Color in Chinese culture

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Red paper lanterns for sale in Shanghai, 2012. The color red symbolizes luck and is believed to ward away evil.

Color in Chinese culture refers to the various colors that are considered auspicious (吉利) or inauspicious (不利). The Chinese character combination for the word for color is 顏色 (yánsè). In ancient China, the character 色, generally used alone, more accurately meant color in the face, or emotion (often implying sexual desire or desirability). During the Tang Dynasty, yánsè began to refer to all color. The Chinese idiom “wǔ (five) yán liù (six) sè,” which is used to describe many colors, may also suggest colors in general.

Theory of the Five Elements[edit]

In traditional Chinese art and culture, black, red, qing (a conflation of the idea of green and blue sometimes called "grue"), white and yellow are viewed as standard colors. These colors correspond to the five elements of water, fire, wood, metal and earth, taught in traditional Chinese physics. Throughout the Shang, Tang, Zhou and Qin dynasties, China’s emperors used the Theory of the Five Elements to select colors.

Element Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Color Green Red Yellow White Black
Direction east south center west north
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Heavenly creature Azure Dragon
青龍
Vermilion Bird
朱雀
Yellow Dragon
黃龍
White Tiger
白虎
Black Tortoise
玄武
Heavenly Stems , , , , ,
Phase New Yang Full Yang Yin/Yang balance New Yin Full Yin
Energy Generative Expansive Stabilizing Contracting Conserving
Season Spring Summer Change of seasons
(Every third month)
Autumn Winter
Climate Windy Hot Damp Dry Cold
Development Sprouting Blooming Ripening Withering Dormant
Livestock dog sheep/goat cattle chicken pig
Fruit plum apricot jujube peach chestnut
Grain wheat beans rice hemp millet

Black[edit]

Black, corresponding to water, is a neutral color. The I Ching, or Book of Changes, regards black as Heaven’s color. The saying “heaven and earth of mysterious black” was rooted in the observation that the northern sky was black for a long time. They believed Tian Di, or Heavenly Emperor, resided in the North Star.

The Taiji symbol uses black and white to represent the unity of Yin and Yang. Ancient Chinese regarded black as the king of colors and honored black more consistently than any other color. Lao Zi said that five colors make people blind, so the Dao School chose black as the color of the Dao. Black also means depression, sadness, and possibly means death.

In modern China, black is used in daily clothing. White is associated with death and mourning and was formerly worn at funerals, but depends on the age of passing.

Red[edit]

Contemporary red envelopes

Red, corresponding with fire, symbolizes good fortune and joy. Red is found everywhere during Chinese New Year and other holidays and family gatherings. A red envelope is a monetary gift which is given in Chinese society during holiday or special occasions. The red color of the packet symbolizes good luck. Red is strictly forbidden at funerals as it is a traditionally symbolic color of happiness;[1] however, as the names of the dead were previously written in red, it may be considered offensive to use red ink for Chinese names in contexts other than official seals.

In modern China, red remains a very popular color and is affiliated with and used by the Communist government.

Qing[edit]

Although Chinese now has a separate word for "blue" (), it traditionally grouped most shades of blue together with green under the name (qing), whose character derives from the idea of sprouting plant life. This color corresponds to the Chinese element of wood (i.e., vegetative life), represents nature and renewal, and often indicates spring. The color implies vigor and vitality.

Green[edit]

Generally green is associated with health, prosperity, nausea, and harmony. Recently, the color has also been associated with the PRC's harmonization efforts, such as the controversial Green Dam Youth Escort internet censorship software.

Separately, green hats are associated with infidelity and used as an idiom for a cuckold.[2] This has caused uneasiness for Chinese Catholic bishops, who in ecclesiastical heraldry would normally have a green hat above their arms. Chinese bishops have compromised by using a violet hat for their coat of arms. Sometimes this hat will have an indigo feather to further display their disdain for the color green.

White[edit]

White, corresponding with metal, represents gold and symbolizes brightness, purity, and fulfillment. White is also the color of mourning. It is associated with death and is used predominantly in funerals in Chinese culture.[3] Ancient Chinese people wore white clothes and hats only when they mourned for the dead.

Yellow[edit]

While Americans might think yellow could indicate cowardice, for Chinese, yellow is a heroic color.[3] Yellow, corresponding with earth, considered the most beautiful and prestigious color. The Chinese saying, Yellow generates Yin and Yang, implies that yellow is the center of everything. Associated with but ranked above brown, yellow signifies neutrality and good luck. Yellow is sometimes paired with red in place of gold.


Yellow was the color of Imperial China and is held as the symbolic color of the five legendary emperors of ancient China. Yellow often decorates royal palaces, altars and temples, and the color was used in the robes and attire of the emperors.

Yellow also represents freedom from worldly cares and is thus esteemed in Buddhism. Monks’ garments are yellow, as are elements of Buddhist temples. Yellow is also used as a mourning color for Chinese Buddhists.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ see Funeral#Funerals in East Asia
  2. ^ Norine Dresser, Multicultural Manners: New Rules of Etiquette for a Changing Society, ISBN 0-471-11819-2, 1996, page 67
  3. ^ a b Psychology of Color: Does a specific color indicate a specific emotion? By Steve Hullfish | July 19, 2012