Avoiding Insult and Injury when Using Color in China

from  Allegravita Blog

While every world culture has its own unique symbolism and taboos, its fair to say that the ancient and very complex Chinese culture is the big daddy of cultural symbolism. Highly resonant symbolic memes run old and deep. Today, let's talk about the hidden meanings behind colors, especially in connection to effective communications in China.

There are many traps for young players!

Everything old is new again (or never became old in the first place)

Contemporary mainland Chinese culture places great importance on symbolism. Since ancient times the Chinese people have had hidden meanings and deep significance in connection with, well,  just about everything. Some little-known cultural superstitions about color continue to have resonance in many parts of contemporary Chinese society — your product’s or service’s audience.  For example, did you know that…

Green hats mean that the wearer’s wife is cheating on him, and

Black borders around photographs mean that the person pictured is dead, and

White gift wrapping makes the recipient think of his own death.

Colors are deeply symbolic in China, and can make or break your commercial offering in the Chinese marketplace.

It will be helpful to outline the main cultural cues caused by popular colors in contemporary mainland Chinese society. 

Such imperial red gates are frequently seen in palace and temple..

To non-Chinese, red is the most obvious color. According to a less-informed understanding of Chinese culture, red represents China and everything Chinese. Fundamentally, this is correct, but there are important subtitles which must be considered.

In ancient China, the color red gained its meaning from fire. Unlike many other countries where fire has long been regarded as a symbol of danger or destruction, fire is generally considered to be a good thing in China. The Chinese people have a saying, 红红火火 (hóng hóng huǒ huǒ, or literally “red, red, fire, fire”) meaning the life of someone expands, prospers, cracks and rockets like red flame. By the same principle, 火了(huǒ le, “caught fire”) means something has gained considerable popularity, and the adjective 火爆 (huǒ bào, “fire and explosion”) refers to places such as busy markets jam-packed with people, or a book or movie which is packed with action and excitement.

The color red has acquired these characteristics over millenia, and has is today the symbol of prosperity and happiness. Importantly, it’s also the primary color for celebrations, especially the Lunar New Year and wedding ceremonies.

With the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, red was adopted as the symbol of communism, revolution and (as the Party has it) “liberation”. Do understand however that this choice of red was influenced by the USSR rather than the ancient characteristics of the colour (remember that Mao’s communist party was philosophically (and often violently) opposed to superstition). So don’t confuse the red of China’s contemporary political system with “the red of the common people”.  The ancient roots of red don’t include revolution.



Shanghai Museum

We’re addressing yellow second, because like red, the color has some quite distinctive and problematic meanings.

When the term for “yellow”, “黄” (huáng) is used in connection to any kind of publication or media, it means the thing it describes is pornographic. For example, 黄图 (huáng tú, “yellow picture”) means pornographic pictures and graphics, 黄书 (huáng shū, “yellow book”) means pornographic writings, 黄片 (huáng piān, “yellow clips”) means pornographic movies, and 黄网 (huáng wǎng, “yellow web”) means pornographic websites.

So the next time you see Chinese police officers wielding a big banner saying 扫黄打非 (sǎo huáng dǎ fēi, “sweep the yellow and beat the un-”), you will know it’s time for one of their raids on pornography.

(Yes, that direct translation is a little obtuse — such is the habit of writing contemporary Mandarin in the mainland — more accurately, the police banner expresses the People’s Armed Police’s will to “sweep the street of yellow publications and beat unlawful activities”).

The other key cultural marker for the color yellow is that in ancient times, pure, bright yellow was used exclusively by emperors of several dynasties. To say someone has 黄袍加身 (huáng páo jiā shēn, “to wear the yellow robe”) means he has ascended to the throne, most likely by usurping. These ancient emperors reserved the color yellow for their own exclusive use, and anyone caught using yellow in any way during their dynasty would be put to death.


Kunming Changshui International Airport

Gold is a color which has long been used in China as a symbol of nobility and wealth. It is closely related to the ancient emperors’ “bright, pure yellow”.


Shanghai Liuli China Museum

Like in many European and British cultures, purple is a symbol of nobility (however it was never the imperial color).

Unlike European and British cultures, purple has deep religious meaning in China. An ancient Taoist symbol of divine presence is canonized as 紫气东来( zǐ qì dōnɡ lái, “a purple cloud coming from the east”).  This phrase is always used in connection to anything mortal ascending to immortality.


While the idea of “green” in the western world has some similarity in China, there are subtle but important differences which most new market entrants fail to grasp.

In China’s mainland, green means “clean” or “free of contaminants”.  Put into practice, this is not the same definition of clean that westerners might assume. Mostly when westerners talk about “green technology” or “green energy”, they mean “sustainable” or “eco-friendly”. A sort of cleanness to Mother Nature.

However in China, “green” vegetables are free of pesticides, but may contribute to environmental degradation. “Green” milk is milk without toxic melamine. “Green” publications are without explicit or prohibited content. So you see, “green” a widely applicable adjective with much broader and quite different meanings to “green” products or services in western society.

In general terms, green is a good choice of color in just about anything, except for hats. Symbolically, “getting a green hat” means a man has an unfaithful wife (in ancient China, husbands of prostitutes wore green headscarves). When preparing gifts for guests, partners or clients, green should be avoided at all costs if the gifts are intended to be worn anywhere on or near people’s heads.


White is used in funerals, which is quite different from western culture. A 白包 (bái bāo, “white envelope”) is an envelope of money to show the sympathy to family of the deceased, much opposed to the 红包 (hóng báo, “red envelope”) given to newlywed couples and children.

White is one the color that you must avoid for anything festive or celebratory.  White should never be used in connection to wedding ceremonies, especially in the less westernized (that means most) regions of the country. And when giving gifts of any kind, never wrap them in white.


Black has a wide array of symbolic meanings that include evil, morbid, corrupted, illegal, and/or greedy. As a color it has a hint of formality and solemness in the minds of the Chinese people. And when giving gifts of any kind, never wrap them in black.


Part of A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains by Wang Xi Meng (1096–1119)

青 (qīng) is an interesting color that doesn’t appear in the standard set of colors commonly identified in western cultures.

Some people (Chinese included) say it’s a sort of blue, while others say it’s part of the green family. There is actually no right-or-wrong with these ideas. Technically qing is a color that sits anywhere in between blue and green. You can call it green, blue, green-ish blue or blue-ish green, and not be thought of as being odd.

Adding a little more interest to this unique Chinese-only color, qing may include some grey. So qing can also be described as greenish-grey blue, or bluish-green grey, or any other combination of these shades.

Qing is closely linked to historical buildings and clothing, like qing bricks, and qing pattern porcelain.  Also, there is a type of female character in Peking Opera called a 青衣 (qīng yī, “qing colored costume”) because they usually wear costumes of this interesting color.

Rainbow Spectra

Chinese people seldom use a rainbow spectrum in things. The Gay Pride rainbow is unknown in China. In ancient times, a rainbow across the sun would foretell that the emperor would soon die or be challenged.

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