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Amber: Hey everybody! Welcome back to Amber and Victor’s Chinese Buffet.
Victor: 大家好 (dàjiā hǎo), 我是 (Wǒ shì) Victor.
Amber: I am Amber. And in today’s episode, we have a new segment. This segment is called…
Victor: ‘Chewing the Fat’.
Amber: Yes! In this segment, we will digest estranged or intriguing aspect of Chinese culture.
Victor: Yes.
Amber: And maybe just explain some of the reasons or circumstances behind it.
Victor: Yeah. We’ll learn altogether about Chinese culture.
Amber: And we do have to add that this segment encourages listeners to participate. If anyone has any questions about Chinese culture, things they have observed, we welcome you to submit your questions to us at the website. Come to ChineseClass101.com and leave us a comment.
Victor: Today we are going to talk about the significance of color in Chinese culture.
Amber: Right. Now, I think there is one color that really comes to mind when you think of Chinese culture for everyone, which is of course red.
Victor: Yes!
Amber: Red is a very important color to Chinese people. But what a lot of people don’t know is we are not going to start talking about red because actually, red is only the new yellow. It used to be yellow! You thought we were all going to start with red but it used to be yellow. That was the major color for Chinese people.
Victor: 黄色 (huáng sè).
Amber: It used to be all the rage. So Victor, what was the significance of yellow?
Victor: So, during the reign of 皇帝 (huángdì) or A.K.A the yellow emperor, actually the name 皇帝 (huángdì) means “yellow emperor”. People actually worshipped the color yellow.
Amber: So, what I want to know, Victor, is what came first? The yellow emperor or the worship of yellow? Did he choose his name because he’s like, “Everyone likes yellow. They are going to like me so I’m going to be the yellow emperor.” It’s a chicken or egg thing, isn’t it? Well, it was a long time ago. It was like 2697 BC to like 2598 BC. So, really maybe there is some ambiguity about what came first – the yellow emperor or the yellow.
Victor: Right.
Amber: However, it was a color that was worshipped by people at that time.
Victor: He’s the emperor that is said to be the ancestor of all Huang Chinese people.
Amber: I’m making a connection here. Is this why Chinese people are all yellow, Victor? Well actually, he probably… let’s just speculate for a minute 5000 years ago, Victor. Just to go back to the beginning. Basically why color is so important to Chinese people is that there is five sort of elements of the earth that are represented by color for Chinese people. And the one for yellow, it symbolizes the earth, which is the symbol of farming.
Victor: Correct.
Amber: So, that’s why this color at the time was obviously very important to the people.
Victor: Right. There is a word in Chinese 黄土 (huáng tǔ) which is “yellow earth” that simplifies farming and life and food basically. And that’s the region in central China where Chinese culture originated from.
Amber: So, it makes sense. As a side note, the other colors that are the five elements –black, red, green (but it’s a blue-green, very specific), white and yellow. And they all represent different things: earth, water, fire, wood, metal and earth.
Victor: Right. Also, another really interesting thing about yellow is that the during the Ching dynasty, actually way before, it used to symbolize that they’re royal family.
Amber: Right. So there is yellow and proclaimed yellow for the royals. Like this is the best color. It’s ours.
Victor: It’s actually very interesting that during the Ching dynasty at least, only the emperor and his close families can wear the color yellow in their clothes to simplify their status.
Amber: It’s a very royal color.
Victor: Correct. There is actually a reference in the movie The Last Emperor where the little emperor said, “I am the one who can only wear pure yellow.” And that’s how it was in Ching dynasty – only the emperor can wear pure bright yellow.
Amber: This makes me want to go and buy yellow dress. I’d feel so regal.
Victor: You know, his cousins or his family members, i think actually only men need to wear different shades of yellow because they’re not the emperor. Even though they’re in the family, they still have to use different colors of yellow, different shades of yellow to signify their status.
Amber: Who they are.
Victor: Correct. And they actually took this very seriously. If you’re not the emperor or you’re not in the family and you wore yellow, that is actually a crime that can be met with the death penalty.
