Color Symbolism in Chinese Culture: What Do the Traditional Colors Mean?

Chinese red lanterns and golden light in the night of Chinese New Year of happiness

You do not have to be a designer to have a special relationship with colors. Everyone has a favorite color, and in many cases, the culture you come from also plays a significant role in how you associate symbolic or hidden meanings with different colors.

The same is true in Chinese culture. A country with a rich heritage, China uses colors symbolically within every ritual, ceremony, festival, and even in business. In fact, compared to the West, China has a surprisingly different and maybe even more meaningful color symbolism.

Let us take a look at what traditional colors mean in Chinese culture.

Color Symbolism in Chinese Culture

Illustration of the Chinese five elements that affect color symbolism in China

Just as the Five Elements Theory (Fire, Earth, Water, Metal, Wood) plays an important role in influencing many Chinese beliefs and customs, it also affects Chinese color symbolism. Here are five of the most popular colors in China that are directly associated with the five elements:

Red – Fire

Red is associated with the fire element. It is a popular and promising color in Chinese culture that symbolizes luck, happiness, and joy. It also represents the summer season. Red is the color worn by brides as it is believed to be an auspicious color for warding off evil. In traditional Chinese color symbolism, red also represents vitality, celebration, and fertility.

Today, many Westerners believe the color red is a representation of China’s Revolution or political system. However, that is not the case since ancient Chinese roots certainly did not factor in the revolution for it. If you are doing business in China, use a bit of red in marketing, but not too much.

Yellow – Earth

Yellow is associated with the earth element. It is an imperial color representing power, royalty, and prosperity in traditional Chinese color symbolism. Yellow also represents late summer.

Today, yellow is symbolic of pornography in publications in China, so be careful when using this color, particularly for brand marketing.

Black – Water

As surprising as this might seem, the water element is not represented by blue but by black. The color black in Chinese culture is associated with destruction, evil, profundity, disasters, cruelty, sadness, and suffering. It is bad fortune and must not be worn for joyous occasions like weddings.

The Chinese word for black is ‘hei’, which stands for bad luck, irregularity, or illegality. To be on the safe side, avoid using black in your brand marketing.

White – Metal

White is associated with the metal element, and the color symbolizes purity in Chinese culture. However, in some instances, white is associated with death and is the color worn at funerals.

Today, white is a popular color in cars in China, and along with black, it is used widely for making consumer goods like watches, mobile phones, clothes, and more. Be careful when using white in marketing, and avoid wrapping presents in white paper when gifting them to someone.

Blue – Wood

Blue represents the wood element. It symbolizes spring, immortality, and advancement.

The color blue can be used quite liberally when marketing products or services.

Other Traditional Chinese Colors and What They Mean

Arc shapes in traditional Chinese colors

Here are some more Chinese color meanings that are worth knowing about:


Like in Western culture, the color gold also symbolizes wealth and riches in China.

You can easily use gold and related colors in marketing materials, although too much of it could make things a bit tacky and even cheap-looking.


When it comes to the color green, there are a few differences between Western and Chinese symbolism. Green stands for wealth, harmony, growth, and eco-friendliness in the West, whereas it stands for “clean and contamination free” in China.

Green is also used to describe organic things. For example, green milk means organic or toxin-free milk, and green vegetables mean without pesticides. A “man said to wear a green hat” means he has an unfaithful wife. So use the color green carefully as it could symbolize different things depending on who sees it.


In Western culture, purple symbolizes royalty, while in Chinese symbolism, it stands for divinity and immortality. In modern times, purple is being used to represent love or romance in China, just as the color red does in the West.

Younger consumers are highly attracted to purple when it is used in brands and marketing.

Multiple or Rainbow Colors

The Chinese rarely use multiple colors, as the rainbow seen in the sky was considered a sign that the emperor would die soon.

Colorful Chinese scenery with dragon


As you can see, China is a vast country with many facets. While you should use freedom and creativity when choosing colors, especially for marketing in this country, you should also be extra careful to avoid pitfalls like using colors with negative connotations.

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