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The Role of Colors in Chinese Culture and Related Expressions – What You Need to Know

Which color do Chinese people like best? You might say red. Yes, in China, red is frequently seen on occasions such as festivals and weddings because it represents happiness, wealth, and luck. During the Spring Festival, Chinese people give red envelopes to each other, decorate their homes with red couplets and lanterns, and set off red firecrackers and fireworks. At weddings, Chinese people wear red clothes, and we even talk about the color red when making wishes.

Besides red, what other colors are considered special in China? Read on, and I bet you’ll be surprised. By the time you finish reading this, you will know some authentic expressions related to colors. If you know the use of a color and the cultural meaning behind it, you will realize that you are already a Chinese culture connoisseur!

#1 红色 / 紫色(hónɡsè / zǐsè)Red / purple

红红火火 (hónɡhónɡ huǒhuǒ)

Before I tell you more about what red means, let’s look at some examples.

祝你的生活红红火火。May your life be prosperous.
(Zhù nǐ de shēnɡhuó hónɡhónɡ huǒhuǒ.)

Red represents luck, wealth, and happiness, so we use it to express good will.

红光满面 (hónɡɡuānɡ mǎnmiàn)

Red can also mean that someone looks good.


看你红光满面,最近一定有好事吧!Look at your red face. You must have had some good news recently.
(Kàn nǐ hónɡɡuānɡ mǎnmiàn, zuìjìn yídìnɡ yǒu hǎoshì bɑ!)

大红大紫 (dàhónɡ dàzǐ)

In ancient China, officials were classified into different levels and wore different colored clothes to represent their rank. People in exceedingly high positions wore purple and red, so red and purple symbolized success. Now, we often use red and purple to show that a star is exceedingly popular.


你不知道她?她最近红得发紫呢!You don’t know her? She is extremely popular these days!
(Nǐ bù zhīdào tā? tā zuìjìn hónɡ dé fā zǐ ne!)

他也曾大红大紫过。He was also a tremendous success in the past.
(Tā yě cénɡ dàhónɡ dàzǐ ɡuò.)

眼红 (yǎn hónɡ)

Additionally, red is related to blood, which means bravery. For example, having a red heart means that someone is loyal and courageous. Though sometimes red also has a negative meaning. For example, we say that our eyes turn red to show jealousy.


其他同学都找到了好工作,还在找工作的小王有点眼红。Other classmates have found good jobs. Xiao Wang is still looking for a job. He is a little jealous
(Qítā tónɡxué dōu zhǎo dào le hǎo ɡōnɡzuò, hái zài zhǎo ɡōnɡzuò de xiǎo wánɡ yóu diǎn yǎnhónɡ.)

Now that you know the symbolic meaning of the color red, can you guess what the red event is? Yes, red events are good events, usually referring to weddings and the birthdays of old people. Do you know the meaning of the color white and white events? Let’s move on to white.

#2 白色(Bái sè) White

红白喜事(hónɡ bái xǐ shì

In the past, white was a taboo color and was usually used for funerals, so colloquially Chinese people would call funerals 白事(báishì). Similar to wearing red to a wedding, you should wear white to a funeral.


最近红白喜事好多。There have been many weddings and funeral recently
(Zuìjìn hónɡ bái xǐ shì hǎo duō.)

红脸 / 白脸(hónɡliǎn / báiliǎn)

At the Peking Opera, actors paint their faces with various colors to show the characters’ personalities, with red faces being good people and white faces being bad people. In daily life, Chinese people use these two kinds of faces to indicate people who are more friendly or obnoxious. In home life, red and white faces are used to indicate mild or strict parents.


A:你爸爸比较严厉还是妈妈比较严厉?Is your father strict or your mother?
(Nǐ bàbɑ bǐjiào yánlì háishì māmɑ bǐjiào yánlì?)

B:我妈妈。他们俩一个唱红脸,一个唱白脸。My mother. One is good cop and the other is bad cop.
(Wǒ māmɑ. tāmen liǎnɡ yíɡè chànɡ hónɡliǎn, yíɡè chànɡ báiliǎn.)

白费劲(bái fèi jìn

White is also often used to indicate failure or lack of interest, such as wasting one’s time or energy.


你怎么不早说?我白费这么大了!Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I wasted all my effort!
(Nǐ zěnme bù zǎo shuō? wǒ bái fèi zhème dà jìn le.)

Culture Tip:

On the other hand, with the amount of contact between China and other countries, the Western meaning of white, which means pure and beautiful, has also been accepted by Chinese people. It is not surprising that many girls choose Western-style weddings and wear white wedding dresses. To respect tradition, they will wear a white wedding dress for the ceremony and a red dress for the reception, where they will receive a blessing from their guests.