Amber: Whoa. So, you’ve to be careful. Even your orange wouldn’t want to be like two shades lighter.
Victor: Right. Exactly. It’s funny because this past summer in Beijing, I bought a yellow silk tie with dragons on it in the street market. And I literally was thinking…
Amber: They think you’re trying to overthrow the government.
Victor: I was just thinking if this was in the Ching dynasty, this would be such a big crime right now. But you know, it was very important that only the emperor can use the color yellow.
Amber: Victor, I want to see this tie. Can you… yellow dragon, that sounds quite smashing. Okay well, enough about yellow because really, we know that yellow went out. It’s so 2600 BC. And now red seems to have had a lot of staying power.
Victor: Yep. It’s a very popular color.
Amber: And because Chinese people feel this color is very lucky. So I feel that because it is a culture, Chinese culture puts so much emphasis on luck. Definitely red must be coming through for them because it’s still, everything is red.
Victor: And during all the festivities, especially Chinese New Year, you see the fireworks are red. You see any sort of paper decorations, they’re all red.
Amber: Right. Like basically, what things aren’t red in China? There is also the banners on the doors, the red envelope called 红包 (hóngbāo) that at Chinese New Year, people would give as a gift. They put money inside a red envelope.
Victor: Yep.
Amber: Another thing about Chinese New Year - I know that if it’s your year, for example, the Chinese zodiac. During that year, you’re supposed to wear red every day and I had a workmate. It was her year last year and so she told me she had to wear red underwear every day.
Victor: Yeah. You see those on markets all the time. Actually this year is one of my friend’s zodiac year and he was given a red underwear as presents during Chinese New Year.
Amber: So racy. But it’s supposed to bring good luck! Also, of course we know that we see red at weddings because the traditional wedding dress, 旗袍 (qípáo) in Chinese is generally red.
Victor: Correct.
Amber: And speaking of wedding, it says that why there is a lot of red in Chinese weddings as well is because red is very festive colour too and they think that all this red is going to help the couple who are getting married to chase out the bad luck on the day they’re getting married.
Victor: Correct. So, what element is red, Amber?
Amber: Fire, of course. Yes. One thing I know is, here is a little tip for everyone, if you ever you want to get a compliment, the second you wear something red in China everyone’s like, “Oh, you look so nice today!” It really works. Now, but there is one time you might not want to wear red however, which is at a funeral.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Strictly forbidden.
Victor: Right. Because like we said earlier, red symbolizes happiness and festivities. And of course at a funeral, it definitely does not match the occasion.
Amber: That’s right. And that brings us to the next color which is actually white. No, not black, but white is the color for funerals in China.
Victor: Right. Unlike in Western cultures, where white symbolizes purity, chastity, holiness or cleanness…
Amber: Sometimes. We don’t know. We believe the white wedding dresses but yeah.
Victor: White is actually associated with death and used predominantly in funerals in Chinese culture.
Amber: Okay. So, alternatively black now, Victor. Black with China, what does it represent?
Victor: It represents the dark Westernly skies that are thought to be the heavens.
Amber: Right. That sounds so aquatic.
Victor: So, black is the beginning and white is the end. So, white is used at times of mourning.
Amber: I don’t think Chinese people like wearing black so much. I don’t think it’s really their favorite color.
Victor: No. It’s very…
Amber: They like bright colors more.
Victor: Well, sometimes they use it in funerals also. So, white and black are very solemn, very serious colors.
Amber: I mean, after all you said, “Black is the beginning, white is the end” It’s very profound.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: Okay now, green. Now green’s got some issues in Chinese, I think. Because there is two words for basic green in Chinese but it seems like… okay, what are the two words first of all, Victor?
Victor: 绿 (lǜ) and 青 (qīng).
Amber: Okay. Now, I think that 青 (qīng) seems to be the favourite child of the greens. Can you describe it? It serves like more of a green with the blue to it, right?
Victor: Correct. It’s kind of between blue and green.
