Learning colours is an essential part of learning a new language. Without any doubts, it is one of the most basic topics you need to go through: describing objects by their color is an essential part of life. In this article, we will talk about colors (颜色, yánsè) in Mandarin as well as explain their meaning and importance in the Chinese culture.
The color symbolism is a vital part of the Chinese tradition and was already represented by Confucius, who advised people to use the so-called “five primary colors” – blue (more precisely a conflation of blue and green), yellow, red, white, and black.
These colors are linked to the Chinese Theory of Five Elements (五行, wǔxíng): water, fire, wood, metal and earth, where each color is linked to one element. Other colors were considered by Confucius as “intermediate” and inferior. In the picture on the right you can see the Five Elements and the each color corresponding to them. Blue/green represents wood, black stands for water, white for metal, yellow for earth and red for fire. As you can see, color symbolism is deeply rooted in the Chinese culture.
(image credit: wikipedia)
Below you will find a list with the basic colors in Chinese and their cultural importance.
Image: rainbow-colored Zhangye Danxia Landform in Gansu Province, China (credits: Melinda Chan).
- 红 [hóng] – Red
When we think China, we think red. The red colour – 红色 [hóng sè] – is the most recognizable part of Chinese culture and is itself a symbol of China, just like dragons, silk or jade. Who doesn’t know the famous Chinese red lanterns? Since you already started learning Chinese, you must have realized how important the red color is for the Chinese. You find it on everything related to Chinese festivals, art and other parts of traditional culture. In China, red is associated with the element of fire and symbolizes happiness, good fortune, success, luck; in total, the red color symbolizes all the good things that we want in life.
In China, red is present in all major festivities, especially the New Year celebrations. It is also a color used in traditional weddings. Moreover, red is also used for gifts: you may have heard about the Chinese tradition of giving hongbao (红包, hóngbāo). It is a red envelope with a monetary gift inside, given on special occasions. In Mainland China, red is also used a lot by and associated with the government.
(image credit: asia-assist)
2. 黄 [huáng] – Yellow
The yellow color – 黄色 [huángsè] – is traditionally an imperial color in China, what makes it another important color in the Chinese culture. It was a synonym of supreme power, thus was used in the robes and attire of the emperors. During the reign of the last two Chinese dynasties, Ming and Qing, yellow became so prestigious that it was the imperial family’s exclusive color and the commoners were forbidden from wearing it.
As mentioned before, yellow corresponds to earth element. It has even more historical symbolism in China: the Yellow River is considered to be the cradle of the ancient Chinese civilization. Moreover, the mythical Yellow Emperor is believed to be a founding father of the Chinese nation. When observing the roofs of Beijing’s Forbidden City, the yellow color is very visible, representing the supreme sovereignty of the emperor.
(image credit: thebl.com)
However, the importance of yellow does not stop only with emperors: it is also an essential color in Buddhism, since the monks’ robes are also made with yellow fabrics.
3. 绿 [lǜ] – Green
The green color – 绿色 [lǜsè] – is another important color in the Chinese culture, associated with wealth, prosperity and harmony. You may know that green is one of the most popular colors of the Chinese jade, which was traditionally a main material in Chinese sculpture. Jade comes in a variety of colors, but the most valuable “imperial jade” is of an almost transparent emerald-green color.
(image credit: marchantasianart)
Nowadays “green” is also associated in China with cleanliness and eco-friendliness, just like in the West.
Another interesting fact is that “wearing a green hat” is in Chinese culture a metaphor for being married to an unfaithful spouse. Therefore, green can also have a negative meaning depending on the context.
4. 蓝 [lán] – Blue
The color blue – 蓝色 [lánsè] – in China was usually seen in a combination with green and regarded as a primary color. It represents wood and spring, as well as immortality.
Blue in China is associated with its famous tableware that for a long time represented only two colors: blue and white.
(image credit: pinterest)
5. 白 [bái] – White
In China, the white color – 白色 [báisè] – is the color of mourning, just as black is in the West. In the ancient times, Chinese wore white clothes and hats when they attended funerals. Nowadays, they can also wear white shirts on this sad occasion. This is why it is better to avoid wrapping gifts in white paper.
In Chinese tradition white corresponds with metal and also symbolizes purity.
(image credit: pinterest)
6. 黑 [hēi]– Black
In China, the color black – 黑色 [hēisè] – is not associated with sadness and mourning like in the West. In fact, it is regarded to be a neutral color, also related to heaven, stability and power. It is most likely one of the reasons why Chinese government cars are all black. On the other hand, modern China continues to be under strong Western influence, which is also why the color black is increasingly associated with elegance and formality. For instance, in China it is now a norm for men and women alike to wear black Western-style suits.
In traditional China black represented the element of water.
(image credit: alibaba)
7. Other colors
Here are some other colors that you should definitely know:
紫色 [zǐsè] – Purple: in modern China it is often marketed as a romantic color, just like red in the West.
橙色 [chéngsè] – Orange: since it is similar to red, it has also a similar meaning. Oranges and tangerines are popular fruits during the New Year celebrations.
粉红色, 粉色 [fěnhóngsè, fěnsè] – Pink: similar to the West, it is marketed as a romantic and feminine color. However, since it is also a shade of red, it is also common during traditional festivals and can be sometimes spotted on hongbao’s (红包).
棕色 [zōngsè] – Brown.
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