Why you can’t be color blind in China
Everything in China is said to mean something, and colors are no exception. I didn’t initially ascribe any importance to a color. Colors were a non-event in my business world. However, over the years I’ve discovered that colors can mean a great deal in China and be a help, or a hindrance, in your business dealings. Here’s a summary on what I’ve learned about colors that may prove helpful.
Most non-Chinese feel that red is the color most associated with China. After all, it’s the color of the Chinese flag, the symbol of communism, and of the Chinese revolution in 1949, right? Not completely. Red, over thousands of years of Chinese history, is most closely associated with fire and symbolizes a life of expansion, prosperity, celebration, and happiness resembling the expanding flames of a fire. It’s also a traditional bridal color.
Since red is the color of celebration in China, if you have informational packages or similar business materials that have red as the dominating color, the person receiving it might believe that the materials are associated with a festive occasion rather than a business meeting. Also, don’t ever write to anyone in red ink as it signifies that you want to end your relationship with that person.
The red of the communist party and the revolution was likely chosen because it was used by the former Soviet Union, which China emulated during this period of time.
Green in China has a meaning not altogether different from the West. It means that something is clean and environmentally friendly. However, the Chinese definition of green is also associated with a lack of toxicity and pesticides in food products. For example, a green vegetable may be one that is organic or has not had pesticides used in its growth cycle. All this is good except when you associate the color green with a hat. To receive a green hat in China means that that the man receiving it has an adulterous wife. This is derived from ancient China when the husbands of prostitutes wore green headscarves.
Black is a color that denotes formality to the average Chinese. It also denotes stability, knowledge, trust, and power. However, never wrap a present you give someone in black as it may be considered an evil omen. Also, never border a photograph in black or give someone a black and white picture. The black border on a photo usually means someone is dead and the black and white picture is associated with death and the grave.
Yellow generally means reliable, supportive, and stable. However, yellow is a color you have to use carefully for printed matter. Used on media it means that the material is pornographic. In early China yellow was a color reserved for emperors. If you used yellow during ancient times, you were almost always put to death.
White is the color of funerals. If you put money in a red envelope, you would give it to those getting married or to children during festivals. If you were to put money into a white envelope, you would be giving it to someone who had a death in the family and it would be an expression of your sympathy. Therefore, you can never use white for any festive occasion, even a wedding. Also, never wrap a gift in white. It will be associated with the dead.
Purple is associated with religion. In Taoism, for example, a divine presence appears as a purple cloud coming from the east. Therefore, the color purple connotes immortality and can, therefore, be very effective when used in marketing or media campaigns.
You can’t go wrong with a gold color as it symbolizes wealth in China. If there’s one color you would use that wouldn’t create a cultural misstep, it’d be gold.
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