Sunday, 20 June 2010

Unique Role of Colours in Chinese Cultural Symbolism

Chinese colours – are colours in Chinese culture used differently than colours in other cultures?

Since ancient times, China has been a fascinating and extraordinarily rich culture steeped in complex codes of colour symbolism. One feature, however, sets Chinese use of colour in daily life apart from other civilizations – you rarely see objects with only a single colour and no patterns, graphics or calligraphy on them. Compare a Chinese envelope (Hóng Bāo in Mandarin and Lai See in Cantonese) to a Western design.


See how a roadside condom advert from Ghana contrasts with a Chinese version.



and this one in Beijing


Symbolic Meaning of Colours in Chinese Culture

Every culture has colour codes, which ascribe symbolic meaning to what colours represent. Sometimes the key to decoding this colour symbolism can be very perplexing to outsiders as they depend on context, social hierarchy, ritual function and other connotations.

Black in ancient China was the king of colours and yet sometimes considered evil and not commonly worn though the I Ching considers black as the colour of Heaven. Possibly as a result of Western influence, wearing black is sexy and common in China now and one sees black in Chinese funerals and a black ribbon is placed over the deceased’s photo.


Photo source

Red = Joy, good fortune and virtue, used in all festive occasions. Envelopes containing money gifts given at festive occasions like weddings and the New Year are usually red. Red symbolises energy and the element of fire in Chinese metaphysics. Red is strictly forbidden at funerals though it is closely connected with the communist government. Chinese athletes typically tend to wear red in their uniform to bring good luck. Is it possible that there is a scientific basis for that belief? 

Norbert Hagemann, Bernd Strauss and Jan Leissing, Psychology researchers at the University of Muenster claim that sports referees in Taekwondo typically give 13% better points to athletes wearing red than blue.



White = Represents brightness, purity and fulfilment. It is also the colour for grieving, the dead. Earlier people wore white at funerals like in India still nowadays.

Yellow = The national colour. At many points in Chinese history only the emperor and his close family were allowed to wear golden yellow. In Chinese Buddhism, yellow represents freedom from samsara or the world of phenomena and material. Yellow represents the earth element.


Green = Good health, prosperity and harmony. Green hats, in Chinese folk tradition, are a sign of infidelity. It is used as an idiomatic expression for a cuckold. Chinese Catholic bishops, avoid using the customary green hat or galero and use violet, blue, scarlet or black hats. 



Blue = Symbolises immortality. Dark blue is worn at funerals and sombre occasions.


How Chinese Art and Mythology Use Colours to Portray Characters

In Chinese mythology and theatre, deities usually have red makeup. Contrary to Western practice a simple and honest person wears black makeup while a crook or a villain wears white makeup.



In Chinese Buddhism, gods appear in white garments and the devils are black while naughty goblins are red. Buddhist “priests” use yellow robes and the dead are buried in yellow.


In Chinese art and literature, purple robes indicate an academic. Different ranks of government officials (usually behaving like gods or demi-gods at least) wore different coloured balls of glass or stone on their caps to signify their rank.

Zhang Yimou, the celebrated film director who was responsible for the spectacular opening ceremony of the 2008 summer Olympics at Beijing, uses colour themes splendidly. Most of his movies have colours in their names e.g., Yellow Earth (1984), Red Sorghum (1987), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006).


Each Season Has Its Own Colour in Chinese Symbolism
  • Spring in China is associated with greenish blue. This symbolises an abundance of vitality and vigour.
  • Summer in China is bright red as it represents the fire element.
  • Autumn turns into white with a bluish tint. The element for autumn is metal and the direction is west. It is a time to be tranquil and serene after the heat of summer.
  • Winter in China is black, even though parts of China have snowfall. Winter is marked by an absence of water. Black is the colour of water, which at winter withdraws into the northern “shallows of the world”.
  • Yellow is the colour between the seasons.

Symbolism of the Chinese Flag


Why is the Chinese flag red?

The designer of the Chinese flag, Zeng Liansongchose red and yellow because they are the most auspicious Chinese colours. His original idea was to portray the sun under which all China lives in perfect happiness as the large yellow star on a red background. In order to be approved by Mao, the large star became the Chinese Communist Party. The smaller stars, sustained by the large one, are the four classes mentioned by Mao (the workers, peasants, petty bourgeoisie, patriotic capitalists).

An alternate explanation is that the stars portray the four pillars of the Chinese nations, the soil, Mind, Wealth and Labour – the red colour stands for sacrifice and yellow for being grounded (to remind people that everything comes with a cost as China is grounded in the great sacrifices of the Communist Revolution).



How Chinese Leaders Use Colours in Costumes

The most influential person in China, Chairman Mao carefully avoided the imperial yellow and used red only in badges or armbands. Chairman Mao Tse Tung mostly kept to grey, Mao suit blue or army green.

Sun Yat Sen, who is credited as being the chief architect overthrowing the Qing Dynasty in China and celebrated as the Father of the Nation also avoided colour.


US President Richard Nixon tries to match sombre colourless attire with Chairman Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, who later became notorious as the “Gang of Four”.


Years later, the US president Carter tried to blend in the no-colour grey dress theme when meeting with the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.


The current microblogging and modern Chinese president Hu Jintao has brought a touch of colour to Chinese leader’s outfit. Though he carefully avoids imperial yellow, he uses bright red and the suits are not grey but Western style dark blue or black.


President Hu Jintao’s wife, Liu Yongqing is definitely more colourful than previous consorts of Chinese leaders. 


US President George W Bush found that doors wouldn’t open for him at a conference in Beijing, China but he was fooling against a much more colourful background than Nixon and Carter.


Colour is back among Chinese leaders!