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Home > Education > Diagnosis > Five Colors

Five Colors and One Diagnosis

Hun Young Cho,
Translated by
Kihyon Kim
From "Oriental Medicine, A Modern Interpretation"

Color in Diagnosis

People's complexions are different because their physical constitutions are different. Even for the same person, the complexion constantly changes according to the fluctuation of the emotions and the difference in the state of health. The complexion turns bluish when extremely angry, reddish when happy, blackish when fearful, whitish when worrying and yellowish when overthinking. The proverbs that say, "The face is turning like black ink" and "The face is becoming black and blue" imply sudden emotional changes such as fear, shock or rage. The face of a teenager coming out after being interrogated for charges of theft is whitish and the face of a student coming out of an examination hall is yellowish. Also, a person who thinks too much usually has digestive problems and a person with digestive problems has a yellowish complexion. A person who laughs a lot has vigorous activity of the Heart and a reddish complexion and a person who worries a lot sighs constantly and has a whitish complexion. Accordingly, the conditions of the internal organs can be observed with the colors that show on the surface of the body. These colors are not just manifested on the face, but there are also differences in the pigment of feces, urine, menstrual blood, vaginal discharge, tongue coating, lips, eyes, phlegm, etc.

Color and its related organ

Red is related to the Heart, white to the Lungs, yellow to the Spleen, blue/green to the Liver and black to the Kidneys.

  • Red and the Heart

    Red is the color of the Fire Element, so red light is a light that is related to the Heart. A face turns reddish when the activity of the Heart is exuberant, thus joyful emotion, fever or even drinking alcoholic beverages turns the face reddish. All of them definitely arise from the exuberant activity of the Heart. However, the health of the Heart should not be inferred from the appearance of the color red. There are both healthy and unhealthy shades of red. Red is the color with the longest wavelength so it is a Yang color. In bull fighting, shaking a red object in front of the bull's eyes makes him even more fierce. In cardiac edema, the face color becomes reddish purple or brownish.

  • White and the Lungs

    White is a color related to the Lungs. A person who worries a lot constantly sighs and has a whitish complexion. Also, a person with constitutionally weak Lungs generally has a whitish complexion. This person can maintain his or her health as long as he or she does not get a reddish glow. However, if he or she does get a reddish glow, like the color of a peach blossom, it is an indication that a lung disease is in progress. A person who has a white complexion with luster is magnanimous with profound thoughts, so there are many who have the character of a big time politician - the so-called noble type - with this complexion.

  • Yellow and the Spleen

    Yellow is the color of the Earth Element, so the Spleen and the Stomach are like the Earth. The Spleen produces Blood and the Stomach ingests nutrients in order to produce the flesh, similar to the Earth nurturing all things in nature. A person with strong digestive organs has a yellowish complexion with luster and a person with a disease of the digestive organs has a sallow complexion and is emaciated, fatigued or has a diseased color that is hard to describe with words.

  • Blue and the Liver

    A red color is due to the congestion of arterial blood. As the result of strong heart activity, a large amount of arterial blood flows too quickly and the duration in which the blood is in contact with the tissues is too short. Accordingly, a fresh red color shows up because there are large quantities of oxygen within the blood since a small amount of oxygen is transferred to the tissues. A blue color occurs as a result of the stagnation of venous blood in the tissues (or dark purplish or blackish color). The stagnation of venous blood is a phenomenon that appears when the activity of the heart is weak. The organ that regulates the activity of the Heart is the Liver. Perhaps the liver secretes a blue colored substance.

    Blue is a color with a short wavelength so it settles and calms. One gets excited when looking at the color red, but settles down when looking at the color blue. Having transcendental or sentimental feelings without particular reasons when looking at blue/green mountains or going into the forest is largely due to receiving the influence of that color. It is said that shaking a blue cloth in front of fierce cattle and in front of a horse calms them down.

