The Deep Meaning of Lucky and Unlucky Colors in China

Traditional ancient Chinese architecture in red colors

People in Western countries often look at China with a sense of awe. Part of this fascination has to do with the colors in China and the extensive history of the country compared to countries in the West. For example, the exact age of the United Kingdom is up for debate. It largely depends on what people agree on as the true genesis of their culture. But if we consider the birth of the U.K. as synonymous with Britain then it dates back to 1536. The British would begin colonizing North America in 1587. This would, of course, lead to the United States officially declaring independence in 1776. All of these numbers paint a long and fascinating history of Western civilization.

However, two to five hundred years is only a drop in the bucket of human history as a whole. And it’s here that we see one of the reasons why China is so fascinating to Westerners. The culture of China as we know it today dates back to around 1600 B.C. This period, known as the Shang Dynasty, saw the rise of cultural movements and philosophies still thriving to this very day.

It’s little wonder people in the West have traditionally looked at China with intense curiosity. Marco Polo’s writings may well have lit the spark of curiosity among Westerners looking into Chinese culture. But the more people in the West were exposed to this ancient culture the more curious they’d often become. It’s not just a matter of historic or cultural curiosity either. China’s artistic expression has evolved over its extensive history into something both refined and subtly unique to the Western aesthetic. And it’s here that we can see one of the cultural features which makes China so interesting.

China’s color preferences are often quite distinct from what we see in the West. People can usually identify a Chinese restaurant or Chinatown district simply by the color schemes. Traditional Chinese designs are usually quite noticeable when situated in the midst of Western architecture.

However, color in china isn’t simply a matter of aesthetics. Color also has an important place in China’s extensive history. Colors usually have specific meanings and implications. And in particular, China has some colors which are considered especially lucky and others which bode misfortune. Combining positive colors and eschewing negative are part of what creates the distinctive Chinese aesthetic.

The Importance of Nonverbal Communication in China

Decorative yin yang symbol with sprigs and leaves

To understand color preferences in China we must first look into an important part of the country’s culture. The earliest examples of Chinese philosophy show a heavy emphasis on both cycles and symbolism. One of the best known examples is the Yin-Yang symbol. The symbol shows a circle made up of a black section and a white section. The black part has an element of white housed within it and the white has an element of black.

The Yin-Yang symbol is artistically appealing even without knowing its philosophical meaning. But the simple symbol shows a complex concept which is deeply significant to Confucian thought. The Yin-Yang symbol teaches people about the interdependence of seemingly opposite conditions such as life and death. It also shows how colors and symbols are linked to important philosophical concepts. The Yin-Yang symbol can be thought of as a simple binary representation. On one side we find white, on the other black. But taken as a whole these colors teach people that what seems like an unchanging absolute can actually be cyclical. White flows into black and black into white.

At first glance the symbol simply consists of a half black and half white circle. But when we associate Yang with life and Yin with death we see the full message. It shows that life is inherently linked with death in a recurring cycle. This is also one of the first and primary examples of Chinese culture linking color with significant meanings and lessons. It’s important to remember the Yin-Yang symbol when looking at China’s color theory. China has been linking color and meanings together for thousands of years. This signifies that every color has a rich history behind it. And much like with the Yin-Yang symbol, other colors are seen as relational to each other and a larger idea of balance.

Colors and the Fundamental Elements

Illustration of the five elements of china: wood, fire, earth, metal and water

The ancient Chinese philosophers developed a view of the world based on fundamental elements. This is similar in the West to the concept of elemental earth, air, fire and water. In ancient China people felt the world was divided into gold (metal), wood, earth, water and fire. Each element has associated colors and relationships with each other. For example, gold and water work in harmony.

Gold is related to the color white while water is related to black. Put the compatible elements of gold and water together and we see the Yin-Yang working in harmony and balance. It’s important to keep in mind that both lucky and unlucky colors should also be considered within the environment as a whole. For example, the Chinese flag has a red base with yellow stars. Red symbolizes fire and yellow symbolizes earth. These two elements are compatible with each other and form an auspicious combination. Most colors have similar associations with each other in China. With that in mind, we can move on to examine specific colors which are held to have lucky or unlucky connotations.

Lucky and Unlucky Colors in China

The Red Flame of Renewal

Chinese wedding with woman in red and gold dress

People in China love the color red. Of course an appreciation of the color red is hardly unique to China. It’s one of the most universally appreciated colors in the history of humanity as a whole. After all, red is the color of blood. People don’t need to have a detailed understanding of medicine or biology to understand that blood is a vital part of living beings. And the color of blood will therefore usually be held in high regard. However, China’s appreciation for the color red goes beyond what we see in most cultures.

