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  Beijing Scene

Color Me Confused

Ever wonder why Comrade wears a green hat? Read on to understand which colors mean what to the Chinese.

If all the huangtu (yellow earth) in the air over the last week is giving you the lanseyouyu (blues) then remember that those annoying airborne particles that clog up the air-con, ruin your Beijing Jeep and make even the shortest trip outside a thoroughly unpleasant affair are actually a symbol of the Chinese people. If you find it hard to understand this, then before you shout wolule (lit. I've gone green, or I can't stand it), let Comrade shed a little light on the matter and talk you through the color code of Chinese culture.

Traditionally, three colors in particular have heavy symbolic value. Red hong is the most important hue, and carries with it a plethora of associated meanings. Basically, it's a positive color, representing good fortune, happiness, prosperity and fame. It is also the color of the element fire, which it is linked to heat, summer and the South.

The all-important matchmaker for shy Chinese couples is known as a hongniang (lit. red woman). Back in his courting days, even Comrade needed one of these romantic old busybodies to get his stuttering relationships off the ground. It was in this way that he first met his huanglianpo (lit. yellow-faced woman, or wife).

If all goes well and the couple get married, hongbao (red envelopes) of money are presented at the wedding, as well as at other auspicious occasions). Even blushing brides wear red, as there is no suggested promiscuity to the color as there is in the West, and no one will doubt she is a huanghuaguinu (lit. a yellow flower girl, or a virgin). Blush she may, without causing alarm, but should she show symptoms of hongyanbing (lit. red-eye disease), guests may become worried, as this is the Chinese equivalent of the jealousy green-eyed monster.

If the marriage later deteriorates, and hongxingchuqiang (lit. the red apricot leaves the walls, or a wife commits adultery), then her husband can be said to dailumaozi (lit. wear a green hat, or be a cuckold).

Conversely, black hei is associated with evil, sadness, suffering, famine and death. As the color for the water element, it can also represent cold and the North. Due to a similar meaning in English, recent years have seen an invasion of black related words with negative connotations: members of the heishoudang (lit. black hand gang, or mafia) sell contraband on the heishi (black market), communicating secretly in heihua (lit. black speech, or thieves jargon). So comrades, next time you're buying huangsedianying (lit. yellow movies, but blue for an English speaker) outside the Silk Market, beware.

During the Cultural Revolution, both red and black continued to play important roles, although their exact definitions changed somewhat. Art had to be guided by Mao Zedong Thought, and red came to symbolize everything socialist and revolutionary, everything good and moral. Black, on the other hand, signified exactly the opposite. Mao was considered to be China's hong taiyang (red sun), and any use of black indicated that the artist harbored counter-revolutionary intentions. The predecessor of the PLA was the hongjun (Red Army), and hongweibing (Red Guards) idolized their leader and waved his xiaohongshu (little red book). Comrade recalls that in those days it was glorious to have yikehongxinxiangzhedang (a red heart facing towards the party), and to strive against the heiwulei (five black categories, namely landlords, rich farmers, counter-revolutionaries, rightists and criminals).

Although white bai can sometimes stand for purity, it too is often linked to sadness and death. It is unlucky to give notices of congratulation on white paper. Albino animals are often considered vehicles of the supernatural. White is also the most common color of mourning in China and is a component of several words indicating futility, emptiness and deception.

These words of Comrade's are certainly not baihua (lit. white speech, or trickster), so listen to this free advice and don't be a baiyanlang (lit. white eyed wolf, or ungrateful person), or this will all have been baishuo (wasted breath).

Yellow is a color particularly close to the Chinese people's hearts. They refer to themselves as - yanhuangzisun (descendants of the Yellow Emperor), and as mentioned above, are proud inheritors of China's yellow loess soil, the foundation of its agricultural tradition. It is therefore the color of the earth element, and represents the center, as well as China itself. As the word for emperor is a homophone for yellow, yellow was also the imperial color. The last emperor of China, Pu Yi, wrote that as a boy he believed everything was yellow, since he saw so much of it.

Sometimes it may seem that we Chinese and you hongmaofan (red barbarians, an old word for Westerners) see things through different eyes - or at least different colored ones. For us, having 'black eyes' doesn't mean we've had a drop too much baijiu and got into a fight, that's just our way of saying they're brown. If we were bruised black and blue however, we would say say that the colour was qing. In fact, purple mountains, blue sky, green trees and black oxen can all be said to be qng, which basically means they are the appropriate natural color for whatever is being described - a very handy word indeed.

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