What’s your favorite color?
Do you love pink, gray or gold?
Colors can reflect personal taste, mood, age and culture.
Today, we’re going to make you color-literate in Chinese!
Colors? I Thought I Already Learned Them!
Colors are usually among the first vocabulary you learn in a foreign language.
You might’ve already mastered the basic five to ten colors, but that’s not enough for many real-life contexts.
As you may have noticed, even in English we often describe things in more specific hues beyond primary and secondary colors.
Today’s post will provide a window into a wider world of colors, increasing your knowledge and your ability to describe objects with poetic vibrancy.
First, a Quick Color Description Hack
Here’s a handy trick: You can pair 深 (shēn) “dark” or 浅 (qiǎn) “light” with any color hue to describe varying intensities of that color.
深橙 (shēn chéng) = dark orange
浅桔黄 (qiǎn jú huáng) = light tangerine yellow
And now, on to our mega list of colors! The below list is organized into color families, and includes descriptions, varieties and expressions related to each color.
The Mega List of 100+ Chinese Colors, Colorful Idioms and Cultural Notes
1. Red family 红色类 (hóng sè lèi)
Red 红色 (hóng sè) is a prominent color in Chinese culture. It represents strength, vitality and energy. It’s also related to festivity. An auspicious (lucky) color, it’s associated with holidays like Chinese New Year, as well as weddings.
Varieties of red:
- 粉红 (fěn hóng) pink
- 玫瑰红 (méi gūi hóng) rose red
- 朱红 (zhū hóng) vermilion
- 枣红 (zǎo hóng) maroon
- 玫瑰红 (méi gūi hóng) rose red
- 莲红 (lián hóng) lotus red
- 深红 (shēn hóng) dark red
- 辣椒红 (là jiāo hóng) chili red
- 珊瑚红 (shān hú hóng) coral
- 棕红 (zōng hóng) reddish brown
- 鲜红 (xiān hóng) bright red
- 绯红 (fēi hóng) scarlet
Idioms using red:
- 看破红尘 (kàn pò hóng chén) — “To see through the red dust of the world,” meaning to give up worldly desires and adopt a Buddhist monastic lifestyle.
- 姹紫嫣红 (chà zǐ yān hóng) — “Beautiful purples and bright reds,” used to describe a brightly colored bouquet of flowers.
- 面红耳赤 (miàn hóng ě chì) — “Face red and ears popping,” to describe someone who’s fiery mad and smoking-from-the-ears angry.
- 红杏出墙 (hóng xìng chū qiáng) — “The red apricot tree leans over the garden wall,” referring to a wife having an illicit lover.
Cultural references using red:
- 红宝书 (hóng bǎo shū) — “Little Red Book” was Mao’s collection of writings reflecting his Communist vision. It was first published in 1964 and became the “bible” of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a period of rapid sociopolitical change and major turmoil in China, from 1966–71.
- 红楼梦 (hóng lóu mèng) – “A Dream of a Red Mansions” is a literary classic, as famous and foundational as Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” is for Western literature. It was written in 18th century Qing Dynasty by Cao Xueqin
2. Yellow family 黄色类 (huáng sè lèi)
Yellow 黄色 (huáng sè) is a bright and glorious color, associated with the sun. A color worn by ancient Chinese emperors, it represents riches and power. It’s also a happy color signifying inspiration and vitality.
Varieties of yellow:
- 桔黄 (jú huáng) tangerine
- 柠檬黄 (níng méng huáng) lemon yellow
- 橄榄黄 (gǎn lǎn huáng) olive yellow
- 杏黄 (xìng huáng) apricot
- 金黄 (jīn huáng) golden yellow
Idioms using yellow:
- 明日黄花 (míng rì huáng huā) — “Chrysanthemums after the Double Ninth Festival,” meaning an antiquated, old-fashioned or out-dated thing.
- 人老珠黄 (rén lǎo zhū huáng) — “Old and yellow,” referring to an old and faded woman.
- 青黄不接 (qīng huáng bù jiē) — “The yellow crop of autumn doesn’t last until the green of spring,” referring to scarce resources, such as not having enough manpower or not able to make ends meet.
