Color in Chinese culture

Color in Chinese culture refers to the certain values that Chinese culture attaches to colors, like which colors are considered auspicious (吉利) or inauspicious (不利). The Chinese word for “color” is yánsè (顏色). In Classical Chinese, the character sè (色) more accurately meant “color in the face”, or “emotion”. It was generally used alone and often implied sexual desire or desirability. During the Tang Dynasty, the word yánsè came to mean all color. A Chinese idiom which is used to describe many colors, Wǔyánliùsè (五颜六色), can also mean colors in general.

Theory of the Five Elements
In traditional Chinese art and culture, black, red, qing (青) (a conflation of the idea of green and blue), white and yellow are viewed as standard colors. These colors correspond to the five elements of water, fire, wood, metal and earth, taught in traditional Chinese physics. Throughout the Shang, Tang, Zhou and Qin dynasties, China’s emperors used the Theory of the Five Elements to select colors.

Element Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Color Green/blue Red Yellow White Black
Direction east south center west north
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Heavenly creature Azure Dragon
Vermilion Bird
Winged Snake
White Tiger
Black Tortoise
Heavenly Stems 甲, 乙 丙, 丁 戊, 己 庚, 辛 壬, 癸
Phase New Yang Full Yang Yin/Yang balance New Yin Full Yin
Energy Generative Expansive Stabilizing Contracting Conserving
Season Spring Summer Change of seasons
(Every third month)
Autumn Winter
Climate Windy Hot Damp Dry Cold
Development Sprouting Blooming Ripening Withering Dormant
Livestock dog sheep/goat cattle chicken pig
Fruit plum apricot jujube peach chestnut
Grain wheat beans rice hemp millet

Black, corresponding to water, is a neutral colour. The I Ching, or Book of Changes, regards black as Heaven’s color. The saying “heaven and earth of mysterious black” was rooted in the observation that the northern sky was black for a long time. They believed Tian Di, or Heavenly Emperor, resided in the North Star.

The Taiji symbol uses black and white to represent the unity of yin and yang. Ancient Chinese people regarded black as the king of colors and honored black more consistently than any other color. Lao Zi said that five colors make people blind, so the Dao School chose black as the color of the Dao.

In modern China, black is used in daily clothing. White is associated with death and mourning and was formerly worn at funerals, but depends on the age of passing.

Red, corresponding with fire, symbolizes good fortune and joy. Red is found everywhere during Chinese New Year and other holiday celebrations and family gatherings. A red envelope is a monetary gift which is given in Chinese society during holiday or special occasions. The red color of the packet symbolizes good luck. Red is strictly forbidden at funerals as it is a traditionally symbolic color of happiness; however, as the names of the dead were previously written in red, it may be considered offensive to use red ink for Chinese names in contexts other than official seals.

In modern China, red remains a very popular color and is affiliated with and used by the Government.

颜色 名称 英文 简介 16进制
大红 Red 即正红色,三原色中的红,传统的中国红,又称绛色。 #FF0000
石榴红 Garnet 石榴花的颜色,高色度和纯度的红色。 #f20c00
朱砂 Cinnabar 国画颜料 朱砂又称丹砂、辰砂,朱砂的粉末呈红色,可以经久不褪。 #ff461f
火红 Fiery red #ff2d51
朱膘 国画颜料 朱膘(朱砂中提炼、最上面的一层) #f36838
妃色 Light pink 妃色,即妃红色:古同“绯”,粉红色。杨妃色湘妃色粉红皆同义。 #ed5736
茜色 茜草染的色彩,呈深红色 #cb3a56
玄色 赤黑色,又指黑中带红的颜色,又泛指黑色 #622a1d

Generally green is associated with health, prosperity, and harmony. Green is also the color of jade. Separately, green hats are associated with infidelity and used as an idiom for a cuckold. This has caused uneasiness for Chinese Catholic bishops, who in ecclesiastical heraldry would normally have a green hat above their arms. Chinese bishops have compromised by using a violet hat for their coat of arms. Sometimes this hat will have an indigo feather to further display their disdain for the color green.

White, corresponding with metal, represents gold and symbolises brightness, purity, and fulfilment. White is also the color of mourning. It is associated with death and is used predominantly in funerals in Chinese culture. Ancient Chinese people wore white clothes and hats only when they mourned for the dead.

颜色 名称 英文 简介 16进制
精白 White 纯白,洁白,净白,粉白。 #ffffff
雪白 如雪般的洁白 #f0fcff
月白 淡蓝色 #d6ecf0
鱼肚白 似鱼腹部的颜色,多指黎明时东方的天色颜色 #fcefe8
象牙白 乳白色 #fffbf0
白色 #f2ecde

Yellow, corresponding with earth, is considered the most beautiful and prestigious color. The Chinese saying, Yellow generates Yin and Yang, implies that yellow is the center of everything. Associated with but ranked above brown, yellow signifies neutrality and good luck. Yellow is sometimes paired with red in place of gold.

Yellow was the emperor’s colour in Imperial China and is held as the symbolic color of the five legendary emperors of ancient China. Yellow often decorates royal palaces, altars and temples, and the color was used in the robes and attire of the emperors.

Yellow also represents freedom from worldly cares and is thus esteemed in Buddhism. Monks’ garments are yellow, as are elements of Buddhist temples. Yellow is also used as a mourning color for Chinese Buddhists.

Yellow is also symbolic of heroism, as opposed to the Western association of the colour with cowardice.

Yellow also means pornography in modern Chinese. For example, yellow movie (黄片) means blue movie, decimates yellow (扫黄) means wipe out pornography.

Common color-related vocabulary:
鎏金:A traditional method of gold plating in China is to apply gold dissolved in mercury to silver tires or copper tires.
飞金 泥金 洒金:Golden paint made of powdered gold or metal powder used to decorate papers or to reconcile paints in paints. Sprinkle gold one refers to a speckled pattern.
描金:In order to make the objects beautiful, they are depicted with gold and silver powder on them and decorated as a decoration.
花黄: ancient women’s face. Use gold-colored paper to cut stars, flowers, birds, etc., and place them on the forehead, or apply yellow on the forehead.
撒花: floral pattern on the fabric.
云斑: dark or matt stripes or spots (such as on marble) on lighter or translucent materials.
云母纹: textures like mica sections and shimmering shiny sand.

Source From Wikipedia