5 Colors That Are Meaningful To Korean Dramas
Hint: these colors are very important to South Korea’s history and culture
While watching a K-drama, you usually pay attention to the characters and the story unfolding in front of you through the characters’ dialogue and actions, but have you ever wondered about the colors used in K-dramas and the meanings behind them?
Colors are powerful enough to tell their own story—in this case, a story that elevates the main plotline of the K-drama it’s being used in. In Korean dramas, particularly more evident in traditional or historical K-dramas, there are five colors that are commonly used: white, black, red, blue, and yellow. You’ll notice these colors a lot in the clothes and props that the characters use throughout the drama.
Photo Credit: Still from Goblin, tVN, 2016
Photo Credit: Netflix, 2022
Photo Credit: Still from Moon Lovers, SBS, 2016
Photo Credit: Netflix
Photo Credit: Still from Legend of the Blue Sea, SBS, 2017
Photo Credit: Still from Goblin, tVN, 2016
Photo Credit: Still from Moon Embracing The Sun, MBCTV, 2012
Photo Credit: Still from Rookie Historian, MBC, 2019
Photo Credit: Still from The King's Affection, KBS2, 2021
Photo Credit: Still from Angel's Last Mission, 2019, KBS2
Photo Credit: Still from Moon Lovers, SBS, 2016
Photo Credit: Still from Empress Ki, MBC, 2013-2014
Photo Credit: Still from Business Proposal, Netlfix, 2022
Photo Credit: Still from Love Rain, MBS, 2012
The Traditional Korean Color Spectrum
And, it’s interesting to note that these five colors aren’t just used by a lot of K-dramas coincidentally, but because these colors are rooted in South Korea’s history and culture. The Obangsaek is the Traditional Korean Color Spectrum, where the colors represent not only five directions—north (black), south (red), east (blue), west (white), and center (yellow)—but also the five elements of life—metal (white), water (black), fire (red), wood (blue), and earth (yellow). This is why these colors were often used in hanboks (traditional Korean clothing), paintings, architecture, and even food, because these colors, in line with what they represent, were deemed essential in living a healthy and prosperous life.
This is also why the colors are more evident in traditional or historical Korean dramas because nowadays, the stories behind these colors have deviated from their original meanings. We can say that these colors now have taken on more modern and contemporary interpretations due to the emergence of globalization and pop culture, so it is through historical K-dramas that we are able to appreciate the history of the Obangsaek more.
Take a look back at South Korea’s history and culture through learning the meanings behind the colors of the Obangsaek and how they come into play in the K-dramas we’ve grown to love:
White is the symbol of purity and innocence. White is regarded as a color that symbolizes “a clean state of mind without greed,” so it is often associated with cleanliness, humility, and temperance. The people of Korea were even known by foreigners as the “white-clad people” for their close connection to the color white.
In the drama Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, the female lead, Hae-soo, is seen in white hanboks numerous times. This is to show her innocence as a character who has just been transported back in time to live a life that is unfamiliar and not her own. The white also symbolizes Hae-soo’s pure heart.
We can also observe this meaning of white in the drama Angel’s Last Mission: Love, where the male lead character, Dan, is adorned in a white suit when we first meet him. He is an angel from heaven, and since angels from heaven are known to be good and pure beings, he is dressed in white.
Black is often associated with its negative connotations of darkness, night, and death. But, in the Joseon dynasty, black was regarded as a color of formality and dignity, seen through the black official hat and attire during that time. Conversely, in more modern times, black has a more positive connotation, which is chicness and sophistication.
A combination of the “death” and “chic” aspect of the color black manifests itself in the grim reapers of the dramas, Goblin and Tomorrow, who wear black suits. Grim reapers themselves are a symbol of death, but with the more modern take these dramas have on the clothing worn by these grim reapers, they also hold a certain sense of stylishness.
A character that turns from “darkness” into “dignity” is Wang So from Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, who often wears black attire. At first, he symbolized darkness because of his brooding and mysterious aura, as well as his dark past. But, once he is able to remove his mask and be more assertive of his presence in the palace, he becomes more of a symbol of dignity. Take a look at this contrast between Hae-soo and Wang So in this iconic rain scene!
Red has come to hold various meanings and interpretations. In South Korea’s history, red was a symbol of authority and exorcism, as people believed that red has the power to ward off evil spirits and/or bad luck. Once the Korean war had ended, red turned into a more negative connotation, as it became the symbol of communism. But, since 2002, when the World Cup occurred, red has become the color of passion. Other meanings for the color red particularly used in film and media are war, violence, love, romance, and pursuits of happiness.
The drama, Goblin, makes good use of the color red through Ji Eun-tak’s red scarf that she adorns for a great number of scenes in the drama. The use of red can be interpreted in various ways in the case of Goblin and Ji Eun-tak. On the one hand, it can mean violence, because it was the scarf that her mother wore when she got into her accident and passed away. On the other hand, it can refer to her budding romance with the Goblin, Kim Shin, as she is the Goblin’s Bride. From another angle, it can mean the pursuit of happiness as well, because Eun-tak is at a stage in her life where she just wants to find happiness for herself.
In several historical K-dramas, the king or emperor is often seen in a red hanbok. Along with the black official hat which symbolizes dignity, the king wears red to show authority over the people. These can be seen in many historical K-dramas, including The King’s Affection, Rookie Historian: Goo Hae Ryung, and Moon Embracing The Sun.
Blue is a symbol of life, hope, youth, and utopia. Because the color of the skies and the seas is blue, blue was associated with feelings of hope, and with this, blue also signified life. In East Asian Philosophy, blue was also associated with utopian nature.
The main characters of the drama, Hospital Playlist, are often seen in their blue scrub suits for the obvious reason that most of the scenes in this drama take place in the hospital, which is where they work. Although it may in fact not necessarily intentional by the director (since doctors normally wear blue scrubs in real life), the use of blue in this drama symbolizes life and hope. Dealing with patients every day, some of which are close to death, these doctors remain to be a beam of hope for them. And, maybe, they serve as a beam of hope for each other as well.
The use of the blue umbrella in Legend of the Blue Sea when Heo Joon-jae chooses not to abandon Shim Cheong and shields her from the rain seems symbolic of fate with a little hope mixed in it. Shim Cheong was having a rough day as it was her first day of becoming a human (from a mermaid!), and when Heo Joon-jae was just about ready to leave her after getting what he needed from her, something held him back and brought him back to her. From Shim Cheong’s perspective, the blue umbrella was a symbol of hope, that there was someone out there willing to help her. But, in the greater scheme of things, this umbrella was actually a representation of fate pulling them closer together throughout the centuries.
Yellow, representing earth and the center, is the symbol of nobility, dignity, and authority. Since it is the main color among the five colors, it represents fertility and wealth. In more contemporary times, yellow is more commonly used by children because of its brightness. For the same reason, yellow is also associated with being a symbol of warning.
If you look back at the examples used for the color red, particularly the kings, you’ll notice that their attire is not completely red. There are yellow, almost goldish patterns on the garment, and this further emphasizes the king’s nobility and authority in the country. A drama where the emperor is wearing yellow attire to symbolize his nobility, on the other hand, is Empress Ki.
The yellow umbrella is an iconic prop in Korean romance dramas. Compared to its more traditional meaning, the yellow umbrella has its own meaning in the K-drama universe. It actually manifests itself in a legend: those who are under a yellow umbrella will fall in love with each other and share a love and bond so deep that it cannot be simply broken. The dramas that incorporate the yellow umbrella include Love Rain, At A Distance, Spring Is Green, Are You Human?, Business Proposal, and many others.