Chinese Colors — Meanings and Symbolisms
Some Facts About Chinese Colors
There are five primary colors in Chinese history, based on the Five Elements Theory. These Five colors (Black, White, Yellow, Red, and Cyan) are honorable and orthodox and compose all the other colors.
In ancient China, colors used to be essential representatives of one's social status, and following strict hierarchies, misuse of colors would bring people severe punishments.
Traditional Chinese colors were named using beautiful creatures.
Nowadays, color symbolism in Chinese culture is way less strict. People can mostly use their favorite colors as they wish, except for some Taboos on certain occasions.
Chinese Color Taboos in Culture
Since the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), wearing a green headcloth was a penalty for people who had committed crimes. Hundreds of years later, in the Yuan (1271 — 1368) and Ming (1368 — 1644) Dynasty, prostitutes and their families were regulated to wear green.
Nowadays, green clothes are welcomed in China; however, wearing a green hat means one’s partner is unfaithful. Therefore, it would piss people off to send a green hat as a gift; any type of green is not acceptable.
Circling someone’s name with a black frame means this person had been gone; therefore, alive people never have their names framed with black.
In Chinese history, criminals sentenced to death would have their names written in red. Therefore, it is still a tradition not to write people’s names using red-colored pens.
At people’s weddings, birthdays, or important festivals, sending money is convenient and popular among families and friends. However, money should be put inside a red envelope; money in a white envelope is only for funerals.
Wrapping gifts using white paper is not taboo. However, other colors are always much more welcome and acceptable.
On big holidays like Spring Festival, or happy occasions like weddings, it is always better not to wear all white or black to attend.
Ink Black — Xuan Se (玄色)
This is believed to be the color of the sky when the sun is about to rise or after sunset.
As one of the Five Primary Colors, it represents Water in the Five Elements. Deep inside the river, lake, or sea, the Water is dark and cool.
It is also the color of the Black Turtle, a mythical animal guarding the Northern section of the sky, which can take questions to the other world in the sacred ceremony, then bring back answers from ancestors.
Since the Shang Dynasty (about 1600 BC — 1046 BC), Xuan Se became the color of the emperors’ ceremonial robe, which they wore in sacred worship ceremonies and important events. Read More About Symbolisms of Ink Black
Crow Cyan — Ya Qing (鸦青)
The color of the crow’s feather, black, mixes with light cyan.
Affectionate Grey — Xiang Si Hui (相思灰)
When a person one-heartedly loves another, the lifelong lovesickness will gradually turn one’s hair into the Affectionate Grey.
Eyebrow Blue — Dai Lan (黛蓝)
Dai is the dark blue pigment women used to paint their eyebrows in ancient China. It also is frequently used to describe beautiful mountains.
Ink Grey — Mo Hui (墨灰)
This is the color of the sky before a big rainfall, like the ink diluted with water.
Crab Shell Cyan — Xie Ke Qing (蟹壳青)
The color of the crab shell, dark cyan, mixes with light green, which is also a standard color for pottery.
Bamboo Cyan — Zhu Qing (竹青)
Fresh bamboo in Chinese culture symbolizes a gentleman who is firm, elegant, loyal, and straightforward.
Jasper Green — Bi Yu Shi (碧玉石)
Green Jade is representative of gentleness and decency throughout Chinese history.
Cyan — Qing Se (青色)
As one of the Five Primary Colors, it represents Wood in the Five Elements.
It is also the color of the Cyan Dragon, a mythical animal guarding the Eastern section of the sky, representing hope and spring. Read More About the Symbolisms of Cyan
Scallion Green — Cong Lv (葱绿)
The scallion color is sometimes used to describe beautiful fields filled with green, vigorous plants.
Herbal Blue — Dian Lan (靛蓝)
Around 3000 years ago, five types of herbals were used to dye fabric into dark blue. Since then, the dying technique and the dark blue color have been popularized in China.
Moonlight in Bamboo Grove — Zhu Yue (竹月)
The color of moonlight shines through bamboo groves, cold blue mixed with chill purple.
