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Chinese Color Symbolism for Foreign Designers

Published 2007-02-26
This is one of my 💚 favorite essays

Dear Honored Foreign Designer,

The following is a guide to the use of color in Chinese graphic design. Unlike foreign color symbolism, in which colors may be associated with abstract notions like “energy” and “aggression,” Chinese colors are linked symbolically with concrete concepts. Intelligent use of color will therefore evoke concrete associations with a Chinese audience. Please refer to this guide when selecting colors for a Chinese design.

White

White is the color of death. Ghosts and corpses are white. Death is a Very Bad Thing in China. Many people avoid saying the number 4 because it sounds like the word for “death.” Many foreigners consider white to be “pure” and “clean.” To us it looks the color of ghastly skeletons. Avoid white.

Black

There is nothing wrong with black at all. Use black all you want. Black is a respectable, conservative color. It’s the color of ink and business suits.

Red

Red is a very auspicious color. Red is the color of wealth, success, fortune, celebration, longevity and prosperity. Money is red. Envelopes for gifts of money are also red. Bridal dresses are red. A baby’s first public garments are red. Signs proclaiming “Good Fortune!” are red. Signatures, official seals, the communist party star, and the Chinese flag are all red. Use red for any design that may be associated with business, commerce, government, children, the elderly, people who are neither children or the elderly, food, prosperity, or wealth. When in doubt, use red. You may even want to put red on red. Maybe a dark red on top of a light red, or vice versa. Go on, try it.

Yellow

Yellow symbolizes gold (like pirate gold!), thus yellow is also auspicious. Pair yellow lettering with a red field for that extra special “money plus money” touch.

Green

Foreigners and the hip young people who are fascinated by them consider green to be an “ecological” color but everyone else knows green is kind of icky. In China, green is for sickness and disease. Hospitals, pharmacies, and garbage trucks are green.

Blue

Blue is an old-fashioned, conservative color. It reminds us of China porcelain which we regard as kind of fussy. However, it makes a good color for electronics companies and chemical packaging. Also, for some reason private kindergartens always have bright blue walls. Where foreign designers may be tempted to use blue (which we are told has connotations of “commerce” and “rationality”), we might instead use red.

Orange

Buddhist temples have orange columns, and monks wear orange robes. Everyone knows monks are very poor and have foresworn handling money and other earthly concerns. Orange is kind of like yellow and red (thus good) but also has these anti-materialist Buddhist connotations (thus bad). May be appropriate for schools or non-commercial institutions. Use with caution.

Brown

Come on, brown’s not a real color. We don’t even have a word for brown. We call it “coffee color.” You can use brown if you want, but why bother? Try a nice dark red instead.

Purple

OK that’s not even funny. Purple? Why? Quit fooling around and make it red already.