#3 绿色(Lǜ sè) Green

When talking about the color green, what comes to mind? In my case, I think of green trees and grass, beautiful springs, and a healthy life. But the examples I’m going to share with you have nothing to do with that.

绿帽子(lǜ màozi

A green hat is not a good hat. In the section about red, we said that in ancient China officials of high rank wore purple and red. Well those of incredibly low rank wore green. In addition, as early as the Eastern Han Dynasty (BC25-BC220), the government stipulated that men must wear green headscarves or hats if they sent the women of their family to work as prostitutes. A green hat now means that someone has committed an act of disloyalty to one’s partner, such as adultery.


A:你听说了吗?小王的女朋友给他戴了绿帽子!Did you hear about that? Xiao Wang’s girlfriend cheated on him!
(Nǐ tīnɡshuō le mɑ? xiǎowánɡ de nǚ pénɡyou ɡěi tā dài le lǜ màozi.)

B:不会吧!小王真可怜。No way! Poor Xiao Wang.
(Bú huì bɑ! xiǎo wánɡ zhēn kělián.)

脸绿了(liǎn lǜ le

What color does your face turn when you are mad?You may say it’s red, but we would say green instead. Here is an example.


他很没礼貌,把我都气绿了。He was extremely impolite, I was so angry that my face turned green.
(Tā hěn méi lǐmào, bǎ wǒ liǎn dōu qì lǜ le.)

Why is it green and not red? Well, it’s said that some ancient Chinese believed that the liver was green because it is an important organ that provides people with vitality just like trees and grass. And people’s emotions and bodily organs have an important relationship. If a person is angry, it will hurt their liver and show on their face, so we would say their face turns green.

#4 黑色 / 灰色(Hēisè / huīsè) Black / grey

In the sections about red and green, we talked about the relationship between color and human faces, such as red, white, and green faces, and we also use black to describe facial expressions. There are also many other expressions that mention the color black. Let’s take a look.

黑脸(hēi liǎn

Contrary to white, black is a dark color, often associated with darkness.. It can also be used to say that a person is in a bad mood, as if there is no sunshine on their face, so their face is dark.


他一回家就,不知道怎么了。When he came home, his face was black. I don’t know what happened.
(Tā yì huí jiā jiù hēi zhe liǎn, bù zhīdào zěnme le.)

印堂发黑(yìntánɡ fā hēi

If your face is black, you may be in a bad mood. If it’s dark between your eyebrows, you may have a major health problem, or you may have bad luck. The ancient Chinese believed that problems with a person’s organs showed signs on the outside, and that problems with the lungs were shown near the forehead.


看你印堂发黑,最近可能要倒霉。You may have had bad luck recently, judging by blackness on your forehead.
(Kàn nǐ yìntánɡ fā hēi, zuìjìn kěnénɡ yào dǎoméi.)

黑市(hēi shì/ 黑心(hēixīn              

As opposed to red, which is a symbol of courage and loyalty, if a person’s heart turns black, it means that they are  not a good person and would hurt others for profit.


黑市里出现了买卖器官的现象。Organs are being bought and sold on the black market.
(Hēishì lǐ chūxiàn le mǎimɑi qìɡuān de xiànxiànɡ.)

这个黑心商贩卖的东西质量很差。The goods sold by this shady peddler are of low quality.
(Zhèɡe hēixīn shānɡfàn mài de dōngxi zhìliànɡ hěn chà.)

灰色地带(huīsè dìdài/ 灰色收入(huīsè shōurù

We often use white to mean light and justice and black to mean darkness and injustice. Gray is somewhere between black and white, so gray is somewhere in the middle and is considered vague and unclear. You’ll hear statements like this:


今天天气不好,没有太阳,灰蒙蒙的。It’s a bad day today. It’s sunless and gray.
(Jīntiān tiānqì bù hǎo, méiyǒu tàiyánɡ, huīmēnɡmēnɡ de.)

By extension, gray often indicates something that is unclear, opaque, or possibly illegal.


这个产业还处于灰色地带,法律没有禁止,也不支持。The industry is still in a grey area, neither prohibited nor supported by law.
(Zhèɡe chǎnyè hái chǔ yú huīsè dìdài, fǎlǜ méiyǒu jìnzhǐ, yě bù zhīchí.)

除了工资,他还有一些灰色收入。In addition to his salary, he has some grey income.
(Chú le ɡōnɡzī, tā háiyǒu yìxiē huīsè shōurù.)

The last one I would like to introduce is a color with quite contrasting connotations, both noble and vulgar.

