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You need a unicode-enabled browser with Chinese fonts installed to see the Chinese in this write-up. All Mandarin Chinese is phoneticised as pinyin.


You would imagine that colors would be one of the most easily translatable of concepts across all languages, but that is certainly a fallacy when it comes to Chinese, because many Chinese names for colors may in fact correspond to a number of different English colors, depending on the context. In particular, the naming of Chinese colors would seem to be done by a people who are congenitally blue-yellow color blind, or who have had chronic exposure to ultraviolet light (Lindsey DT, Brown AM. 2002 see full reference at the end). Light blues are often synonymous with green; dark blues are often synonymous with grey or black. There is an interesting corollary in English: Cambridge blue is actually a pale turquoise that is actually light green on some university sports kits; similarly, Eton blue (the school color) is actually a rich green.

The usual word for the color red is 紅 hóng. It is the color of success (開門紅 kāiménhóng "off to a flying start", 生意紅火 shēngyì hónghuǒ "business is booming") and of communism (紅心 hóngxīn "loyalty to the communist cause", 紅軍 hóngjūn "The Red Army") and honor (紅榜 hóngbǎng "honor roll"). There is a particular shade of red (大紅 dàhóng 'great red') used for Chinese bridal dresses and for the bridal sedan chair.

Also frequently used is 丹 dān, the color of cinnabar (mercuric sulphide, HgS) and it is associated with loyalty and devotion (取留丹心照汗青 Qǔliú dānxīn zhào hànqīng "I prefer to leave a loyal heart to illuminate the annals of history"). 彤 tóng is a shade of red only used to describe clouds, as in 彤霞 tóngxiá 'red clouds'.

The vermilion pigment derived from cinnabar is called 朱 zhū. 朱 is the color of wealth (朱門 zhūmén); it is also the color of the ink that teachers use to mark their students' scrips (朱筆 zhūbǐ), the red of Chinese seals and the color of health (朱顏 zhūyán). 赤 Chì denotes a lighter red than 朱. 赤 implies nakedness (赤裸裸 chìluǒluǒ) or emptiness (赤手 chìshǒu "barehanded", i.e., naked hand).

緋 Fēi denotes a shade of red that the English would call scarlet. It is the color of embarassment or shame. It is the color of a blush (滿臉緋紅 mǎnliǎn fēihóng) and also the shame of a political sex scandal (政壇緋聞 zhèngtán fēiwén). 絳 Jiàng is the dark red the English call 'crimson'. 緅 Zòu is a shade of red so dark it approaches black.

Pink is called "powder red" (粉紅色 fěnhóngsè) in modern Chinese even though there is a perfectly serviceable classical Chinese word for the color (纁 xūn) that is never used. The ruddy pink of healthy cheeks is called 赯 táng.

The color purple is usually translated 紫 zǐ. 'Purple air' (紫氣 zǐqì) is an auspicious omen, 'purple clay' (紫沙 zǐshā) is used to make the teapots the Portugese call boccaro. In certain words, 紫 can also be translated as 'black' (see black). 紺 Gàn is a dark purplish-red, like the color of someone being strangled (發紺 fāgàn "cyanosis"). Japanese uses 紺 to mean dark blue.

The color orange is difficult to translate from English into Chinese, because most shades of orange are considered either red or yellow by the Chinese. Persimmons (柿子 shìzǐ) are definitely orange in color, and yet the Chinese call them red (紅柿 hóngshì). In feudal China, it was unusual to find orange pigments used in clothing or decoration, and although there does exist a word for the color orange, you are unlikely to find a native Chinese speaker who even knows the word for it (the word is 緹 tí). The mounted soldiers who policed feudal China (緹騎 tíjì) wore orange uniforms and may perhaps explain the Chinese aversion to the word.

