Color Symbolism in Chinese Culture
There are five primary colors in Chinese history, based on the theory of Yin-Yang and Five Elements. These Five colors (Black, White, Yellow, Red, Cyan) are honorable and orthodox and compose all the other colors.
In ancient China, the color used to be an important representative of a person’s social status, following strict hierarchy; misuse of colors would bring people severe punishments.
Traditional Chinese colors were named using beautiful creatures.
Nowadays, the color symbolism in Chinese culture is way less strict. The use of colors is mostly free, except for some Taboos on certain occasions.
Color Taboos in Chinese 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 by sending 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 that have been sentenced to death would have their names written in red. Therefore, now it is still a tradition not to write people’s names using red-colored pens.
Now at people’s weddings, birthdays, or important festivals, sending money is a convenient and popular way among families and friends. However, money should be put inside a red envelope; money in a white envelope is only sent to a funeral.
Wrapping gifts using white paper is not totally 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 nor black to attend.
Ink Black — Xuan Se (玄色)
This is believed 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 of the river, lake, or sea, the water is dark and cool.
It is also the color of Black Turtle, a mythical animal guarding in the Northern section of the sky, which can take questions to the other world in the divine ceremony, then bring back answers from ancestors.
Crow Cyan — Ya Qing (鸦青)
The color of crow’s feather, black mixes with light cyan.
Affectionate Grey — Xiang Si Hui (相思灰)
When a person one-hearted loves another, the lifelong lovesickness will gradually turn one’s hair to the Affectionate Grey.
Eyebrow Blue — Dai Lan (黛蓝)
Dai is the dark blue pigment that 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)
This is the color of crab shell, dark cyan mixes with light green, which is also a common color for pottery.
Bamboo Cyan — Zhu Qing (竹青)
Fresh bamboo in Chinese culture is the symbol of 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.
Jade Green — Yu Se (玉色)
Color of jade, the representative of decency, virtue, and honor.
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 Cyan Dragon, a mythical animal guarding in the Eastern section of the sky, as the representative of hope and spring. Read More
Scallion Green — Cong Lv (葱绿)
The color of scallion sometimes is used to describe beautiful filed, 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 has been popularized in China.
Moonlight in Bamboo Grove — Zhu Yue (竹月)
This is the color of moonlight shining through bamboo groves, cold blue mixes with chill purple.
Clear Sky — Ji Se (霁色)
This is the color of the bright, clear sky, especially after snow or rain.
Wine Cyan — Piao Se (缥色)
This is the color of a type of light cyan wine, which then is 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 White Tiger, a mythical creature guarding in the west section of the sky, which represents war, autumn, and death.
Snow White — Xue Se (雪色)
A pure, clear, plain color of the snow, flawless white mixes with light grey.
Frost White — Shuang Se (霜色)
The pure color of frost, the representative of pride and strong.
Moon White — Yue Bai (月白)
Color of the moonlight, pure white mixes with light blue. This is the symbol of beauty, affection, and longing for beloved ones, and eternity.
Secret Porcelain — Mi Se (秘色)
Secret pottery appeared in the Tang Dynasty, which was only provided to the royal family. The producing formula had been kept as top secret and got 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 common 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.
Since the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), bright yellow was exclusively used in the royal family. Gradually, civilians were no longer allowed to use it, except for Buddhism and Taoism religion.
Willow Bud — Liu Huang (柳黄)
This is the refreshing and vigorous color of willow bud, fresh yellow mixes with light green.
The willow tree has the same pronunciation in Chinese as the “stay”, therefore, snapping and giving a willow twig used to be an important 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 the representative of education in Chinese culture.
In the Three Kingdoms (220 AD — 280 AD), a great doctor named Dong Feng had saved many people's lives; those cured people only need to plant Apricot Trees as the consultation fee, while poverty people also could get free fruits from his large Apricot. Afterward, the Apricot Grove refers to Chinese Medicine and great doctors with kind hearts.
Daylily Yellow — Xuan Cao Huang (萱草黄)
Daylily has another name in Chinese, Forgetting of Sadness. Therefore, in ancient China, people would plant Daylily for their mothers before they leave 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 mixes with dark green, combined with the fragrance of leaves and grass, together they formed a picture of beautiful autumn.
Amber — Hu Po (琥珀)
Though this color is named after amber, it 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 mixes 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.
Snow Cyan — Xue Qing (雪青)
When 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 lotus, grey mixes with red.
Lotus Pink — Ou He Se (藕荷色)
The bud of the lotus flower is warm pinkish combines light purple, one of the 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 into light pink, the same color as the Gladiolus Fabric, exquisite and beautiful embroidery in China.
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 is the representative of love, beauty, and spring.
Peach, as one of the important tributes in big worship ceremonies, has long been believed as the food of deities, and the symbol of longevity and luck.
Begonia Red — Haitang Hong (海棠红)
Pomegranate Flower Red — Shi Liu Hong (石榴红)
The Pomegranate Flower looks like a skirt and had been used as an important pigment of 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 is also the representative of 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 that is guarding in the south section of the sky, who could guide 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).
Till today, this is still one of the most popular and lucky colors in China, which represents luck, passion, and auspiciousness. Read More
Rouge Red — Yan Zhi (胭脂)
Yan Zhi has been a popular cosmetic in ancient China, which was made of beautiful flowers and creamy grease.
Women would use water to dissolve Yan Zhi, and then apply it to cheeks and lips.
Romance Red — Fei Se (妃色)
In the Chinese language, Fei means wife of the crown prince, or imperial concubine of the emperor, or happy marriages. Therefore, this is the color of romantic love.
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