    What is the necessity of the Liver to manifest the color blue? It can be explained by the following reasons. The color blue is a light that settles and calms, thus impeding activities. Recall that the Liver is an organ in charge of combat and a motive for combat is anger. As such, the emotion of anger belongs to the Liver and in times of anger the color blue appears. The color blue has two functions that are needed in combat. One is to internally curtail the activity of the Heart. In other words, it saves and accumulates energy then lets it out forcefully all at once in order to fight fiercely. Another is to show the color blue externally toward an opponent to settle and suppress his activity and at the same time to give him feelings of fear. This is why a person who normally has a bluish complexion becomes highly sensitive, angers easily and often has indigestion. This indigestion arises from the opposing relationship between Liver and Spleen, that is Wood and Earth.

  • Black and the Kidneys

    Black is the color of Water and Yin-Coldness. Also, nighttime is dark. The com-plexion becomes dark when one is cold and also when one is feeling great fear. A person who normally has a black complexion, like a frightened person, is very weak sexually and has little courage. A healthy person with a black complexion is said in a proverb to have "Iron black color," so he is extremely strong sexually and has boundless energy. The color of the skin changes as a sign of pregnancy and there is a black color like freckles and blotches on the forehead, on the bridge of the nose, around the eyes, around the mouth, etc. In the center line of the abdominal wall, namely the "Conception channel,"13 a colored pigment settles in which is black and a dark brown color settles in the external genital region and vagina.

    In general, the black color can be seen in Basedow's disease, which is seen as the result of hyperthyroidism or in acromegaly (a disease with the enlargement of nose, mandible, ends of extremities and the whole body), which is seen as the result of the hyperfunction of the frontal lobe of the pituitary gland. The relationship of black to the Kidneys can be recognized if a certain amount of attention is paid. Edema due to a kidney disease can be distinguished by the complexion being a dark white color, as opposed to a reddish purple color of edema due to heart disease. The color white belongs to the Lungs and dark color belongs to the Kidneys, so the Lungs and Kidneys are: "Metal and Water Zang organs of mutual generation."

    Healthy color and unhealthy color (techniques of observing color)

    It is extremely difficult to explain this healthy and unhealthy color in words. There is no other way than to train the power of observation by paying attention to the color of the complexion of as many people as possible. It is the same as the teller of a bank being able to easily discern counterfeit notes but not being able to explain their method of discovery to anyone else. There will be no other words than merely, "somehow it feels different." The colors of the complexions of people are difficult to explain, but there is something on which to judge whether it is healthy or unhealthy by observation. This judgement of health and sickness on the basis of color has great importance in Oriental medicine: "Observing the shape and watching the color"14 reflects this. In reality, "Observing the shape and watching the color" is not only necessary in Oriental medicine, but also in Western medicine and in observing the emotions of other people in our daily lives. It is hard to avoid getting blamed for being ambiguous regarding this observation of color, but I am going to state a few essential points.

    Method of observing color

  • Presence of Qi; Absence of Qi; Presence of Spirit; Absence of Spirit

    When observing the complexion of a person, one must be careful about the existence or absence of Qi and Spirit. In everyday conversation, terms such as "Color of Qi looks bad" or "Color of the Spirit is good" are frequently used. "Qi" and "Spirit" are abstract expressions of the movement of life which we can sense. When they are further differen-tiated, Qi is an abstract expression of the emotion and Spirit is an abstract expression of the life force or the state of health. The "color of Qi not being so good" means that there is emotional trouble and the "color of Spirit not being so good" implies that it looks as though there is a disease.

    Complexion, regardless of the type of its color, must have Vitality. As long as there is Vitality, the color of Spirit will be good even if one is emaciated and as long as there is no Vitality, the color of Spirit will be bad even if one is plump. A person has a particular complexion according to individual characteristics and that complexion changes according to living conditions. A farmer who constantly gets sunlight has dark skin and a scholar who constantly studies indoors has fair skin. However, receiving the same degree of sunlight still results in all different complexions and studying indoors in the same degree also results in different complexions; these are all due to individual characteristics. The skin is a healthy color especially when there is Vitality. When there is Vitality in a reddish complexion, the Heart is strong and when there is no Vitality, the Heart has become fatigued by excessive activity.

