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Chinese Colours

Inkston supplies the finest traditional colours available from Jiang SiXu Tang and Old Hu Kai Wen:

PS., if you are looking for materials for Tang Ka 唐卡, we would recommend you to use Jiang SiXu Tang’s natural colour chips. 

Chinese colours are mainly still produced from natural minerals which do not fade, here we discuss some of the traditional ingredients:

Natural Colours 1 – Mineral based

Natural Color Ink Sticks
Natural Color Ink Sticks


Note: the following lists are examples of the traditional colouring pigments, for information only.  Since the exact ingredients used in the inksticks are sometimes secret a full list is not always available in the product information, however both antique inks and authentic inks made today in the traditional manner use these materials.

Firstly a warning:  please note that some or most of these naturally occurring minerals are toxic.  This is not a problem in normal use, but please be aware and on no account lick the ink or suck the brush when using traditional chinese mineral colours, see safety notes at end of article.

The main non-white colours (eg the 11 colours in the picture above: 2 reds, yellow, orange, 2 blues, 2 greens and 3 browns) are traditionally produced from these 7 minerals:


Decorative inks on display
Decorative inks on display
  • 银朱 yín zhū Cinnabar Vermillion red:  This is the most popular traditional chinese red from Cinnabar or Vermillion which is the naturally occurring mineral mercury sulphide (HgS). Inorganic mercury such as the mercury found in cinnabar is the least toxic form of mercury and has a long history in traditional Chinese medicine, ancient Roman makeup, Hindu Bindi forehead marking and Sindoor hair marking but should still be considered toxic and handled with care, especially in powder form.
  • 朱砂 zhū shā Cinnabar. In China, this is mainly from south-west of China including Si Chuan 四川 province, Hu Nan 湖南 province, and Gui Zhou 贵州 province. The best cinnabar shows a very natural smooth surface. Mercury is extracted from natural cinnabar rocks. However, if the cinnabar has been used to extract mercury, this is not suitable to be used as painting colours. Zhu means red, cinnabar in Chinese.
    In Qing Dynasty, emperor’s comments or remarks were written in red with a brush. Such comments or remarks are called Zhu Pi 朱批. Pi means comments or remarks. The most interesting emperor red comments and remarks are probably from YongZheng 雍正 Emperor. For example, in response to Wang Guo Dong’s report, Emperor’s commented ‘此朕几案上所污,恐汝恐惧,特谕。’ Translated into English, it means “these ‘red stains’ are red cinnabar ink. They are not my blood. Please do not worry or panic. My special note!” Isn’t it cute? You can find emperor red comments / remarks sometimes in both the Palace Museum in Beijing and the National Palace Museum in Tai Pei. By the way, almost all the Qing Dynasty emperors wrote very nice calligraphy.
  • 朱膘 zhū biāo Cinnabar red:  a deeper red also produced from Cinnabar also known as cinnabar red.
    Zhu Biao is made by adding a low percentage of natural resin into very fine cinnabar powder. Leave this mixture for certain time and then some colour will appear on the top layer of the mixture. Zhu Biao is made from this layer. Biao means fat in Chinese. This colour is between yellowish red; it is more yellow than cinnabar.
  • 赭石 zhěshí Ochre brown  from partially hydrated Iron oxide FeO(OH) – a type of rust essentially  – this is made into different shades of reddish brown. The high quality ochre brown should have a very smooth and fine touch. Ochres are non-toxic.


  • 雄黄 xiónghuáng Orange red – Realgar, also an arsenic sulphide (As2S3 and As4S4).
    Xionghuang is a mixture of As2S3 and As4S4. The colour for painting is orange red. Sometimes, you may see some Xiong Huang is slightly gloss with a deeper colour, such Xiong Huang is called Xiong Huang Serum which is referred to as 雄精 Xiong Jing. means serum.
  • 石黄 shí huáng  King’s Yellow or Chinese Yellow from Orpiment, arsenic sulphide (As2S3). compared with 雄黄 orange red, this yellow is more pure.


  • 石青 shí qīng  Blue azurite – used to produce different shades of blue – azurite is a copper carbonate Cu3(CO3)2(OH)2.  All these colours are poisonous. Speaking from chemistry point of view, Blue Azurite is not pure.


  • 孔雀石 (Kǒngquè shí) Malachite similar to azurite, this variety of Copper Carbonate Cu2CO3(OH)2 occurs naturally as green malachite
  • 石绿 shí lǜ Jadeite powder (碧玉粉). Emerald green NaAlSi2O6  – used to make different shades of green.  The best raw material is from Yun Nan 云南 province and Guang Xi 广西 province in China, Persian area, and Cambodia.

plus different types of white:


  • Old Hu Kai Wen Inksticks in Stock
    Old Hu Kai Wen Inksticks in Stock

    蛤粉 há fěn Clam shell or Pearl White – obviously we wouldn’t call shell powder a mineral but for chinese painting it is listed in the same grouping.

    Pearl White is Calcium carbonate, the main component of pearls and the shells, extracted by
    baking and grinding shells to very fine powder. The colour can last forever. This is the most widely-used white in ancient Chinese paintings.
    Calcium carbonate is not toxic. 

