Choose Your Colors Carefully

What colors do you picture when you think of China? Most likely red and yellow, like the national flag. These two colors have the most significance in traditional Chinese culture but every color has some significance. The meaning of colors in Chinese culture has also changed over time, especially with the transition from an imperial to a communist government. So what message are you sending by using certain colors?

Red 红色 hóngsè

 Red decorations during Spring Festival

Red decorations during Spring Festival

The color most often associated with China is red. From the flag to banners to festivals, red is the luckiest and most popular color. Red symbolizes good luck, happiness, prosperity, and celebration. During holidays, especially Spring Festival (New Year), people put red banners around their door and give red envelopes (红包, hóngbāo) with money to children. Traditionally, brides wear red wedding dresses, although many brides are now choosing western style white dresses instead. For your birthday or when it's your zodiac year, wearing red underwear will bring you good luck. The only time red is not lucky is when writing someone's name. Red ink was used to write the names of the deceased so never write a person or a company's name in red.

Yellow 黄色 huángsè

While people can be seen wearing yellow all over China now, it was once a highly restricted color, only worn by the emperor and relatives and only seen on palace buildings. Temples were also permitted to use yellow and it is a popular color in Buddhism, seen on temple buildings and monk's robes. In modern China, yellow has come to indicate taboo subjects, specifically pornographic books and movies.

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Gold 金色 jīngsè

Different than yellow, the color gold holds the same meaning as the precious metal: wealth. People like to have gold objects and clothing to make people think they are wealthy. The most popular colors for the iPhone in China are gold and red.

White 白色 báisè

Similar to the rest of the world, white symbolizes purity and brightness in China. However, traditionally, it was also worn to funerals, representing death. Now it's common for people to wear white, drive white cars, and wear white wedding dresses, but it's still a great idea to wrap a present in white paper.

Black 黑色 hēisè

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Common global cultural associations with the color black also exist in China, such as darkness, destruction, and sadness. In addition to these meanings, black also represents water and is often considered to be a neutral color. Black is the color of ink and has been used for calligraphy and ink paintings for thousands of years.

Green 绿色 lǜsè

There isn't a strong symbolism for the color green. It is associated with nature, plants, and peace the same way it is in other cultures. However, there is a saying "his wife gave him a green hat (绿帽子, lǜ màozi) to wear" which means that his wife is cheating on him. So don't wear a green hat!


This article is part of our new online Chinese course. An efficient way to learn Chinese language for working and living in China.