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Colors and Their Symbolic Meanings


Colors and Their Symbolic Meanings
Yu Xin 131100054

Introduction:
Color is not only a useful tool by which people could better understand this world, but also a significant part of human culture for their symbolic meanings. Symbolic meanings of color in different culture share a lot of similarities. However, in some cases, the implication of a color does not agree with the symbolic meaning of its counterpart in another culture. For instance, Chinese people tend to associate white with death, while western people often regard white as the symbol of good luck. Differences like this may give rise to misunderstanding or even conflicts when cross-culture communication takes place. This essay will briefly explore the differences between symbolic meanings of Chinese color words and English color words as well as some reasons behind with four frequently used colors: red, white, blue and purple, for the convenience of research and better understanding.

Red:
Chinese people have a predilection for the color of red, which implies good luck, happiness and success. Red is believed to be auspicious (or “jili”) in Chinese culture. It can defend people from evil. This belief comes from a traditional Chinese tale that ancient people drove the monster named “nian” away by firing red firecrackers and wearing red clothes. Until today, Chinese people will hang a red character “喜” and a pair of red couplet on the door in the Spring Festival. Chinese expressions like “开门红”and “红运” all indicate the close relationship between the color of red and good luck. Also, red is the symbol of happiness (or “xiqing” in Chinese). A typical example is the traditional Chinese wedding, which is featured by the wide use of red. The bride and bridegroom are dressed in red costumes. Bridal sedan chair, furniture and declarations are red as well. Then, Chinese expressions like “红榜” shows that red has something to do with success. For instance, cover of honor certificate in China, in most cases, is red. Another interesting example is Chinese stock market. In foreign countries, red stands for the fall of share prices, which is the symbol of failure. However, red in Chinese stock market indicates the rise of share prices, the symbol of success. Chinese people’s preference for red has something to do with traditional belief and worship. Ancient Chinese people worshiped the god of sun and the god of fire. Red, as the color of sun and fire, thus was associated with positive meanings. Besides, red implies revolution and political correctness in China due to Chinese revolution in the 20th century. For instance, terms like “红军” and “红色政权” refer to the army or political power under the control of Communist Part of China. People nowadays may still employ the expression “又红又专” to depict a someone who specializes in certain field and also firmly believes in Marxism. In addition, red also means alarm or danger in Chinese context nowadays. For instance, “red

light” and “red card” are frequently used in Chinese to warn people. This change mainly results from the increasingly active cultural communication and the establishment of a series of international standards, such as the traffic light system. However, in English-speaking countries like the UK and the United States, red is the color of danger, alarm, death and war. For instance, red alert is the highest level of alarm in western countries (later this becomes universal all over the world) warning people of danger. Red Menace is a term used by western countries in the Cold War, referring to the threat from socialist countries, especially the Soviet Union and China. Red Cross, which was set up for the disaster brought by wars, always reminds people of red blood. Also, in foreign stock markets, red shows the fall of share prices in order to draw shareholders’ attention. In order to avoid conveying the meaning of danger or death, David Hawkes, a renowned British sinologist, translated the title of a classical Chinese works 红楼梦 into The Story of A Stone, on the basis of another title 石头记 instead of Dream of the Red Chamber. In western culture, red is associated with blood, which is the “liquid of vitality.” Bleeding is regarded as a threat to people’s life. Thus, red is linked to “danger” or “alarm.” Due to traditional Chinese belief and historical reasons, red symbolizes good luck, happiness, and success as well as political correctness in Chinese context. Meanwhile, visual factor links red to danger, alarm, death and war in English.

White:
Compared with red, white is not so welcomed by Chinese people because it implies bad luck and death. According to ancient Chinese theory of “wufang”(“五方”), white is the color of the west, in the charge of god of killing named “xingtian”. Therefore, white in Chinese culture implies death and bad luck. A typical example is Chinese funeral, which is also known as “白事.” In a funeral, the room is decorated with white flowers and white wreathes. Descendants of the person who has passed away will also dress themselves in white clothes to do their filial duty. Thus, when Chinese women wore white dresses for the first time in the 1980s, great controversy was aroused. Even nowadays, many Chinese people still regard white as the symbol of bad luck. White also denotes other negative meanings: reactionary force, evil, stupidity and ignorance in Chinese context. “白色恐怖” in mainland China refers to the reign of Kuo Min Tang who had exploited Chinese people and oppressed revolution from the year of 1927 to1949. In traditional Beijing Opera, a performer wearing a white facial mask (called “白脸” in Chinese) show that this character is evil. For instance, the villain in Beijing Opera, Cao Cao, just wears white musk. In addition, Chinese words like “白痴” and “白丁” link “白” to stupidity and ignorance. However, white in Chinese context can also mean purity. For instance, expressions like “清 白” and “一张白纸” are used to depict people’s purity and innocence. In western countries, white symbolizes purity, good luck, kindness, integrity, fairness and higher status. Contrary to traditional Chinese weddings, the bridal gown in western weddings is

