Meaning of Colours in Different Cultures
All of us enjoy seeing different colours, and we all associate different colours with different moods or emotions. However, the meaning of colours is not the same for different cultures, as they have different attitudes toward the same colours. For example, red is one of the most popular colours in Chinese culture, but Koreans are quite averse to the colour red in most situations, and we’ll get to why that is the case in a while. Let’s have a look at the meaning of colours in different cultures.
As discussed, red is a very popular colour in Chinese culture, both in mainland China as well as the Chinese diaspora around the world. This is because red represents luck and happiness, which is why during Chinese New Year, you will see Chinese all over the world having red in as many places as possible. Vietnamese also favour the colour red, but not to a similar extent as the colour yellow has an equal place for Vietnamese during important cultural celebrations like Vietnamese New Year. However, this would be quite an uncomfortable scene for Koreans. You see, red is a symbol of passion in Korean culture. Historically, Koreans avoided wearing red because such a public display of passion was deemed inappropriate. The anti-red sentiment among South Koreans developed during the Korean war when red became associated with communism. Modern Koreans, however, associate red with passion for sports, so it’s becoming more common for red to be worn to sports events as a show of support. One commonality among East Asians, however, is the taboo of writing one’s name in red, as such a custom is reserved for writing down the names of the dead in family registries. The only acceptable exception to this is the use of red ink for stamps or seals for official documentation. In Indian culture, red is the most powerful of all colours, symbolising many things, including wealth and power, fear and fire, love, beauty, etc. In South African culture, however, red takes on a negative connotation, as it is associated with mourning. Many African countries associate the red in the flag of South Africa with the violence and sacrifices that occurred during the struggle for independence.
Green is one of the most natural colours existing in nature, especially when it is borne by almost every plant and tree that exists. Green is a colour associated by Muslim communities to Islam due to its association with paradise in the Quran, which describes the inhabitants of paradise as wearing garments of fine green silk. Interestingly, however, certain parts Indonesia have a local taboo against wearing green clothes, such as when one is visiting Parangtritis Beach and Pelabuhan Ratu Beach. This, the locals explain, is because anyone wearing green would incur the wrath of Nyi Roro Kidul, the queen and goddess of the Southern Sea in Javanese and Sundanese mythology who also wears green. However, the rationale behind it is that because these areas are particularly dangerous, so if you do accidentally get dragged out into the sea, green would make it much harder for you to be spotted and rescued. In the UK, green is associated with jealousy and envy thanks in part to Shakespeare’s popularising of the notion, which was believed all the way back to the time of the ancient Greeks who believed jealousy to be caused by overproduction of bile, which is green. Green is also associated with Ireland because of St. Patrick’s Day, where according to legend, St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Trinity to the locals. According to the records of a 16th-century Chinese scholar, Lang Ying, during the Spring and Autumn period, men who prostituted their wives and daughters for money wore green turbans. Hence, in Chinese culture, when a man is said to be wearing a green hat, it is implying that his wife is being unfaithful to him.
Blue is one of the most calming colours in nature, being the colour of the sky as well as the sea. Historically, blue has always been considered a feminine colour up until sometime in the 1940s, a result of manufacturers interpreting American preferences. Hence, the meaning of colours has changed, with the modern-day notion of “blue for boys” and “pink for girls.” China still considers blue to be a feminine colour. Ever since King Louis IX of France regularly dressed in blue, it has been associated with royalty, but it has also been associated with obscenity in the UK since the 1820s, although the use of “blue” for this implication may be increasingly rare.
Yellow has a similar status in China as blue has in the UK, where it is associated with both royalty as well as pornography. Yellow also has numerous negative connotations throughout the ages in the UK, and even today when someone is called “yellow-bellied,” they’re being accused of cowardice. Most other cultures viewed the colour yellow much more favourably due to its close association with gold. Meanwhile, yellow is not just considered a lucky colour, it is also considered the royal colour, and many Thais wear yellow on Mondays to pay tribute to King Bhumibol who was born on a Monday, which coincidentally is also the day the colour is associated with.
And there we go, those were just some examples of how the meaning of colours can vary so wildly in different cultures. If you’re getting someone from a different culture a gift, do consider the colour of your gift and what it may or may not signify, e.g. don’t give your Chinese friend a green hat!
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