Clear Sky — Ji Se (霁色)
This is the color of the bright, clear sky, especially after snow or rain.
Sky After the Rain — Tian Qing (天青色)
Zhao Ji, the Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty, dreamt that the rainfall had washed a beautiful sky view.
He then commanded talented artists to try to make pottery out of this color, the blue sky, after dark clouds are dispersed.
Wine Cyan — Piao Se (缥色)
This is the color of a light cyan wine, which is then used to refer to liquor.
Lake Green — Shui Lv (水绿)
Color of the river, spring, and lake.
Pure White — Chun Bai (纯白)
As one of the Five Primary Colors, it represents Metal in the Five Elements.
It is also the color of the White Tiger, a mythical creature guarding the western section of the sky, representing war, autumn, and death.
Since the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC— 256 BC), Chinese people started to use pure white in mourning apparel, which is still an important tradition today. Read More About Symbolisms of Pure White
Snow White — Xue Se (雪色)
A pure, clear, plain color of the snow, perfect white mixes with light grey.
Frost White — Shuang Se (霜色)
The pure color of frost, the representative of pride and strength.
Moon White — Yue Bai (月白)
The color of the moonlight is pure white mixed with light blue. This symbolizes beauty, affection, longing for beloved ones, and eternity.
Secret Porcelain — Mi Se (秘色)
Secret pottery appeared in the Tang Dynasty, only provided to the royal family. The production formula had been kept as a top secret and disappeared later.
For hundreds of years, people could only imagine the beauty of this exquisite, fabulous royal porcelain. Until in recent decades, 14 beautiful Secret Porcelains were unearthed in the underground palace of the royal Famen Temple.
Rice Yellow — Mi Se (米色)
Color of rice, a typical food in China.
Gosling Yellow — E Huang (鹅黄)
This is the color of gosling’s hair, cute, tranquil, and pure.
Bright Yellow — Ming Huang (明黄)
As one of the Five Primary Colors, it represents Earth in the Five Elements and the name of the Yellow Emperor, Yellow River, and Yellow Mountain.
It is also the color of Dragon Ying Long, who guards the middle section of the sky and has assisted some kings in defeating monsters in Chinese Mythology.
Since the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), yellow colors were exclusively used in the royal family. Gradually, civilians were no longer allowed to use them, except for Buddhism and Taoism religion.
After the last feudal empire, the Qing Dynasty ended in 1912, this color finally came back to the civilian world. Read More About the Symbolisms of Bright Yellow
Willow Bud — Liu Huang (柳黄)
This is the refreshing and vigorous color of willow bud, fresh yellow mixed with light green.
The willow tree has the same pronunciation in Chinese as the “stay”; therefore, snapping and giving a willow twig was an essential rite when seeing good friends off. Hence, little blue is also included in the Willow Bud Color.
Apricot Yellow — Xing Huang (杏黄)
Confucius used to teach and write in a beautiful Apricot grove; therefore, Apricot Altar is representative of education in Chinese culture.
In the Three Kingdoms (220 AD — 280 AD), a great doctor named Dong Feng saved many people's lives; those cured people only needed to plant Apricot Trees as their consultation fees, while poor people could also get free fruits from his large Apricot. Afterward, the Apricot Grove refers to Chinese Medicine and great doctors with kind hearts.
In the Traditional Chinese Calendar, February's lucky Flower is the Apricot Flower, while its Flower Goddess is Lady Yang Yuhuan of the Tang Dynasty.
Daylily Yellow — Xuan Cao Huang (萱草黄)
Daylily has another name in Chinese, Forgetting of Sadness. Therefore, in ancient China, people would plant daylilies for their mothers before they left home. Gradually, Daylily became the representative of a mother’s love for her children.
Smoke Tree Yellow — Huang Lu (黄栌)
The flower of the Smoke Tree looks like a soft feather or ethereal fog; therefore, the color of the tree is named the Smoke Tree Yellow.
Autumn Fragrance — Qiu Xiang (秋香)
Bright yellow mixed with dark green, combined with the fragrance of leaves and grass, formed a picture of beautiful autumn.
