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The meanings behind colors in Chinese

Jun. 14, 2012

Key Learning Points (Preview):

红 (hóng) red

白 (bái) white

黑 (hēi) black

Chinese have developed a rich culture around the use of color, especially in language. Below we will explain the significance of a few colors in Chinese culture:

First, something you'll no doubt immediately notice with any exposure to the culture, Chinese people like the color red very much. Red is seen everywhere in China, from the decorations in large festivals, to small good luck charms displayed in storefronts. Red is basically regarded as the color for happiness and luck. For example, nowadays we'll say that someone's "红了 (hóng le)," which means that the person becomes popular and greatly admired.

To balance the love of red, Chinese typically have an aversion to the color white. In China, white represents death and decay and can also hint at doing something aimlessly. Nowadays, people commonly use the expressions: "白吃白喝 (bái chī bái hē)" meaning to freeload, "白来了 (bái lái le)" meaning to arrive with geting nothing, or "白等了 (bái děng le)" which means to wait for something that, in the end, never comes.

The last color we'll focus on today is black, which carries a particularly complex meaning. On one hand, it means solemnity and integrity, such as when used as "脸谱 (liǎnpǔ)" which is an important makeup application used in Beijing opera. Here black is used to show the virtuous and dignified nature of a character. On the other hand, black conveys a grave and frightened outlook on life because of an implied lack of light. Some examples of not-so-pleasant uses of black are "黑手 (hēi shǒu)," which means a puppet master, or someone manipulating others behind the scenes, "黑社会 (hēi shèhuì)," an underground criminal organization, "黑名单 (hēi míngdān)" meaning to blacklist someone and "黑心肠 (hēi xīncháng)" which means black hearted, or lacking a conscience.

Additionally, there are many other colors with important meanings in Chinese culture; for example, yellow can mean to mess something up, or to ruin a particular situation. With a deeper understanding of these colors, we can continue our studies to understand Chinese culture better.

Key Learning Points:

红 (hóng) red


Jīnnián Lín Shūháo zhēn shì tài hóng le.
今年      林   书豪       真   是 太   红  了。

This year, Jeremy Lin is really popular.

白 (bái) white


Jīntiān zhēn shì bái pǎo yí tàng.
今天      真    是  白   跑   一趟。

Today we came here for nothing; it’s a complete waste of time.

黑 (hēi) black


Zhège diàn yě tài hēi le, yì běn shū jūrán yào yìbǎi yuán.
这个     店   也 太 黑 了,一本   书  居然  要  一百   元。

The owner of this bookstore is terrible; The cheapest books go for one hundred yuan.

Wǒ bǎ tā fàngdàole wǒ de hēi míngdān lǐ.
我   把 他  放到了     我 的  黑   名单    里。

I put him on my black list.


    Nǐ dǎchē lái shìzhōngxīn huāle duōshao qián?
A: 你打车   来   市中心         花了    多少       钱?
    Yìbǎi kuài.
B: 一百块。
    Shénme!? Nàge chūzūchē sījī yě tài ___ le. Cóng nǐ nàr dào shìzhōngxīn zuì duō 100 kuài.
A: 什么!?那个     出租车   司机也太___  了。从     你那儿到    市中心          最   多   100块。

Choose the correct answer to fill in the blank.

A. 黑 (hēi)             B. 红 (hóng)               C. 白 (bái)

    Nǐ zài tīng Justin Beiber de gē ma?
A: 你在 听    Justin Bieber 的  歌 吗?
    Shì a, tā zuìjìn kě hóng le.
B: 是啊,他最近可  红   了。

Which of the following answers is correct according to the dialogue?

A. Justin Bieber loves the color red.
B. Justin Bieber has become very popular recently.
C. Nobody knows who Justin Bieber is.

Answers for the practice: 1. A        2. B

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