In sculpture and painting, orange is sometimes called 'reddish-yellow' (赤黃色 chìhuángsè) but orange-colored stones are more usually described simply as 'red' or 'yellow'. Most modern Chinese will say 'tangerine colored' (橘色júsè) or 'orange colored' (橙色chénsè) when asked to describe orange as a color distinct from yellow or red. 橘黃 júhuáng is tangerine peel used in Chinese medicine (also called 陳皮chénpí)

Madder (Rubia tinctorum) almost warrants an entire section to itself. 茜 qiàn is the modern word for madder and the alizarin dye extracted from that plant. 茜 only describes red clothes made with that dye: e.g. 茜裙 qiànqún 'red skirt'. Madder can produce any color from yellow to red to brown depending on the concentration of dye used and the mordant. Madder was used to dye the coats of British soldiers in the 19th century, earning them the name of 'redcoat', and paisley cannot be called 'paisley' except when dyed with madder. The ancient name for the madder plant was 茅蒐 máosōu and the dye extracted from that plant was called 韎 mèi. 縕 Yūn is another classical Chinese word that refers to madder the dye and to clothes dyed with madder; 縓 xiàn or quàn refers specifically to silk dyed with madder. 蒨 is just an alternative way of writing 茜 and carries the same range of meanings.

Glowing_Fish points out that the color orange was not thought of as a separate color in Europe until the introduction of the fruit.

The color yellow is most straight-forwardly translated as 黃 huáng, remembering that light orange often qualifies as 'yellow' to the Chinese, as do some shades of brown. Yellow is the name of the ancestor of the Chinese nation (黃帝 Huángdì 'The Yellow Emperor') and to say "yellow flower" (黃花 huánghuā) is to say chrysanthemum. The chrysanthemum represents virginity, so 黃花閨女 huánghuāguīnǔ is a virgin, and 黃花後生 huánghuāhòushēng is a virgin boy. On the other hand, a 'yellow movie' (黃色電影) is to the Chinese what a 'blue movie' is to the English. 黃 can also mean brown in certain contexts (see brown).

大黃 dàhuáng 'Great Yellow' is the shade of the saffron robes of buddhist monks.

黈 Tǒu is an obsolete word for 'yellow'.

There is no native Chinese word for brown per se. 黃 Huáng is usually translated as yellow (see yellow) but can in certain contexts mean brown. 黃狗 Huánggou3 means a light brown dog, and 黃土 huángtu3 means (dry) brown earth. Modern Chinese uses 褐色 hèsè ('the color of unbleached cloth') as the most common translation of the English word 'brown' but unfortunately, can also mean a dirty grey color to some people. 棕色 zong1sè ('palm-tree-colored'), 咖啡色 ka1fei1sè ('coffee-colored'), or 茶色 cha2sè ('tea-colored') are as frequently seen.

Green, blue and grey
The word most frequently used to translate the color green is 青 qīng. And yet in ancient China this word actually meant 'indigo' (青出於藍 qīng chu1yú lán "Indigo is bluer than the indigo plant"). Indeed in modern Japanese, 青い 'aoi' usually means blue (although green traffic lights are called 青信号 aoshingo). In modern Chinese, indigo is referred to as 靛蓝 diànlán and indigo-blue is 靛青 diànqīng. 青 is the color of spring onions (青蔥 qing1cong1), the sky (青天 qing1tian1), bronze (青銅 qing1tong2) and youth (青年 qing1nian2). In certain contexts in classical Chinese, 青 can also mean black (see black).

碧 Bi4 translates as 'jade-green'. 碧草如茵 bi4cao3ru2yin1 means 'a carpet of green grass', but 金髮碧眼 jin1fa3bi4yan3 means 'blonde hair and blue eyes'.

綠 Lǜ means 'leaf-green' and is more unamibigiously green than 青. It is the color of the green traffic light (綠燈 lu4deng1), green meadows (綠茵 lu4yin1) and mung beans (綠荳 lu4dou4). It can, rarely, mean blue: as in the expression 青山綠水 qing1shan1lu4shui3 'Green mountains and blue water.' 綠 is the Japanese way of writing green ('midori').

藍色 Lánsè "color of the indigo plant" is the word most often used in modern Chinese to translate 'blue'. The expression rarely if ever appears in classical Chinese.

