Close up of red and gold Chinese lanterns

Colour in Chinese culture has a rich history. Western countries have lots of colour associations such as red for love and green for nature. China has even more associations and even have an in-depth colour theory that has influenced their use of colour for over a thousand years.

We’re going to look at what some of the colours mean in China. Once you’ve learned about the Chinese colour meanings you’ll be able to understand why things look the way they do in China.

Five Elements Colour Theory

In China, colours have a very symbolic meaning. Their symbolic meaning is connected to the 5 elements theory. This theory explains that there are 5 elemental forces that interact with each other to make the world.

These elements are wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Each element has many associations. For example, Fire is connected with Summer, the planet Jupiter and the Zodiac Signs of the Snake and Horse. Each element also has a colour association, which we’ll look at now.

Try and guess what each colour the 5 elements are associated with, you might be surprised by what they are!

Red

In ancient China red or Hóng 红, gained its meaning from fire.

Fire is not seen as a symbol of destruction. Quite the opposite, it has multiple meanings of extended life and prosperity. It can also symbolise a rise in popularity: a book, film, restaurant or just a busy market with lots of activity. In Chinese, the word ‘popularity’ is called huǒ le  火了, which translates as ‘caught fire’.

Red also represents happiness, good fortune and wealth. This is why the colour is everywhere at New Year’s Eve or the Spring Festival as it is known as in mainland China.

In China at New Year and other celebrations like your graduation or wedding you might receive a red envelope with money in it. The red envelope not only symbolises good luck but it is also thought to ward off evil spirits!

Red Chinese symbols

Yellow

This one might surprise you. Yellow is associated with the earth element (I bet you thought this would be green!).

Yellow is associated with happiness, the Earth, being centred and health.

In ancient times yellow was a colour that would only be worn by royalty. Chinese Emporers would wear yellow robes and decorate their palaces with the colour. If someone who was not royal was found to be wearing yellow they’d be in a lot of trouble.

China’s first emporer was known as the Yellow Emperor. Whether he is a myth or based on a real person is up for you to decide.

Qianlong Emperor wearing the royal yellow dress

Green

Green is connected with the element wood and represents spring, hope, regeneration, fertility and wellbeing. It also has notions of nature, organic produce and ecology.

The green hills of Qingbao Meng

Black

Black is associated with the water element. It has connections with the North Star and the heavens. It was once revered as a holy colour and was considered powerful.

White

The element of metal is associated with the colour white. The associations for white are an interesting mix. It represents purity and fulfilment but is also associated with death and mourning.

When going to a funeral or in mourning Chinese people will wear white – the complete opposite to wearing all black like people do in the West.

Due to its association with death white is a colour that traditionally Chinese people would avoid wearing for festivities. This means that wedding dresses would never be white like what we are used to in the West. Instead, women would wear red wedding dresses. This makes a lot of sense because what else would you want to wish upon a newlywed couple other than happiness and prosperity which is what the colour red symbolises.

These days, for the younger generation, it is not uncommon for women to wear white wedding dresses. The symbolic nature of colours is generally impacting decisions less.

More colours with meaning

Gold symbolises nobility, wealth and the colour of the sun. It is commonly paired with the colour red for gifts and decorations.

A bunch of red and gold Chinese dragons

Purple is a symbol of nobility, immortality and spiritual awareness connected to Taoism where it is a symbol of divine presence. In modern China, purple is also associated with love and romance, much like red and pink in western countries.

Qīng 青 is a colour recognisably used in Chinese art, ceramics and architecture. It is a sometimes green, sometimes turquoise colour. In Imperial China, it was a symbol of intellectuals and scholars also used for the robes of servants.

Pink in China is just another shade of red. It doesn’t have the same connection to being ‘girly’ that is sometimes associated with it in the West.

Chinese culture is wonderfully different from our own in so many ways and really fun to learn about. When we teach Chinese we incorporate a lot of culture into our lessons to help contextualise the learning. If you want to find out more about Dragons Teaching then check out our provision for primary and secondary schools and also our online teaching service DragonsConnect.