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Mandarin Go | The symbolics of colors in China (and its vocabulary)


You will learn the vocabulary of colors in Chinese, but also their traditional symbols and contemporary meanings.

The five traditional colors in China

According to Chinese cosmology, there are 5 traditional colors (五颜, wǔ yán).a

Each of these colors is associated with one of the 5 Chinese elements: red for fire (火), yellow for earth (土), green for wood (木), white for metal (金) and black for water (水).


Red, the symbol of joy and good fortune

                                                               The character of the color red is written (hóng).

If we break it down, we can see that it is formed of the silk radical () and the labor radical (). To retain this character, you can think of the beautiful Chinese red silk clothes and the importance of work in this culture.

In Chinese cosmology, the color red is associated with the element of fire ().

It is a color that the Chinese love and is very present in their culture. It refers to luck, success and financial success.

Yellow, the color of the emperor and sex

In Mandarin, yellow is called 黄色 (huángsè).

The character may seem difficult to write, but if you know Chinese radicals, it's actually much easier to remember than it looks. From top to bottom, one can see the radical of the herb (), followed by the character of the cause () and the number eight ().

According to traditional cosmology, yellow is associated with the earth element ().

The Chinese consider that yellow is at the center of everything and that it generates Yin and Yang.

This color also symbolizes wealth and nobility in China.

It was once reserved for the emperor. The first emperor, who is considered the founder of Chinese civilization, is nicknamed the Yellow Emperor or Huang Di (黄帝, Huángdì). China is often referred to as yellow land and its main river as yellow river.

In Buddhism, yellow is also important because it symbolizes humility and emptiness.

In Feng Shui, it symbolizes conviviality, trust and power of will.

But beware, today, yellow has taken on new meanings that it is essential to know so as not to embarrass the Chinese.  In particular, it has become the color of sex, eroticism and pornography.

Green, the color of cleanliness, but also of infidelity

The character of the color green in Chinese is written 绿 (lǜ)."

Again, this character is not as difficult to write as it looks. On the left, you have the character of silk (as in the color red). The right part is composed of the muzzle at the top (), and water at the bottom (). Easy, isn't it?

According to Chinese cosmology, the color green is related to the element of wood ().  It is a positive color that represents prosperity, fertility, renewal, hope or harmony.

Be careful, however, there is a situation in which green can have a bad connotation. In China, the expression 戴绿帽子 (dàilǜmào zi), a literal translation of "wearing the green hat", means "to be cuckold".

It is for this reason that I advise you not to wear a green hat in China if you do not want to be mocked! Also, avoid offering a hat or a green cap to a Chinese person. He might take it badly... Yes, even for St. Patrick's Day, we avoid!

White, the symbol of purity and death

In Chinese, the color white is called 白色 (báisè).

To remember the character , you can simply remember that it is the character of the sun () with a small comma on top.

In Chinese cosmology, this color is associated with the element of metal ().

It symbolizes the purity and brightness of this element. It is also the official color of the clothes to wear during a funeral ceremony. Yes, in China, we do not wear black at the funeral, but white! This color means that the Chinese accompany the deceased to the kingdom of purity and heaven.

Black, the symbol of sobriety and stability

The color black is called 黑色 (hēisè) in Chinese.

The character consists of three parts: half of the key of the field (), the radical of the earth () and that of the fire (). Yet, surprisingly, in Chinese cosmology, black represents the element of water ().

Just like in the West, the color black represents serious and formal things. It can also symbolize secrecy, as in the word mafia, which is called black society in Chinese (黑社会, hēishèhuì).

Black also refers to knowledge, stability and power.  This is why government vehicles and public force uniforms are usually of this color.


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