Amber — Hu Po (琥珀)
Though this color is named after amber, it has also had been widely used to refer to wine in ancient Chinese literature.
Dawn Sky — Li Se (黎色)
This is the color of the sky before dawn, mysterious black mixed with warm yellow.
Purple Red — Jiang Zi (绛紫)
Purple is a mysterious, honorable color in Chinese culture, which is used to describe the magical aura of deities or royal palaces and goods.
Therefore, Jiang Zi is the color of honor, elegance, and beauty.
Cyan Lotus — Qing Lian (青莲)
This is the color of a type of cyan lotus, symbolizing decent, honorable people. Great poet, Li Bai of the Tang Dynasty, styled himself as the Cyan Lotus.
Snow Cyan — Xue Qing (雪青)
When the snowfield doesn’t have sunlight, it will look like light purple mixed with blue.
Lotus Root — Ou Se (藕色)
This is the color of the root of the lotus, grey mixed with red.
Lotus Pink — Ou He Se (藕荷色)
The lotus flower bud is warm pinkish and combines light purple, one of the most beautiful views in early summer. Lotus is also the Lucky Flower of July in the Traditional Chinese Calendar.
Gladiolus Fabric — Shi Yang Jin （十样锦）
A female poet of the Tang Dynasty dyed her letter paper light pink, the same color as the Gladiolus Fabric, an exquisite embroidery style in history.
Afterward, writing love poems using her exquisite paper became quite popular among noblewomen. This color, then, is representative of innocent love.
Wine Flush — Tuo Yan (酡颜)
This is the color of flush on cheeks after someone has drunk wine. Gradually, it is also used to describe the charming shy blush of women.
Peach Blossom Red — Tao Hong (桃红)
Peach Blossom is the Lucky Flower of March in the Traditional Chinese Calendar and represents love, beauty, and spring.
As one of the essential tributes in big worship ceremonies, the Peach has long been believed to be the food of deities and the symbol of longevity and luck.
Begonia Red — Haitang Hong (海棠红)
Since the Tang and Song Dynasties, Begonia became one of the most popular flowers in Chinese culture, which was frequently mentioned in literature.
Emperor Li Longji once compared his beloved Yang Yuhuan to a stunningly beautiful Begonia. Therefore, this flower is also representative of delicacy, charm, beauty, and nobility.
Pomegranate Flower Red — Shi Liu Hong (石榴红)
The Pomegranate Flower looked like a skirt and had been used as an essential pigment for women’s red longuette. Therefore, it has referred to women’s dress since the Tang Dynasty.
As the Lucky Flower of May in the Traditional Chinese Calendar, Pomegranate Flower represents prosperous, productive, mature, and beautiful.
Cinnabar Red — Zhusha Hong (朱砂红)
As one of the Five Primary Colors, it represents Fire in the Five Elements.
It is also the color of Zhu Que, a mythical red bird guarding the south section of the sky and could guide the souls of the deceased to heaven.
The Cinnabar Red, which had been used to color or directly write inscriptions on bones of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC), became one of the most orthodox colors in Chinese culture after the Han Dynasty was established by Emperor Liu Bang, who was believed the descendant of Emperor Yan (or the King of the Fire).
Today, this is still one of the most popular and lucky colors in China, representing good fortune, passion, and auspiciousness, and it has been widely used as the theme color for the Chinese New Year. Read More About Symbolisms of Cinnabar Red
Rouge Red — Yan Zhi (胭脂)
Yan Zhi was a popular cosmetic in ancient China, made of beautiful flowers and creamy grease.
Women would use water to dissolve Yan Zhi and then apply it to cheeks and lips.
Sunrise Red — Dan Se (丹色)
This is the color of the splendid sunrise in the morning, red ore, or some Elixirs of Taoism Religion.
Romance Red — Fei Se (妃色)
In the Chinese language, Fei means wife of the crown prince, the imperial concubine of the Emperor, or happy marriages. Therefore, this is the color of romantic love.
Pictures of Traditional Colors with Written Characters are by Artist Pu Zhen, Check more of his Paintings at http://www.puzhenl.com/.
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