I Will Show You Some Colors


WORDS for colors often have social and cultural implications. In France blue is reserved for the king, but travel abroad to other cultures and this is not the case. We have an expression in French “I am turning black,” an equivalence of “seeing red” in English. In Japan inexperience is described as having a “blue butt” – referring to the Mongolian spot most Asian babies are born with on their lower back – whereas in English such rawness is denoted by the color green. These are just some of the many examples of how colors are interpreted differently by people from different backgrounds.

In Chinese 颜色 (yán sè), color, originally meant countenance. That’s why its two components 颜 (yán) forehead, and 色 (sè) color, can be found in many words concerning the face, such as 脸色 (liǎn sè), 颜面 (yán miàn) and 面色 (miàn sè), all meaning complexion literally and mood metaphorically. If a Chinese person says somebody is 脸色好 (liǎn sè hǎo) – that their complexion is good – today, this could also express that they look like they are in high spirits.

According to geomantic theories the Five Elements are each associated with a color – wood with 青 (qīng) green, fire with 红 (hóng) red, earth with 黄 (huǎng) yellow, gold with 白 (bái) white, and water with 黑 (hēi) black. The last is confusing to many, but it comes from water often being used in The Book of Changes as a synonym for abyss, whose unfathomable depth gives it its dark hue.

Yellow, rather than green or brown as in English, is the color associated with the earth, the same color as the loess plains that were the cradle of Chinese civilization. China’s mother river – 黄河 (Huáng hé), the Yellow River – got its name because of the dense sediment of sand and 黄土(huáng tǔ), loess, in it, which gives its water a russet tinge. In Chinese myths 黄帝 (Huáng dì), the Yellow Emperor, is the father of Chinese of all indigenous ethnic groups in the Central Plains.

Yellow is the royal color in China. In feudal times it was reserved exclusively for the use of the monarch – his robe is yellow and so are the tiles of his palaces. Chronicles of the Han Dynasty declares: “Yellow stands for the center, and is hence the color of the clothing of His Majesty.” In ancient Chinese philosophy the Five Elements and their representative colors each correspond to different directions – green to east, red to south, yellow to center, white to west and black to north. The king is the ruler of the whole nation, and sits at the heart of political power.

Red is equally, if not more, important in Chinese culture. French has been directly influenced by this, with the phrase Chinese red. During the Year of Chinese Culture in France, the nighttime lighting at the Eiffel Tower was red instead of yellow.

Red indicates the sun, the nurturer of all life on the earth. There is a saying in China – 日至而万物生 (rì zhì ér wàn wù shēng), the sun rises and all life comes out. Red dominates all major events in China. At the Spring Festival people hand out 红包 (hóng bāo), red envelopes containing money, to kids, and paste 红对联 (hóng duì lián), red couplets, on their door frames. As red is the color of blood and fire, it also signifies life and prosperity. Guests at weddings often wish new couples a thriving life 红红火火 (hóng hóng huǒ huǒ). A person that has drawn much public attention for whatever reason is referred to as 很红 (hěn hóng), very popular. 红颜知己 (hóng yán zhī jǐ) is a like-minded female friend, instead of a friend of red skin as it reads literally.

青 (qīng) is a color somewhere between blue and green, and is often related to spring and 青春 (qīng chūn), youth. For instance, young people are 青年 (qīng nián). 青 is sometimes interchangeable with 蓝 (lán), blue, which is the color of the sky and why the Temple of Heaven is roofed with blue glazed tiles.

The composition of the character 黑 (hēi) is highly pictographic, appearing as a pot of ink over flames. Like many other cultures, in China black means solemnity and is the color of dress at official events. As in the West, judges wear dark robes in court and musicians wear dark tailcoats onstage. Another similarity is that black also has the connotation of darkness and secrecy in Chinese. This is why it appears in words such as 黑社会 (hēi shè huì), “gangsterdom,” 黑钱 (hēi qián), illegal money, and 黑工 (hēi gōng) illegal labor. If some practice is 很黑 (hěn hēi), corruption is involved.

The feeling towards white, however, is an example of the extent of cultural differences between China and Western countries. In China white is the color for funerals instead of weddings as in the West. The expression 红事白事 (hóng shì bái shì), red events and white events, refers to first weddings and then funerals. In Peking Opera the treacherous and sly characters wear white masks, hence giving rise to the phrase 唱白脸的 (chàng bái liǎn de), person who plays the white mask role, which means hypocrite. Ungrateful people are 白眼儿狼 (bái yǎnr láng), white-eyed wolf. White is also a synonym for blankness in some circumstances. The management of such blank space is a defining skill in Chinese painting. If persuasion or discussion yields no tangible result, people may lament 白说了 (bāi shuō le). Colors are highly and sometimes complexly expressive in every language. In a standoff Chinese people will warn the other: “给你点颜色看看”(gěi nǐ diǎn yán sè kàn kan), “I will show you some colors,” which means “I will make it hot for you.”