As previously noted red is tied together with the element of fire. Fire is itself sometimes tied in with vitality and blood. It should start to become clear why red is such a popular color in China. Life and vitality are important traits for a well lived life. Add in the red on the Chinese flag and it’s easy to see why people would grow up with a healthy appreciation for the color.

Red is so popular that we can see it in many celebratory traditions and rituals. Brides usually wear red during weddings in China. People often put money in red envelopes as a gift on New Years. And red lanterns are expected during many traditional festivals. When people think of China they often think of the color red. It’s true that many people in China like the color red for aesthetic reasons. But people also appreciate it as a sign of good fortune.

Good Fortune From the Royal Yellow Color

Closeup of yellow glazed tile roof in China

Yellow is traditionally associated with royalty in China. This might seem like a minor connection to many people in the West. For example, Westerners sometimes associate purple with royalty. But that link seldom has any real bearing on a Westerner’s appreciation of the color purple. That’s not the case with China and the color yellow. One of the main reasons again comes down to China’s lengthy history. China’s royal dynasty spans thousands of years. It’s little wonder that the legendary first Emperor of China, Gongsun Xuanyuan, would be held in special regard. And this individual is also known as the Yellow Emperor. The link between yellow and royalty is almost inseparable within that context.

The link between yellow and royalty would show up in many different ways through Chinese history. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties the emperor would adorn himself in yellow robes. The imperial palaces of the Song Dynasty were constructed with beautiful yellow tiles. A yellow carriage would often signify an emperor’s presence within.

The color yellow is also heavily associated with Chinese Buddhism. This particular branch of the religion ties yellow in with freedom from materialism. Likewise, monks in China often wear yellow robes as a symbol of their calling.

All of these associations show the high regard yellow has in China. It’s little wonder that this highly respected color is also seen as lucky. Yellow in this context is particularly associated with luck in the sense of one’s prestige or social standing.

Green Highlights Growth in More Ways Than One

Low angle view of green natural bamboo forest in China

Chinese culture traditionally associates green with growth, fertility and regeneration. As with the West, there’s also an association between the color green and nature. Chinese tradition links the color green with their concept of elemental wood. This often means that it’s also seen as a symbol of natural purity. For example, packaging will often incorporate the color green to indicate that it’s free of contaminants.

China also associates the color green with wealth. Green can symbolize growth and health in a biological sense. But the association with green can also suggest luck in growing personal wealth.

White Brings Along Some Unexpected Meaning

Chinese funeral at temple with people sitting on red carpet in white clothes

People in the West usually associate white with purity or even holiness. China has a very different view of the color. In China white is usually associated with death or mourning. Anyone going to a funeral is bound to see mourners adorned in white.

The association of white with death means that many people feel it’s an unlucky color. White in this context is seen as inviting death into one’s life.

Secrets Hidden Under the Black Cloak of Darkness

Man in black suit holding power in hand symbolizing control

China traditionally looks at the color black as a sign of secrecy. This isn’t always a negative thing. Secrecy can be utilized for positive as well as negative intent. Secrecy often goes hand in hand with power and control as well. This has led to a black theme for government cars and police uniforms. That said, an average person’s interactions with people in power are often difficult experiences.

In the context of power, there’s also a much darker association to be seen with the color black. Organized crime in China is often referred to as the “black society”. China also associates the color black with bruises. All of this lends a somewhat unfavorable impression of the color black within Chinese culture.

In isolation from other colors, black can be seen as a portent of ill intent. That said, black is still fairly common in China. If black is isolated from any other colors it can be seen as unlucky. But people still dress with black clothing or accessories and typically don’t shy away from it in day to day life.

Balance and Luck

Woman with hand palms together practicing yin yang force calm and balanced in Chinese garden

We’ll close by once again emphasizing the role of balance in Chinese philosophy. This look into lucky and unlucky colors in China began and ended with black and white. Taken alone either of these colors will often signify bad luck. But put the two together and they create a balance with Yin and Yang transitioning into each other for positive results.

The idea of balancing colors and elements is a fundamental part of Chinese tradition and philosophy. As such, it’s important to not only consider color in isolation from each other. A single color puts a singular emphasis on certain traits and emotions. But we can work with those emotions by balancing them with complementary colors. In this context the Chinese view of color can be seen as somewhat akin to a visual language. Each element has positive or negative meanings. But the colors can create a much larger statement when used together to form a more complete whole.