Colours in Chinese Culture

29 September 2016

Learn about the meaning of colours in Chinese culture.

Close up image of two people handing over red envelopes
The exchange of the red envelope

A colour in Chinese culture refers to certain values; they can be auspicious (吉利) or inauspicious (不利). The Chinese word for colour is yánsè (顏色). In Classical Chinese, the character sè (色) more accurately meant "colour of 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 colours.

Black 黑色 hēi sè

Black is a neutral colour and corresponds to water. The I Ching, or Book of Changes, regards black as Heaven’s colour. The saying “heaven and earth of mysterious black” goes back to 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 regarded black as the king of colours and honoured black more consistently than any other colour. Lao Zi said that five colours make people blind, so the Dao School chose black as the colour 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 the one passing. 

It is also commonly associated with several groups promoting the learning of Chinese, particularly DRSS.

Red 红色 hóng sè

Red symbolizes good fortune and joy and corresponds to fire. Red is found everywhere during Chinese New Year and other holidays and family gatherings. A red envelope is a monetary gift which is given in Chinese society during holiday or special occasions. The red colour of the packet symbolizes good luck. Red is strictly forbidden at funerals as it is a traditionally symbolic colour 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 colour and is affiliated with and used by the Communist government.

Green 绿色 lǜ sè

Generally green is associated with health, prosperity, and harmony. 
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 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 colour green.

White 白色 bái sè

White represents gold and symbolizes brightness, purity, and fulfilment and corresponds to metal. White is also the colour 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.

Yellow 黄色 huáng sè

Yellow is considered the most beautiful and prestigious colour and corresponds to earth. The Chinese saying, Yellow generates Yin and Yang, implies that yellow is the centre of everything. Yellow is sometimes paired with red in place of gold and signifies neutrality and good luck. 

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

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

In contrast to the American association to the colour with cowardice, in China it is the symbol of heroism.

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