Many outsiders think that modern Chinese remains a purely pictographic language, similar to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. While it is true that Chinese script began as a pictographic system, pictures do not make for a particular efficient writing system. Some pictograms do still exist (e.g., 山 ‘mountain’, 人 ‘person’), but 90% of modern Chinese characters are phono-semantic compounds: they are part semantic (a portion of the character, called a radical, provides the general meaning) and part phonetic (the other portion of the character tells you how it is pronounced).
The characters for red, green, blue, and purple in Chinese are phono-semantic (all bearing the radical for silk, 系), but a few color characters are associative compounds: two or more ideographic elements combined to create another meaning. Linguists have forever debated to what extent our language affects the way we think; they have yet to draw any solid conclusions. What is commonly agreed is that when, for example, an Anglophone reads the word ‘white’, they see five letters that they have come to associate with a specific meaning – in this case, a color. This is purely abstract representation of meaning. Languages that still employ Chinese characters (including Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean) are the only modern languages whose writing system is not purely abstract. When someone reads the Chinese character for white, for example, they see a sun rising. We must wonder how these ideographic associations affect the way color is understood in cultures using Chinese characters.
Below I will introduce the six common colors whose characters are associative compounds: their character etymologies and modern Chinese associations.
The white of sunrise... by tylerc083
Etymology: A sun 日with a mark indicating that it is just rising = rising sun
As in many languages throughout the world, white is associated with clarity and purity in Chinese. It is also used in many expressions to indicate the clarity that is achieved through explanation: 明白 (bright + white = ‘to understand’), 自白 (self + white = ‘confessions’). Chinese also correlates white and emptiness (something akin to English’s ‘blank slate’ or ‘a white lie’): ‘white words’ (白话) are empty promises and a ‘white brain sickness’ (白痴) is stupidity.
In China, white is the traditional color of mourning (though the Western black funeral/white wedding customs are rapidly encroaching upon Chinese conventions).
The grey of ash... by jasonJT
Etymology: Fire 火that can be handled (with left 左hand) = ashes
Like most languages, Chinese doesn’t put much stock in grey. In fact, the only commonly used expression is 灰心 (grey + heart), meaning ‘to lose heart’ or ‘to be discouraged’. Grey is associated with gloominess and pessimism (like a ‘grey day’ in English) and inextricably bound to meanings for ashes.
Etymology: Window 囱 darkened by fire 火= darkened window
There are few surprises in associations for the color black in the Chinese language. Wicked, sinister, and secret things are all affiliated with the color black: 黑社会 (black + society = ‘the Underworld’), 黑交易 (black + transaction = ‘a shady business deal’). Also, like most modern tongues, black is the color of illicit affairs in Chinese: the ‘black hand group’ (黑手党) is the Mafia, ‘black goods’ (黑货) are contraband, and, of course, there’s the ‘black market’ (黑市).
The yellow of the fields... by [email protected]
Etymology: Bright 光 + fields 田 = the bright color of the fields
Like purple in the West, yellow is the imperial culture throughout most of Asia – the legendary founder of Han China is even called the Yellow Emperor (黄帝). Yellow is also, of course, quite close to gold (and the two characters often occur in tandem in Chinese), so yellow things may be considered golden. At the same time, yellow has several connotations of inappropriateness in Chinese. If one refers to something simply as yellow (黄色), they might be implying that it is pornographic. And a yellow cow (黄牛) is a reference to both scalping tickets and breaking promises.
The red of the earth... by cobalt123
Etymology: Dot found in a well 井 = the mineral found in the well (cinnabar/lead tetroxide)
There are two reds in Chinese. The more common term is 红 (a phono-semantic character: silk 系 + phonetic 工) and is linked to fortune and revolution.
From what I can find, the other red, 丹, had more numerous associations as a color in ancient China and now lives on only in a few fossilized expressions. It is still used, however, as a reference to lead tetroxide, whence the character’s etymology. Because the pigment was first mined from the earth, things associated with 丹are deep and special: a ‘red field’ (丹田) refers to the pubic region and a ‘red heart’ (丹心) means loyalty.
Etymology: The color of lush growth (life) 生 that burns red 丹
青 is a very special color in Chinese, mostly thank to one common idiom: 青出于蓝 (cyan comes from blue = ‘the pupil often surpasses the master’).
As a result of its association with nature, cyan is considered a pure and primary color and is linked to life, springtime, and youth. A ‘cyan glance’ (青睐) says that you are in somebody’s good graces and ‘going directly to the cyan clouds’ (青云直上) means you are advancing rapidly in your chosen career.
Chinese is a vast language. The most recent, comprehensive dictionary of Chinese characters listed over 85,000 characters, but this number also included variants and obsolete characters. Most experts estimate there are between 40,000 and 50,000 modern characters. A well-educated citizen rarely knows more than 7,000 and basic literacy is established at 2,000. Mastery of the 汉语水平考试 , the Chinese equivalent of the TOEFL or IELTS test, requires memorization of 5,000 characters.
Title by romainguy
About the Guest Author, Jessica Alexander
Jessica Alexander is a writer, translator, and hopeless devotee of overstuffed dictionaries. For more titillating Chinese, check out dailycharacter. Or, if you just want to send her love letters...