China is one of the world’s largest countries with one of the world’s oldest and deepest cultures. In Chinese cosmology, things are often linked to symbolic elements that have unique characteristics. In today’s post, we will see how colors are used in China’s symbolism and what are their meanings.

The colors allow the Chinese to describe the world around them. Each color has a particular meaning that might be different from one culture to another. In China, there are five “traditional” colors (五 颜, wǔ yán), arranged according to a specific order, which is directly related to the philosophy of the five elements. Some colors in Chinese are considered inauspicious, others are auspicious. They usually consider color as emotion or color in the face, but now color in Chinese can mean many things. To make sure that you understand, here are the little explanations of each color in Chinese culture.


The Five Elements


There is a popular theory about color in China. China’s emperor has a theory of the five elements to select a color. The color green stands for wood, red  stands for fire, yellow for earth, white for metal and black for water.


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Image: The Spruce



Black

Black represents water. In China, as elsewhere in the world, black 黑 symbolizes something serious, very formal. It was the color wore by the imperial dignitaries,  much like the outfits of our lawyers back in the West. Black also expresses the secret in Chinese, something that is happening in the shadow. This is why the mafia is translated as “black society” (黑社会, hēi shèhuì), dirty money by black money (黑钱 hēiqián) and clandestine workers by black workers (黑 工 hēigōng). Black is also considered as a neutral color. Thus, in modern China, people usually wear black clothes in their daily life and white is usually for funerals.


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Image: Guojiadashuai



Red


Red symbolized luck and happiness

The second color is red. It represents fire. Chinese people usually believe that red can be a sign of joy and fortune. It has been common color in Chinese New Year and other official or traditional holidays. That is why many older people or people that have been married usually give red envelope as red is a sign of good luck. Red in Chinese culture is not usual for an event like a funeral because it  represents happiness. Thus, it can be pretty offensive to wear red clothes to the funeral ceremony.


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Image: Seattle Times



Green


“Wearing a green hat” means “being cuckolded” in Chinese

In China, green color usually carries a negative meaning. The Chinese think that someone who does not feel good has a green face. “Having a green face” also means to be angry. Another popular meaning is to cheat on someone. “Wearing a green cap” means being unfaithful to your husband. Generally this term is used for a woman who had a relationship with another man and therefore dishonored her husband.

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Image: RandomWire



White


People wearing white shirts at a funeral in China

The fourth color is white. It strongly symbolized the purity and brightness of the metal. It is the official color of clothes in a funeral ceremony. The Chinese are also obsessed with the white skin, as it is usually related to your position in the society.


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Image: Gentleman's Gazette



Yellow


A Chinese emperor wearing yellow clothes

The last color is yellow as a symbol of earth. This color, very important in Chinese symbolism, represents glory, wisdom, harmony, happiness, culture. Yellow is reserved for the Emperor, it is the color of royalty.Later, it took very different meaning as yellow is also the color of sex and pornography.


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Image: China Daily