  • 铅粉(易变黑,常用钛白粉代替)qiān fěn  White lead
  • 钛白 tài bái  Titanium white – titanium dioxide
  • 锌钛白  xīn tài bái  Titanium white mixed with Zinc White

Some sets also include gold and silver:

Gold and Silver

  • 泥金  Gold, made from gold powder and glue, also available in sheet form
  • 泥银 Silver, made from silver powder and glue

Natural Colours 2 – Plant based

  • 红蓝花 Hóng lán huā “red and blue flower” plant is used to make red colour. It specifically refers to the petal of safflower (Carthamus tinctorius in Latin). Petals are collected in morning and then are smashed. The yellowish juice excreted by the petal is later removed. Then, the leftover is placed in dark place to get dry naturally. Whenever needed, this dry leftover first has to be soaked in warm clean water, then mix it with resin. This is the most traditional way to get the colour and this method is still used by some minority groups in China. In China, when there is celebrations such as birthday and wedding, this plant is one of the major ingredients which are widely used. However, after Opium War between China and United Kingdom in 1840s, China market was widely open to world market and industrial red pigments flushed into China market and gradually replaced natural red colours made from Red Blue Flower.
  • 茜草 Qiàncǎo is another widely used plant for making red colours in China. In Latin this plant is Rubia cordifolia Linn. This plant has red flowers and violet red roots. Fine red colour can be made by boiling its roots. This plant’s red colour is more red than Red Blue Flower’s.
  • 紫梗 Zǐgěng purple (Caulis perillae in Latin) plant is from Southwest border of China. It is widely used in Chinese herbology. This colour is not dissoluble. When you need to use it, you need to grind it to fine powder and add resin into it. Then you can use it directly.
  • 胭脂 Yānzhī Rouge plant based bright red. This red colour is made with the three plants which have just been mentioned above. This colour’s first Chinese recording is 3000 years ago. At that time, this colour was used for makeup. However, in regard to the origin of this colour, it is still not clear. Some people said this colour was imported by 张骞 Zhang Qian when he went to west via Silk Road. This colour can be found in different areas in China. However, the red colours vary. This colour was one of the most widely used colours in ancient paintings. Nevertheless, this red colour fades as times goes by. Nowadays, it is more popular to use imported western red colours to replace traditional rouge.
  • 洋红 Yánghóng Magenta/Carmine deep red, produced from imported cochineal, which is actually insect based, however is included in the plant grouping.
  • 檀木 Tán mù violet is also called Su Mu 苏木. This name has been widely used for different things. Therefore, it is confusing. The Tan Mu here refers to a type of plant which is used to make deep violet colour. In Latin it is Caesalpinia sappan. Like most of Chinese natural colours, this materials is also used for medication purposes.
  • 花青 Huā qīng or Indigo cake (花青膏). Basic blue herbal colour named the plant Indigofera tinctoria and related species, cultivated in Asia since antiquity and also traded on the Silk road.
  • 藤黄 Téng huáng (藤黃) Gamboge saffron/mustard yellow herbal colour used to dye Buddhist monks’ robes, normally comes from Garcinia tree which is also where the delicious mangosteen fruit comes from!  A hole is made in the tree bark and the sticky yellow resin used to make the colour flows out.
    The best Gamboge saffron/mustard yellow was historically from Vietnam and so also called Yue Huang 月黄 (Vietnam Yellow), though also produced by Cambodia and Thailand.
    Gamboge is also a traditional ingredient in Chinese medicine – but for external use only as it is poisonous and must not be taken internally.

Colour Shop

For professionals and people who want to make the most of the natural pigments, we would recommend you to master basic skills on using natural gelatin.  And use a pestle!

Ink safety notes

Please note that some of the naturally occurring minerals traditionally used in Chinese coloured inks are toxic.  Unless the coloured inks are marked as child safe you should always assume that they are not. For example see above notes on Vermillion, Realgar, Orpiment Red/Orange/Yellow colours deriving from Mercury and Arsenic sulphides. This is not a problem in normal use, but please be aware and on no account lick the ink or suck the brush when using traditional chinese mineral colours.

Safety warnings which may apply under the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) include:

– H300: Fatal if swallowed
– H331: Toxic if inhaled
– H400: Very toxic to aquatic life
– H411: Toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects


The following is the European Union Safety advice concerning dangerous substances and preparations:

S1 Keep locked up
S2 Keep out of the reach of children
S13 Keep away from food, drink and animal foodstuffs
S28 After contact with skin, wash immediately with plenty of water
S45 In case of accident or if you feel unwell seek medical advice immediately
S60 This material and its container must be disposed of as hazardous waste
S61 Avoid release to the environment. Refer to special instructions/safety data sheet

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6 thoughts on “Chinese Colours

  1. […] See the History of Inkstick recipes and the Buyer’s Guide for more information on the different types and for colours see the Chinese Colours article. […]

  2. […] Les couleurs chinoises sont encore produites principalement à partir de minéraux naturels qui ne se décolorent pas, pour plus d’informations sur les ingrédients, prière de consulter l’article détaillé en langue anglaise. […]

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