Amber: So, for example, a tree – is it 青 (qīng) or is it 绿 (lǜ)?
Victor: Well, a tree would be 绿 (lǜ).
Amber: What’s 青 (qīng) then? Can you give an example of something that’s 青 (qīng) in green?
Victor: The one thing I can think of right now is sometimes people use to describe your complexion. Sometimes when you’re really angry and they say, “Their face is 青 (qīng).” It’s like anger with green and blue.
Amber: We use that for when people are about to throw up. We’re lie, “You look green.” It seems that the green is very ambiguous. But, the point is that the green is associated with certain things in Chinese culture which are…
Victor: Health, prosperity and harmony. But also, it has its dark sides.
Amber: The green has a dark side. But mostly when it has something to do with hats, which seems bizarre and random but Victor is going to explain.
Victor: Okay. So, the phrase ‘green hats’ or 绿帽子 (lǜmàozi) is always associated with infidelity in Chinese culture.
Amber: So, do you call a person a ‘green hat’ and it means you’re an adulterer or something?
Victor: Usually used on men. If you say the guy is wearing green hat, it means the wife is cheating on him. So, it’s more the victim rather than the person who is doing the act.
Amber: Right. Well, this caused some problems actually too… because Chinese Catholic bishops, do you know that they have this hat that is green? And so they said that the Chinese bishops had to compromise by changing their hat to a violet hat on their coat of arms.
Victor: That makes sense because…
Amber: They didn’t want to walk around with that.
Victor: Right.
Amber: But again, they are Catholic bishops. They don’t have wives. So, I don’t know what the big deal is.
Victor: It’s just natural in the Chinese culture I guess.
Amber: Yes! So, very important. If someone ever mentions ‘green hats’ and you’re married, it’s not a good thing.
Victor: Right. Right.
Amber: What about if you wear a green hat, Victor? Is that alright?
Victor: No, I don’t think you could ever…
Amber: I have never seen a green hat in China. Well maybe anywhere but…
Victor: Right. That’s pretty much why. We just explained it. Because in Chinese culture, that’s what it means.
Amber: Okay. So, stay away from the green hats.
Victor: Right.
Amber: So basically, that’s some of the main colors that have significance in China right now.
Victor: Right.
Amber: One thing I noticed though, Victor. When I was in China, Chinese people love wearing bright colors. At least in Shanghai. And very often mismatched patterns and like very craze of times. Is there a reason for that? Is it the more the better, or…?
Victor: Well, this is an interesting thing. Of course I didn’t grow up in this period but you know, from what I’ve heard, from older people who used to live in the 60s and 70s, before China opened up it was very close to society and very conservative and people would only wear dark colored clothes.
Amber: So, this is the time of the Mao’s suit. Everyone’s Mao’s suit was the same color or..?
Victor: Like dark blue, black, grey and it’s pretty much the whole country wears those colors. And since it’s opening up in the late 70s and 80s, a lot of people are experimenting with new colors and new things and…
Amber: That’s cool.
Victor: Right. And a lot of people kind of use that as a reference to say how much China has progressed. The people are more open about their individual choices, you know.
Amber: Everything makes sense now.
Victor: Their own colors and stuff.
Amber: Because it used to be like, purple and orange do not match, but actually it’s self-expression, which is a good thing.
Victor: Yeah. Exactly.
Amber: Very interesting.
Victor: If that makes them happy.
Amber: Yeah. Well, that’s colors in Chinese culture. And if anyone else has some experiences to share or stories all about color, please come to the website chineseclass101.com. Leave us a comment and also, you can come and learn some Chinese. We have lots of Chinese lessons that are for you.
Victor: Right.
Amber: So, that’s it for the Chinese Buffet today and if you want to learn more Chinese or about Chinese culture, make sure come visit us at chineseclass101.com. We have lots of lessons there that can give you lots of insights about China and also teach you to speak Chinese. 再见 (zàijiàn)!
Victor: 再见 (zàijiàn).