蒼 Cāng can mean green, blue or grey. The precise meaning can be usually be guessed from the context. When talking about vegetation (蒼松翠柏 cāngsòng cuìbái 'verdant pines and cypresses'), it means green. When talking about the sky (天蒼蒼 tiāncāngcāng) it means deep blue. When talking about an old man's beard (蒼髯 cāngrán), it means grey.

灰色 Huīsè 'ash-colored' is the modern Chinese word that most unequivocally means grey.

Modern Mandarin Chinese uses 黑 hēi as the most frequent translation of 'black'. This is the same character that is used to write the Japanese word for black ('kuro'). In many southern dialects, however, the word most frequently used is 烏 wū.

玄 Xuán means deep or profound, and by extension can mean dark grey or black. 黯 Àn is the blackness of the night and it implies sorrow (黯然 ànrán). The word 皂 zào is commonly used in only two contexts: 皂衣 zàoyī to mean a black coat, and 皂白 zàobái (literally 'black and white') to mean 'right and wrong'.

The word 緇 zī originally meant 'black silk' 《列子•說符》 「天雨,解素衣,衣緇衣而反。」 In modern chinese, it specifically describes the charcoal-black of the robes of buddist monks and is never seen outside of that context.

黎 Lí is the black of Chinese hair (黎髮 lífǎ) and of the sky just before dawn (黎明 límíng). 黔首 Qián also refers to black hair and the expression 黔首 qiánshǒu (literally "black head") is a analogy for the common people. 黢黑 qu1hei1 is pitch-black. 黓 yi4 is a word for black that is rarely, if ever, used.

玈弓 Lúgōng is the black bow carried by the warrior 羿弢 Yì Tāo in the story 《神魔刀劍論》 「手持玈弓,蓄勢待發。」

紫 Zǐ normally means purple, but 紫貂 (zǐdiāo) means sable (as in the animal or its fur), and 紫竹 (zǐzhú) means black bamboo.

青 Qīng normally means green or blue but in classical Chinese can mean black (probably because pure indigo is a blue so dark it is almost black; see green, blue and grey). 青布 Qīngbù is black cloth, 青魚 qīngyú is a black carp. 丹青 Dānqīng means 'red and black' and means is a pompous way of referring to a painting. 瀝青 Lìqīng is pitch or bitumen (for surfacing roads).

黛 Dài is the black make-up traditionally used on the eyebrows. It is used as a prefix to mean 'dark': so, 黛藍 dàilán 'dark blue', 黛綠 dàilǜ 'dark green', 黛紫 dàizǐdài 'dark purple'.

White The usual word for 'white' is 白bái. It is the color of snow (雪白 xuěbái), of funerals (紅白喜事 hóngbáixǐshì 'weddings and funerals') and vanity (白走一趟 báizǒuyítàng 'to make a trip in vain') and simplicity (白話 báihuà the vernacular tongue as opposed to the literary language).

Unlike Western cultures where white is the color of joy and celebration, in Chinese culture white is the color of mourning and death and it is rude to attend a wedding or birthday wearing white.

素 Sù originally meant white silk, but in modern chinese translates as white and also implies simplicity (being associated with the Sanskrit word su which also means 'white' and therefore carries strong buddhist connotations). 素裝 Sùzhuāng is a simple and elegant outfit, 素麵 sùmiàn means noodles served plain.

White, undyed silk is called 練 liàn, but the white silk used to make mourning clothes is called 縞素 gǎosù, while the clothes themselves are called 素服 sùfú.

皚 Ái refers specifically to the whiteness of snow, while 皓 (also written 皜) hào describes the white of an old man's beard (皓髯 hàorán) or the brilliant white of the full moon (皓月 hàoyuè).

米白 Mǐbái translates literally as 'rice white' and is a modern Chinese term applied to anything that is 'off-white'. 嫩 Nèn means 'tender', but as a prefix, means 'light' or 'pastel': 嫩綠 nènlǜ is 'light green' and 嫩色 nènsè are pastel colors in general.

Lindsey DT, Brown AM. "Color naming and the phototoxic effects of sunlight on the eye." Psychol Sci 2002 Nov; 13(6): 506-12 see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=12430833&dopt=Abstract
Thanks to 嗜茶妹子 for her suggestions.

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