Cultural references using yellow:
- 黄金周 (huáng jīn zhōu) — “Golden week,” the two periods of 7-day national holidays in China. The first is Chinese New Year, around January or February (depending on the lunar calendar), and the other starts on October 1, China’s National Day.
- 黄帝 (huáng dì) — “Yellow emperor,” an ancient Chinese mythological emperor, similar to a King Arthur in Western legends.
- 黄脸婆 (huáng liǎn pó) — “Yellow-faced woman,” meaning a faded old woman.
3. Green family 绿色类 (lǜ sè lèi)
Green 绿色 (lǜ sè) is a color representing nature and new growth. It’s a lively and fresh color. The color of jade, green is also elegant. Green-colored jade jewelry has been popular throughout Chinese history among those who could afford it.
Green does have a couple negative connotations in Chinese culture, though. For example, to be “green faced” in Chinese is to be sick, and to “wear a green hat” is to be cheated on by your wife.
Varieties of green:
- 豆绿 (dòu lǜ) bean color
- 橄榄绿 (gǎn lǎn lǜ) olive green
- 茶绿 (chá lǜ) tea green
- 葱绿 (cōng lǜ) scallion green
- 苹果绿 (píng gǔo lǜ) apple green
- 森林绿 (sēn lín lǜ) forest green
- 水草绿 (shǔi cǎo lǜ) seaweed
- 草绿 (cǎo lǜ) grass green
Idioms using green:
- 红男绿女 (hóng nán lǜ nǚ) — “Red gentlemen and green ladies,” referring to young people dressed up in fancy clothes.
- 柳绿花红 (lǐu lǜ huā hóng) — “Green willows and red flowers,” meaning the colors of spring.
- 绿林好汉 (lǜ lín hǎo hàn) — “Hero of Greenwood,” a kind of hero who lives in the woods and rebels against established authorities and social class structures; similar to a Robin Hood.
- 戴绿帽子 (dài lǜ mào zǐ) — “Wear a green hat,” meaning to be cheated on by one’s wife.
- 脸都绿了(liǎn dōu lǜ le) — “Green in the face,” meaning to look sickly and unwell.
- 花花绿绿 (huā huā lǜ lǜ) — “Lots of flowers and green,” meaning colorful, flashy and gaudy.
4. Blue family (lán sè lèi) 蓝色类
Blue 蓝色 (lán sè) is an expansive color, the hue of the open skies and the ocean. A peaceful color, blue in Chinese culture is associated with the iconic, blue-painted pottery pieces. Blue can also be a color of sadness.
Varieties of blue:
- 天蓝 (tiān lán) sky blue
- 蔚蓝 (wèi lán) azure
- 月光蓝 (yuè guāng lán) moonlight blue
- 海洋蓝 (yuè guāng lán) sea blue
- 湖蓝 (hú lán) lake blue
Idioms using blue:
- 青出于蓝 (qīng chū yú lán) — “Green supersedes blue,” as in, the younger generation surpasses the older.
- 衣衫蓝缕 (yī shān lán lǚ) — “Shabby clothes.”
5. Purple family 紫色类 (zǐ sè lèi)
Purple 紫色 (zǐ sè) is a luxurious color, yet mysterious, and it suggests beauty, passion and emotional depth.
Varieties of purple:
- 紫罗兰色 (zǐ lúo lán sè) violet
- 葡萄紫 (pú táo zǐ) grape color / grayish purple
- 玫瑰紫 (méi gūi zǐ) rose purple
- 暗紫 (àn zǐ) gloomy purple
Idioms using purple:
- 万紫千红 (wàn zǐ qiān hóng) — “Thousands of purples and reds,” describing the flourishing of a variety of trades and industries.
- 紫气东来 (zǐ qì dōng lái) — “Purple breeze flows from the east,” suggesting that an auspicious and lucky time is coming.
6. Orange family 橙色类 (chéng sè lèi)
Orange 橙色 (sè lèi) a lively and happy color, reminiscent of autumn and plentiful harvests. It can represent good fortune, celebration and wealth.
