company.
Flag of Mozambique (1983). The colors are those of the Marxist Liberation Front of Mozambique, or FRELIMO, which rules the country. Yellow represents the country’s mineral wealth.
Flag of Romania (1848, and again in 1989, after the fall of the Communist regime.) Blue, yellow and red were the colors of the Wallachian uprising of 1821, and the 1848 revolution which won independence for Romania. Yellow represents justice.
Flag of Sweden (adopted 1906, but colors in use since at least the mid-16th century). The legend says that in 1157, during the First Swedish Crusade, the Swedish king Eric the Holy saw a golden cross appear in the blue sky.
Flag of Chad (1959). The color yellow here represents the sun and the desert in the north of the country. This flag is identical to that of Romania, except that it uses a slightly darker indigo blue rather than cobalt blue.
Flag of the European Union. The flag of the European Union was first created for the Council of Europe in 1953, then adopted by the European Union in 1985. The twelve yellow or gold stars do not represent any particular countries; twelve was chosen as a number which represented unity and harmony.
Flag of Vatican City (1929). The yellow color represents the golden key of the Kingdom of heaven, described in the Book of Matthew of the New Testament, and part of the Papal seal on the flag.
in The Roman Catholic church, yellow symbolizes gold, and the golden key to the Kingdom of Heaven, which Christ gave to Saint Peter. The flag of the Vatican City and the colors of the pope are yellow and white, symbolizing the gold key and the silver key. White and yellow together can also symbolize easter, rebirth and Resurrection. Golden haloes mark the saints in religious paintings. Yellow also has a negative meaning, symbolizing betrayal; Judas Iscariot is usually portrayed wearing a pale yellow toga, and without a halo.
In Hinduism, the divinity Krishna is commonly portrayed dressed in yellow. Yellow and saffron are also the colors worn by sadhu, or wandering holy men in India. The Hindu almighty and divine god Lord Ganesha or Ganpati is mostly dressed with a dhotar in yellow, which is popularly known as pivla pitambar and is considered to be the most auspicious one.
In Buddhism, the saffron colors of robes to be worn by monks were defined by the Buddha himself and his followers in the 5th century BC. The robe and its color is a sign of renunciation of the outside world and commitment to the order. The candidate monk, with his master, first appears before the monks of the monastery in his own clothes, with his new robe under his arm, and asks to enter the order. He then takes his vows, puts on the robes, and with his begging bowl, goes out to the world. Thereafter, he spends his mornings begging and his afternoons in contemplation and study, either in a forest, garden, or in the monastery.
According to Buddhist scriptures and commentaries, the robe dye is allowed to be obtained from six kinds of substances: roots and tubers, plants, bark, leaves, flowers and fruits. The robes should also be boiled in water a long time to get the correctly sober color. Saffron and ochre, usually made with dye from the curcuma longa plant or the heartwood of the jackfruit tree, are the most common colors. The so-called forest monks usually wear ochre robes and city monks saffron, though this is not an official rule.
The color of robes also varies somewhat among the different “vehicles”, or schools of Buddhism, and by country, depending on their doctrines and the dyes available. The monks of the strict Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, practiced in Tibet, wear the most colorful robes of saffron and red. The monks of Mahayana Buddhism, practiced mainly in Japan, China and Korea, wear lighter yellow or saffron, often with white or black. Monks of Hinayana Buddhism, practiced in Southeast Asia, usually wear ochre or saffron color. Monks of the forest tradition in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia wear robes of a brownish ochre, dyed from the wood of the jackfruit tree.
In the religions of the islands of Polynesia, yellow is a sacred color, the color of the divine essence; the word “yellow” in the local languages is the same as the name of the curcuma longa plant, which is considered the food of the gods.
In the metaphysics of the New Age Prophetess, Alice A. Bailey, in her system called the Seven Rays which classifies humans into seven different metaphysical psychological types, the fourth ray of harmony through conflict is represented by the color yellow. People who have this metaphysical psychological type are said to be on the Yellow Ray.”
Yellow is used to symbolically represent the third, solar plexus chakra (Manipura).
Psychics who claim to be able to observe the aura with their third eye report that someone with a yellow aura is typically someone who is in an occupation requiring intellectual acumen, such as a scientist.
In Association football (soccer), the referee shows a yellow card to indicate that a player has been officially warned because they have committed a foul or have wasted time.
Originally in Rugby League and then later, also in Rugby Union, the referee shows a yellow card to indicate that a player has been sent to the sin bin.
In cycle racing, the yellow jersey – or maillot jaune – is awarded to the leader in some stage races. The tradition was begun in the Tour de France where the sponsoring L’Auto newspaper (later L’Équipe) was printed on distinctive yellow newsprint.
In some countries, taxicabs are commonly yellow. This practice began in Chicago, where taxi entrepreneur John D. Hertz painted his taxis yellow based on a University of Chicago study alleging that yellow is the color most easily seen at a distance.
In Canada and the United States, school buses are almost uniformly painted a yellow color (often referred to as “school bus yellow”) for purposes of visibility and safety, and British bus operators such as FirstGroup are attempting to introduce the concept there.
“Caterpillar yellow” and “high-visibility yellow” are used for highway construction equipment.
In the rules of the road, yellow (called “amber” in Britain) is a traffic light signal meaning “slow down”, “caution”, or “slow speed ahead”. It is intermediate between green (go) and red (stop). In railway signaling, yellow is often the color for warning, slow down, such as with distant signals.
Selective yellow is used in some automotive headlamps and fog lights to reduce the dazzling effects of rain, snow, and fog.
In International maritime signal flags a yellow flag denotes the letter “Q”. It also means a ship asserts that it does not need to be quarantined.
Idioms and expressions
Yellow-belly is an American expression which means a coward. The term comes from the 19th century and the exact origin is unknown, but it may refer to the color of sickness, which means a person lacks strength and stamina.
Yellow pages refers in various countries to directories of telephone numbers, arranged alphabetically by the type of business or service offered.
The Yellow Peril was a term used in politics and popular fiction in the late 19th and early 20th century to describe the alleged economic and cultural danger posed to Europe and America by Chinese immigration. The term was first used by Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany in 1895, and was the subject of numerous books and later films.
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