exclusively white. People would also decorate chairs, carpet with white cloth. In English, a white soul means purity and merit. White lie implies the lie is told out of goodness. Also, expressions like white collar and White House show that white indicates higher position in western people’s eyes. Reasons why western people endow white with so many positive meanings are complex: first, white is linked to specific things that nourish people in western culture, such as milk and wheat (similar to “white” in pronunciation). Also, in ancient Greek mythology, white swan and dove were symbols of holiness. In addition, the color of white frequently appeared in Christian religion. For instance, the angel Gabriel came to Virgin Mary with a branch of white lily. Therefore, white is the symbol of bad luck and death, but also purity in Chinese. It implies purity, good luck, kindness, integrity, fairness and higher status in English.

Blue:
“青” and “蓝” are basically the same, both referring to blue in Chinese. Blue in Chinese culture implies calmness, peace, justice and relatively lower class. Blue belongs to cool color. People may associate this color with the sea or the sky. Thus, it becomes the symbol of calmness and peace. In ancient times, terms like “包青天” or “青天大老爷” indicate the relationship between blue and justice. Also, “青衫” were employed to call those lower-class officials and poor scholars(or “秀才” in Chinese). The symbolic meanings of blue in Chinese largely derive from people’s visual feelings and history. In English, blue signifies nobleness, ideal as well as sadness and obscenity. For instance, “blue-blood” refers to people who are born in aristocratic families. English expressions, such as “Blue women” (women who are knowledgeable and well-educated), “Blue Brick University” (Prestigious universities with long history and good tradition in the U.K, like Oxford and Cambridge) and “Blue Book”(Book or report published by the government), also connect blue with nobleness. “Blue print” is a plan or schedule, which may not be practical. “Feeling blue” means people feel upset. Besides, blue can also convey the meaning of “raunchy” or “obscene”. “Blue joke” refers to the joke concerning sex. Blue in Chinese implies calmness, peace, justice and relatively lower class. In English it is the symbol of nobleness, sadness, obscenity and ideal.

Purple:
The symbolic meanings of purple in Chinese and English both concern nobleness, authority, power and success. In ancient Chinese tales, the Emperor of Heaven who take in charge of the whole world lives in “紫薇宫.” Thus, purple becomes the symbol of good luck and nobleness. The palace where the emperor lives is called “紫禁城.” The idiom of “紫气东来” indicates that someone of high position will show up or something good will happen. Similarly, purple in English also implies power and nobleness. The Roman emperor wore

purple robe. Thus purple became the color of royal family. For instance, “born in the purple” means “born in the royal family.” Besides, purple can stand for splendor, honor and strong feelings. “Purple prose” and “purple patch” refer to literary works with well-polished diction. “Purple heart” is the medal given to soldiers injured in the war. Also, “be purple with rage” means extreme anger. To sum up, purple in both Chinese and English signifies nobleness, authority, power and success.

Conclusion:
The meanings of a color word in different languages share similarities, such as the color of purple mentioned above. However, in some cases, the same color word implies different meanings in different languages. Sometimes the meanings are even contrary. Thus, when cross-culture communication takes place, much attention should be paid to the differences of the symbolic meanings.
References: Gao Fang 2002 Color and Culture Journal of Henan University Social Science. 42(4): 104-106 Li Shufeng, Zhang Zhengju 1993 On the Culture of Color in Communication Journal of Social Science of Hunan University. 7(2):65-72 Zhao Xin 1997 On the Color Culture of Han People Supplement To The Journal Of Sun Yatsen University 7(7): 221-223 Liao Wuquan 2010 A Remark on Color Culture Around Southeast Asia 7(4): 54-63


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