Varieties of orange:
- 橙红色 (chéng hóng sè) reddish orange
- 柿子橙 (shì zǐ chéng) persimmon
- 阳橙 (yáng chéng) sun orange
- 热带橙 (rè dài chéng) tropical orange
- 蜜橙 (mì chéng) honey orange
- 深橙 (shēn chéng) dark orange
Idioms using orange:
- 红橙黄绿蓝靛紫 (hóng chéng huáng lǜ lán diàn zǐ) — “Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, purple,” meaning all the colors of the rainbow.
7. White family 白色类 (bái sè lèi)
White 白色 (bái sè) can connote a sense of superiority. It can also represent goodness and purity.
In Chinese culture, white is often used in combination with other colors. White by itself is a funeral color. Therefore, in traditional Chinese culture, people don’t normally wear white accessories in their hair or give white flowers as gifts, because of the association with mourning.
Varieties of white:
- 象牙白 (xiàng yá bái) ivory
- 牡蛎白 (mǔ lì bái) oyster white
- 珍珠白 (zhēn zhū bái) pearl white
- 玉石白 (yù shí bái) jade white
- 银白 (yín bái) silvery white
- 米白 (mǐ bái) beige
Idioms using white:
- 一穷二白 (yī qióng è bái) — “First poor then white,” to describe someone as financially impoverished and culturally backward.
- 唇红齿白 (chún hóng chǐ bái) — “Red lips and white teeth,” to describe a beautiful feminine mouth.
- 白璧无瑕 (bái bì wú xiá) — “White as jade without imperfections,” meaning spotless and perfect.
8. Black family 黑色类 (hēi sè lèi)
Black 黑色 (hēi sè) is a basic and ever-trendy color. Black can be sombre or sophisticated. In Chinese culture, black is often worn by elderly ladies, since bright colors are thought to be suited only for young people.
Varieties of black:
- 土黑 (tǔ hēi) soil- or earth-colored
- 煤黑 (méi hēi) coal black
- 碳黑 (tàn hēi) soot black
- 古铜黑 (gǔ tóng hēi) black like the color of old copper
- 铁黑 (tiě hēi) black like iron
Idioms using black:
- 月黑风高 (yuè hēi fēng gāo) — “The moon is black and the winds are high,” to describe a dark, windy and ominous night.
- 起早贪黑 (qǐ zǎo tān hēi) — “Rise early and desire the dark,” meaning to wake up early and sleep late.
- 颠倒黑白 (diān dǎo hēi bái) — “Reverse black and white,” or to distort the truth and misrepresent facts.
9. Gray family 灰色类 (hūi sè lèi)
Gray 灰色 (hūi sè) is sometimes dark and gloomy, but at other times, gray can be modern and trendy.
Varieties of gray:
- 银灰 (yín hūi) silver gray
- 铁灰 (tiě hūi) iron gray
- 铅灰 (qiān hūi) lead gray
- 烟灰 (yān hūi) smoky gray
Idioms using gray:
- 万念俱灰 (wàn niàn jù hūi) — “All hopes turn gray,” meaning utter disappointment.
- 灰心丧气 (hūi xīn sàng qì) — “Gray heart and mournful spirits,” to feel down and depressed.
10. Brown family 棕色类 (zōng sè lèi)
Brown is an earthy and warm color. It is a popular choice for both home furnishings and fashion in Chinese culture. However, there are not many expressions or idioms that include brown.
Varieties of brown:
- 褐色 (hè sè) another name for brown
- 红棕 (hóng zōng) reddish brown
- 金棕 (jīn zōng) golden brown
11. Miscellaneous colors 其它类 (qí tā lèi)
Did we cover all the colors? Perhaps the main ones, but wait, there’s more… !
Here are special and miscellaneous colors, some from popular fashion, that you can add to your vocabulary.
- 金色 (jīn sè) gold
- 银色 (yín sè) silver
- 咖啡色 (kā fēi sè) coffee color (or “brown” for Cantonese speakers)
- 奶油色 (nǎi yóu sè) cream or nude
- 豆沙色 (dòu shā sè) literally “red bean colored,” this color looks like a pinky-mauve and is a popular color for lipstick!
- 牛仔色 (níu zǎi sè) denim colored
- 荧光色 (yíng guāng sè) neon
- 彩虹色 (cǎi hóng sè) rainbow
Whew! That was a lot of colors!
Hope this journey into colorland expands your knowledge and love for Chinese language and culture.
We’ll see you again at the next lesson.
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