Color Symbolism in Chinese Culture: What do Traditional Chinese Colors Mean?

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

One need not be a designer to have a special relationship with colors. Everyone has a favorite and in many cases, their culture also plays a significant role when it comes to associating 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, lately, even in business. In fact; compared to the West, China has a surprisingly different and more powerful color symbolism.

Let us study what different colors mean in Chinese culture.

Color Symbolism in Chinese Culture

Just as the Five Elements Theory (of Metal, Fire, Water, Wood and Air) play an important role in influencing many of the Chinese beliefs and customs, the color theory is also based on the 5 elements. Hence five of the most popular colors in China also corresponded to these 5 Elements namely:

  1. Red Fire: Red is an auspicious as well as a popular color in Chinese culture. It symbolizes luck, happiness and joy. It also represents summer season and the Southern Direction. It is the color worn by brides, since it is believed to be an auspicious color for warding off evil. Red also represents vitality, celebration and fertility in traditional Chinese color symbolism. Today, westerners take red to be a representation of China’s Revolution or political system. However, this is definitely not the case since ancient Chinese roots certainly did not factor in the revolution for it. If you are doing business in China, make use of bit of red in marketing, but not too much.
  2. Yellow – Earth: Yellow is an imperial color representing power, royalty and prosperity in traditional Chinese color symbolism. It mainly represents late summer and central direction. Today, yellow is symbolic of pornography in publications in China. So, do be careful when using yellow, particularly for brand marketing.
  3. Black – Water: As surprising as this might seem, Water element is not represented by Blue, but with Black. Black color in Chinese culture is associated with destruction, evil, profundity, disasters, cruelty, sadness and suffering. It is bad fortune and must not be worn to auspicious occasions like weddings. The Chinese word for black is ‘hei’ which itself stands for bad luck, irregularity, illegality etc. Avoid using black in your brand marketing.
  4. White – Metal: White stands for the metal element and also symbolizes purity in Chinese culture. However, in some instances, it 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) is used widely for making consumer goods such as watches, cells phones, clothes etc. Be judicious in using white in marketing and avoid wrapping presents in White paper when gifting them to someone.
  5. Blue – Wood: Blue represents the Wood element and also symbolizes spring, immortality and advancement. Blue can be used quite liberally in case of marketing product or service.

Other traditional Chinese colors and what they represent

  1. Gold– Like in Western culture, Gold also symbolizes wealth and riches in China. One can easily use it and related colors in their marketing materials (though too much of it could make things a bit gaudy and even cheap-looking).
  2. Green– There is not much difference in between Western Symbolism associated with Green and that of it in Chinese traditions. The important differences include: Green stands for wealth, harmony, growth, 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 ones without pesticides. A “man said to wear a green hat” means he has an unfaithful wife. Thus, green should be used carefully as it could symbolize something totally different.
  3. Purple– In the 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 red color does in the West. Younger consumers are highly attracted to Purple when it is used in brands and for marketing.
  4. Multiple colors or Rainbow colors– The Chinese rarely use multiple colors since the rainbow seen in the sky was taken as a sign that the Emperor would die soon.

As is evident, China is a vast country with multitude of facets. While one must certainly use freedom and creativity in their use of colors especially when marketing in this country; one should also be extra careful in order to avoid pitfalls posed by the use of certain colors with negative connotations.

Read Next: Chinese Opera Mask Colors and Their Symbolic Meanings