    • Red color
      • Presence of Spirit - Exuberant Heart Qi
      • Absence of Spirit - Decline in Heart Qi
    • White color
      • Presence of Spirit - Exuberant Lung Qi
      • Absence of Spirit - Decline in Lung Qi
    • Yellow color
      • Presence of Spirit - Exuberant Spleen Qi
      • Absence of Spirit - Decline in Spleen Qi
    • Blue color
      • Presence of Spirit - Exuberant Liver Qi
      • Absence of Spirit - Decline in Liver Qi
    • Black color
      • Presence of Spirit - Exuberant Kidney Qi
      • Absence of Spirit - Decline in Kidney Qi


  • Mutual Generating and Controlling Cycles in Complex Colors

    The color of a person's complexion does not simply appear in one color among the five colors, but the five colors appear in small amounts, thus a so-called red or blue implies the strongest color among them. Accordingly, to observe color in practice is extraordinarily complicated, but it is generally enough to diagnose health or illness entirely through the presence or absence of Vitality. Yet there are times when only one type of color shows up strongly or at times two, three, four or five types of colors appear strongly, all individually following the channels. When all five colors appear together, it is a sign that the time of death is drawing near. A color of an autumn leaf showing up on the complexion of a sick person is said to be inauspicious because an autumn leaf has red, yellow, blue, white and black colors.

    When many colors are combined, observation under the following standards will generally be very helpful:

    1. The colors of Zang organs in a mutual generating relationship are good. For example, a combination of yellow and white (Earth generates Metal), white and black (Metal generates Water), black and blue (Water generates Wood), blue and red (Wood generates Fire), and red and yellow (Fire generates Earth) reflect no problems in general.
    2. When the colors of Zang organs in the mutual controlling relationship are combined, it is generally unhealthy. For example:


      1. Red and White (Fire controls Metal)

        Since this is a color of peach-blossoms, it is the most brilliant color, but it is an extremely bad color when observed from the point of view of health and longevity. This color shows up mostly among patients under 30 years old with a lung disease. The following statements illustrate why this color is unhealthy: "A young man with brilliance, easily acquiring wealth and fame, is a sign of early withering," "A young man with a blossomed flower complexion dies young" and "Men of talent and beauty all die young."


      2. White and Blue (Metal controls Wood)

        This means having a bluish pale complexion. It is a color commonly seen in older women who were widowed at a young age. This is the complexion of a person weakened by a long time of continued strong resentment (Liver) and grief (Lung). Yin-type lung disease patients generally possess this complexion.


      3. Blue and Yellow (Wood controls Earth)

        A green color results when these two colors are combined; jaundice seems to belong here. Other than the green color in the pigment of bile, I have not been able to find examples to clearly explain this color, but I believe that this complexion will be found if many patients are observed.


      4. Yellow and Black (Earth controls Water)

        This color can be seen frequently in chronic diseases of the stomach, especially in gastric atony.


      5. Black and Red (Water controls Fire)

        This complexion has a black color with a red flush, so it seems to look slightly excited: A patient with a lung disease who had a strong constitution prior to the disease generally has such a complexion.

        At this point, I would like to caution my readers that these examples must not be over interpreted and presumed as facts. Just because a lung disease patient has the color of (e) above, one must not come to a hasty conclusion that a person having this color has a lung disease. A person with a weak body, searching through the pages of a pathology and symptomatology book, can easily believe that they are suffering from each disease in the book. One should not look at the mirror while reading this and say, "black and red color, blue and yellow color - oh no! I have this disease."

        There are mirrors which have a yellow, blue or white tinge, so there are no correct mirrors. Colors look different depending on their relationship to surrounding light rays. There are also some people who have a slight defect in the optic nerves and there also exists a relationship between visual perception and the emotional activity of the moment. There is no need to foolishly be afraid just because something looks a certain way at a quick glance. Therefore, since there is a concern that the main point will be missed in ascertaining the constitution and disease with the observation of color only, the signs and symptoms of Yin-Yang should be observed through other methods including: pulse diagnosis, channels, observation of color, food preferences, Deficiency-Excess, Exterior- Interior, Above-Below, etc.

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