Different colors hold different meanings depending on where you are in the world, and China of course is no different. China’s color-related symbolism differs widely from the West and has also changed over time. Here’s a quick guide to the meaning of Chinese colors, both historical and modern.
Ancient Chinese beliefs dictated that using the colors black and white together symbolized yīnyáng (dark—bright”). The symbol, which is now recognized all over the world, was used by many classical scholars and marshal artists. Yin yang represents the duality and unity of darkness and light, interconnected but opposing forces that combine in the natural world.
The Theory of Five Elements
Throughout the Shang, Tang, Zhou and Qin dynasties, the emperors of China subscribed to the Theory of Five Elements, which promoted the use of five main colors. The five elements, which were taught in Chinese physics and Traditional Chinese Medicine, consist of water, fire, wood, metal and earth, each of which is represented by a different color.
Under the Theory of Five Elements, water is represented by the color black. It was the color worn by imperial dignitaries. In ancient China is was also regarded as the king of colors and worshiped more frequently than any other.
In modern China black is often associated with formality, just as it is in the West. It can also signify something shady or secret, such as the word for “mafia” hēi shèhuì (黑社会), which translates to “black society”. Generally, however, black is considered a fairly neutral color, and you’ll see many Chinese people wearing it in their daily lives.
Next on the spectrum was red, which represented fire according to the Five Elements system. In the Ming Dynasty, the emperor’s close relatives would live in red houses with yellow roof tiles. Everyone else was limited to blue bricks. Red represented joy and fortune.
Today, the patriotic significance of the color red has changed little. It is now used frequently by and affiliated with the government. It’s also still very much associated with happiness and wealth, so is a common wedding dress color in China. Also let’s not forget the cash-stuffed hóngbāo (red envelopes) that exchange hands at weddings and Chinese New Year.
Green represents wood under the traditional system and was associated with harmony, prosperity, health, nature and new beginnings.
However, green is not doing so well in modern China. Nowadays it often carries a negative meaning. “Having a green face” means you’re angry or jealous, and a man “wearing a green hat” is being cheated on by his wife. Needless to say, you never see men in China wearing green hats. (Those army-green Mao caps don’t count, apparently.)
The fourth color is white, which represents metal. It traditionally symbolizes purity, fulfillment and brightness. Interestingly, white is also the official color of mourning in China, so funerals look very different here.
The meaning of the color white has not changed much, although it is often now worn in everyday life in modern China. Chinese people, especially women, also highly value and pursue white skin due to paler skin being associated a higher position in society. But that's a whole other article!
The final color in the Theory of Five Elements is yellow, which symbolizes earth. It was originally reserved for emperors and considered the most beautiful and prestigious color, representing harmony, happiness and glory. The Chinese saying that “Yellow generates Yin and Yang” indeed suggests that yellow is at the center of everything.
However, yellow has taken on a very different meaning in China today. It is now connected to sex and pornography, much as the color blue is in the West. Yellow is, however, still symbolic of heroism, in stark comparison to the West where it is associated with cowardice.
The Chinese of course have other colors in their lives these days, some of which hold certain meanings.
Closely to related to yellow, brown represents earth and is therefore associated with being grounded, fertile and industrious.
Naturally associated with wealth, gold also represents completeness and godliness.
Silver is also connected to metal and therefore money and wealth, but is also a symbol of romance and trustworthiness.
Orange represents change, spontaneity and adaptability.
Similar to red and pink in the West, purple represents love and romance in modern China. It is also associated with spiritual and mental awareness.
Do you know the meanings of any other colors in China? Let us know in the comments section below.
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Keywords: meaning of colours china colors meaning china
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