#5 黄色(Huánɡsè) Yellow


If you have seen pictures of the Forbidden City or visited it in person, then you were likely most impressed by the colors yellow and red, especially yellow. Yellow has always been regarded as the exclusive color of the emperor. In the past, ordinary people were not allowed to use it, so it was regarded as the color of nobility. You will hear many Chinese expressions related to yellow, such as these:


黄河是中国的母亲河。The Yellow River is the mother river of China.
(Huánɡhé shì zhōnɡɡuó de mǔqīn hé.)

我们是炎黄子孙。We are the descendants of Emperor Yan and Emperor Huang.
(Wǒmen shì yánhuánɡ zǐsūn.)

黄道吉日(huánɡdào jírì)


我要选个黄道吉日结婚。I will choose a lucky day to get married.
(Wǒ yào xuǎn ɡè huánɡdàojírì jiéhūn.)

祝你飞黄腾达,前程似锦。I wish you success and a bright future.
(Zhù nǐ fēihuánɡ ténɡdá, qiánchénɡ sìjǐn.)

那是个黄金时代,出现了很多有名的歌手。It was the golden age and there were many famous singers.
(Nà shì ɡè huánɡjīn shídài, chūxiàn le hěnduō yǒumínɡ de ɡēshǒu.)

In these expressions, yellow has a positive meaning such as precious or lucky. However, with the changing times, the meaning of yellow has also changed. It not only has a good meaning but is also used in some expressions that have nothing to do with royalty. Here are some of those expressions.


Chinese people have always preferred pale skin since ancient times, which comes from having an agricultural society. A person with light and smooth skin meant that they did not have to work and had servants to provide everything, that is, everything to live a particularly good life. On the contrary, if a person worked often or lived a bad life, they wouldn’t have much time to maintain their health and skin, so their skin would become yellow and rough. So, sick people are called yellow-faced, or some people refer to married women who are no longer beautiful as old, yellow-faced women, satirizing or attacking them. Sometimes these impolite expressions come up during a couple’s quarrel.


你怎么脸色发?最近生病了吗?Why is your face yellow? Have you been sick lately?
(Nǐ zěnme liǎnsè fā huánɡ ? zuì jìn shēnɡbìnɡ le mɑ?)

我现在人老珠黄,成了黄脸婆了。I’m old and yellow-faced now.
(Wǒ xiànzài rénlǎo zhūhuánɡ, chénɡ le huánɡliǎnpó le.)

事黄了(shì huánɡ le

In autumn, all the leaves turn yellow and fall, signifying the end of life, so the color yellow is used to show that there is no hope or talk about the end in an unhappy tone.


别提了,这事儿黄了。Don’t mention it. It’s screwed up.
(Bié tí le, zhè shìr huánɡ le.)

黄色(huánɡ sè


不应该让青少年接触黄色电影和黄色书籍。Young people should not be exposed to pornographic films and books.
(Bù yīnɡɡāi rànɡ qīnɡshàonián jiēchù huánɡsè diànyǐnɡ hé huánɡsè shūjí.)

请不要对女性说黄色笑话,很不礼貌。Please don’t tell dirty jokes to women. It’s impolite.
(Qǐnɡ búyào duì nǚ xìnɡ shuō huánɡsè xiàohuɑ, hěn bù lǐmào.)

And how did yellow go from being the color of emperors to being associated with pornography? I’ll tell you a story first.

You may know the famous Pulitzer Prize and Joseph Pulitzer, who bought the New York World. He invited cartoonist Richard Felton Outcault to produce a strip called The Yellow Kid, which follows the hero’s life in New York, which involves fighting, smashing, robbing, and cheating. When the cartoons became popular and the paper’s sales rose, the newspaper intern Hearst decided the time was right and struck out on his own, taking with him the entire elite of the New York World, including the cartoonist Outcault. To compete for business, the two newspapers began to publish a large amount of pornography, crime stories, disaster coverage, and scandals, a style that the public mocked as yellow journalism.

In the early years of the Republic of China, the term yellow journalism was introduced and was originally considered vulgar news. Then with the development of the society, the term yellow gradually extended beyond the domain of newspapers to all kinds of literature, such as yellow books, yellow movies, yellow music, etc. Since then, yellow has become intricately linked to a new meaning, such as pornographic and obscene.

That’s an introduction to the significance of colors in Chinese culture and some expressions related to them. I hope that this article was helpful for you. How does it compare to your culture? Are there any similar expressions? What do different colors symbolize in the country you’re from? Leave us a comment below!

Lynn Cheng

Lynn got a Master degree majoring in Teaching Chinese as A Second Language. She taught Chinese in the Philippines for 2 years. Now she works at TouchChinese as a Chinese teacher. Her passion for education and language teaching impress all her students. She is eager to share the beauty of the Chinese language and culture to more learners.

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