Colours are here and there, everywhere. In Chinese culture, certain colours play a more prominent role than others, some colours more auspicious than others.
Growing up, this sentiment was what my Chinese-Malaysian parents taught me – that some colours we should see more of as a Chinese person, and other colours we shouldn’t pay too much attention to.
Each colour has different meanings in each culture. Different cultures perceive different colours differently. Different colours speak differently to each community and individual over time, past and present.
The Five Elements Theory historically underpinned colours and their symbolism in Chinese culture. Originating around 700-460 BC, the philosophy describes the relationships between elements and their corresponding colours: wood (green), fire (red), earth (yellow), metal (white), water (black). These traditional five colours tend to be the more popular and are seen as the luckier colours among Chinese people:
Red is an auspicious colour in Chinese culture, representing luck, happiness, celebration and prosperity. It often resembles boldness, a colour which is capable of warding off evil spirits – light over darkness. Chinese New Year decorations are awash with red packets and red firecrackers. Chinese brides typically wear red. Red lanterns are hung during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Red eggs are used to mark a kid’s first birthday. It’s a colour that’s forbidden at Chinese funerals.
Red has also long been associated with the notions of fight, flight and victory in Chinese history. During the Zhou Dynasty, a red raven was symbolic of the dynasty; the Red Eyebrow Rebellion restored the Han dynasty, led by peasant rebels who painted their eyebrows red to distinguish their tribe.
I’ve always been rather ambivalent about the colour red. It’s never a colour I like to wear or decorate my space with. As a kid, I thought a bright red shirt on me was hideous and screamed, ‘Look at me’ and I still do today.
Yellow (and Gold)
Traditionally yellow symbolises royalty, power and wealth among the Chinese. Centuries ago, it was a colour worn by emperors commanding dynasties, and the Yellow Emperor has been widely known to have founded China. Gold inglots were the currency in China up until the 20th century. The Yellow River runs through the prosperous golden regions of Northern China. Aside from red, yellow is also part and parcel of Chinese New Year decorations. In short, it’s a colour commonly associated with the higher echelons of society, a colour associated with an esteemed way of life.
These modern days in China, the colour yellow is associated with sexually explicit connotations and pornography, materials loosely called ‘yellow picture’. The fruit banana is predominantly yellow, and on a side note, in 2016 China banned erotic eating of the fruit on online live streams so as to tone down local online broadcasting.
Green is commonly tied to nature’s surrounds among the Chinese community: growth, spring, harvest and health. In short, it’s symbolic of new beginnings and renewability.
Notably, the greenish coloured stone jade is highly popular among the Chinese, a stone often used to make jewellery and dragon sculptures, and used in exchange for 15 cities during the Warring States period. Confucius likened this stone to virtue and representing purity, loyalty and justice.
Green is one of my favourite colours. Not only is it the colour of my star sign Taurus, it’s a colour along with blue that immediately pulls me in visually and emotionally, making me feel a sense of peace.
On one hand white symbolises purity and innocence in Chinese culture. In line with feng shui, white cranes are often thought to fly high over dusty Chinese towns. The colour also represents the epitome of Chinese beauty: during the Tag Dynasty, makeup for women first involved powdering faces white with rice powder. On the other hand it’s symbolic of mourning, death and the colour worn at funerals and associated with ghosts festivals.
Black represents destruction, disasters and evil to many typical Chinese. The colour is often used within phrases describing unfortunate situations: in terms of Chinese characters, black is written as 黑 (hēi). ‘黑心’ (hēixīn) means wicked heart. In Chinese history, the impartial judge Bāo Zhěng (包拯) was easily recognised by his dark skin and black moustache. However, black isn’t always seen in a negative way: it’s associated with black mythological dragons (Xuanlong /玄龍 or Heilong / 黑龍]) and the black tortoise/Dark Warrior was believed to have the powers to control rain, typhoons and floods.
When I was a teenager, my fashion sense was ‘punk edgy’ (and it still is today). I wore black jeans and a black shirt and had choppy black layered hair. Not only did I think the colour was cool, it was a colour which I felt made me blend into the background. My mum disliked this, complaining I looked like I was ‘going to a funeral all the time’ and I ‘dressed like a dead person’ with my long black fringe sweeping across my face.
Like the colour black, blue has contrasting connotations among the Chinese. Blue symbolises immortality, healing and calmness. It’s commonly mixed with the colour green, arising the amalgamated colour qing (青). Blue represents heaven: the Temple of Heaven’s roof consists of blue-glazed tiles, a place of peace, symbolic of heaven in the sky. On the other hand, blue is commonly worn by scholars; rumour has it the god of examinations Kuí Xīng (奎星) committed suicide and so considered an unlucky figure in Chinese culture.
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As for other colours: brown represents the ground, similar to the earthly connotations of yellow in Chinese culture. Purple is a mark of healing, romance and associated with Chinese astrology. Orange is symbolic of strength, change and continuity.
The Yin and Yang philosophy – black and white Yin and Yang symbol – is steeped in Taoism and Chinese culture, dating back to around 3 BCE. According to the philosophy, everything in the universe consists of two opposing forces that complement each other, and life happens in cycles. For where there is yang, there is yin and vice-versa: just like how there is day and night and vice-versa.
Consequently, some colour combinations are luckier than others. Red and yellow are side by side, staple colours of Chinese New Year decorations, doubling one’s wealth and prosperity in the metaphorical sense. In the five elements chart, red (fire) is directly opposite black (water) – in typical Chinese homes, it’s auspicious to have the colour red representing invigoration and also earthlier, neutral colours to represent stability – generating good fengshui.
Notably in 2011, Dulux Paints conducted a study involving participants from over 30 countries; it found blue was the overall favourite colour and among both males and females, and in Asia people tend to paint yellow, pink and light blue tones for their walls at home. Also, through a sample of 1,974 staff and students, a study on gender norms by The University of Maryland found blue was the favourite colour. In 2009, the Universty of British Columbia found blue helps us think outside of the box.
These days, blue is my favourite colour. Everywhere I go, I gravitate towards the colour blue and want to be surrounded by blue. At home, my bedsheets are blue. The clothes I usually wear to work and for running errands are blue top and blue jeans. I like taking notes on a blue coloured notebook at work. I like writing with a blue coloured pen. Some of my stuffed monkeys are blue in colour.
Different colour shades of a colour can give us a different feeling or different vibe in a moment in time. If we are colourblind, colours might probably not mean much to us. Research has demonstrated our cultural upbringing, personal preference and experiences often have an impact on how colours impact us individually. How we perceive colours is an extension of our personality, what we stand for and what we believe in.
Maybe the colours I like and dislike says something about how I feel about Chinese culture. When I was a kid, around 3-5 years old, my Chinese-Malaysian mum was fond of dressing me up in a bright red jumper and matching bright red pants for pre-school. I hated this. While I think red is an ugly colour on me, it doesn’t feel ugly or out of place at all come Chinese New Year. There’s something very inviting about the colours red and yellow whenever I pass by a Chinese temple. Or a Chinatown somewhere in the world.
Colours. They make you see. They make you feel.
What is your favourite colour and why?