China’s colourful fascination


Visiting China? Keep your eyes open for colours. For the Chinese, each has a powerful symbolism.

Happiness is red

For the Chinese, red is the colour of joy and good luck. Red is an essential element of any celebration, from New Year’s fireworks to wedding dresses.

Red is considered powerful enough to ward off evil spirits. That is why, for instance, the outer walls and doors of buildings in Beijing’s Forbidden City are red – to keep nasty spirits out. If the outside of your hotel is red, it may well be located next to a cemetery.

Red is also used for interior design and clothing – many young people wear red shoes for good luck, for instance.

In some areas, such as the provinces of Zhejiang and Anhui, red is traditionally considered a masculine colour, while green represents the feminine. Couples were traditionally given his-and-hers sets of blankets, one red and one green, as wedding presents. Nowadays some affluent families in Hangzhou choose a red or green roof depending if they have a son or a daughter.

Imperial yellow

Yellow symbolises gold and wealth, and is still considered an imperial hue. During the Han Dynasty, only the emperor had the right to wear yellow clothing or accessories. Luxury laws strictly decreed the use of other colours by the upper members of the court and the commoners.

In today’s Chinese families, children are often referred to as little emperors and empresses, so yellow suits them naturally. For parents and grandparents, an only child represents their security in old age, so these six adults spare no expense for his or her upbringing, education – or outfits.

Gold and yellow are also central colours in Buddhism. The fat golden Laughing Buddha can be seen in many cities, such as on the main tourist street of Hangzhou, where the jolly reclining figure holds scores of tiny people in his arms and the folds of his robe.

Blue or green?

In China there is no clear distinction between these two colours. Blue-green is one of the basic colours of the Five Elements theory, and is used metaphorically as the colour of the sea or the sky.
Indeed, in China, the sky often looks more greenish than bluish. During the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo 2010, the sky was blue for the first time in decades after factories temporarily closed in the region. The sky quickly regained its usual greenish-grey tinge soon afterwards.

Beautiful shades of blue and green can be seen on the roofs and walls of imperial buildings. Beijing’s Temple of Heaven is predominantly blue, because during the Ming Dynasty the emperor was considered to be the son of heaven.

In Chinese medicine, blue-green is associated with the eyes, and in terms of seasons it symbolises spring. Green is also linked to growth and the future. Green does however have one negative association: a green hat symbolises a wife’s infidelity, so it is a symbol of shame for men. So a green golf cap is not a good gift, nor should a model in an advertisement don a green hat.

Black and white

To the Chinese, white symbolises purity. Affluent Chinese have copied the western style of choosing white for furniture and even wedding gowns – a paradox since white has traditionally been associated with funerals. Many couples wear ‘lucky’ red outfits for the wedding ceremony and then switch to rented white ones for their wedding photos.

When it comes to business attire, the black suit remains the standard. Even during the hottest weather business visitors should leave their more casual light-coloured suits at home. If you want to convey a sense of reliability, professionalism and high status, you can’t go wrong with black, whether you’re a man or a woman. Accessories may be colourful though – and red is always a sure bet in China.

Text by Kirsi Kommonen
Photo by iStockphoto

A version of this article was previously published in Finnair´s Blue Wings magazine (Summer 2011).


Published October 18, 2011

Category: Local features