Does the colour of your favourite hat happen to be green? You may not want to wear it in China.
From attracting wealth to warding off evil spirits, colours have played an important role in Chinese culture throughout history. Some have more than one meaning and have changed over time, while others have remained constant – and even iconic worldwide.
Here are a few of the most significant ones and what they symbolise.
If colours had rankings, red would wear the crown. Almost synonymous with China – and the main colour of the country’s flag – red represents joy, success, good luck, good fortune and beauty. It’s the colour brides traditionally wear for their wedding dresses, decorations and lanterns during festivals, and paper packets (hóngbāo 紅包) containing money given out at special occasions.
Gold represents wealth almost everywhere, and China is no different. It’s often paired with red – for example a red packet with gold writing – for a double helping of good fortune.
Similarly to gold, bright yellow once signified royalty, and was the colour of choice for emperors’ clothing across several dynasties. But while yellow is still used as a lucky colour in some instances, like when it’s paired with red, it’s taken on an additional, slightly less savoury meaning in modern times. When saying something is ‘yellow’ nowadays, it could mean it’s lewd – similarly to how adult films are sometimes called ‘blue movies’ in the West.
While white is considered a colour representing purity, it’s also a colour that traditionally represents death and mourning in China, and can be considered unlucky.
But as trends travel across the world, Western white wedding dresses are now very popular in China. In fact, it’s now very common for a Chinese bride to have two dresses for her big day: one white one for a Western-style ceremony earlier on in the day, and then a traditional red one to change into for the Chinese-style ceremony afterwards.
Depending on how it’s used, black can symbolise authority and power as well as evil and corruption. For example, the Chinese word for ‘mafia’ is hēi shǒu dǎng, 黑手党 (‘black hand society’). Traditionally it was unlucky to wear black during happy events, but just like with white, black has become a very fashionable colour for modern clothing.
Interestingly, the distinction between blue and green doesn’t seem to exist in many ancient languages, including Greek, Hebrew and Chinese. The two colours were only given different words later down the line. In ancient Chinese, qīng (青) was used for both (and for black in some cases). In modern Chinese lǜ (绿) is specifically for green and lán 蓝 for blue. But qīng is still used for both in some instances, for example qīng tiān (青天) means ‘blue sky’ and qīng cài 青菜 means ‘green vegetables’.
In terms of symbolism, both represent the spring and growth. But, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, green has an extra meaning when it’s the colour of a hat. Because the phrase ‘dài lǜ màozi’ (戴绿帽子) doesn’t just literally mean to wear a green hat – it’s also a euphemism for having an unfaithful partner.
Want to learn more about Chinese culture? The absolute best way to do so is in the country itself. Don’t forget to check out Lingoinn’s homestay service, where you can stay with a professional Chinese language teacher in their home in the city of your choice.