We’ve looked before at the very auspicious meanings of 红 (red) in Chinese. Today, let’s examine 白 (bái- white), and explore some of its wide range of meanings.
In an excellent paper from 2008, Janet Zhiqun Xing discusses how colors in Chinese are flexible in their meanings, and are often used in very abstract ways. She identifies colors in Chinese as having an “original meaning”, “extended meaning”, and “abstract meaning”. 白 is a great example, with both a relatively simple original and extended meaning, and interesting abstract meanings.
The original meaning of 白 is simply “white”, as in 白色 (bái sè- the color white) or 白米 (bái mǐ- white rice).
It’s extended meaning can be “bright” or “day”, as seen in words like 白天 (bái tiān) or 白日 (bái rì), both meaning daytime.
Its various abstract meanings are where things get more interesting, demonstrating the wonderful imagery always present in Chinese, and can give great insight into the development of the Chinese language. Lets look at 4 abstract meanings of 白, and give some examples of specific words and example sentences.
Abstract Meanings of 白
明白 (míng bai): To understand, clear, evident
dà xué shēng chuàng yè xū yào míng bai nǎ xiē shì
What do college students needs to understand when starting a business?
wǒ míng bai, xuàn yào zhè xiē bèi jǐng hé jīng lì yě xǔ yǒu zhù yú zhǎo gōng zuò
I understand, bragging about your background and experience could help in finding a job
2. Pure, untarnished
清白 (qīng bái): Innocent, clean
shù jù zhèng shí yè shī wén qīng bái tā shì xiàn xiàng jí yóu yǒng tiān cái
Data proves Ye Shiwen is innocent; she has phenomenal natural swimming talent
tā bù jǐn yāo qiú bèi pàn wú zuì, hái yāo qiú chè dǐ hái tā qīng bái
She not only sought to be acquitted, she also wanted to completely clear her name
告白 (gào bái): Confess, come clear
wǒ xiāng xìn rú cǐ dà dǎn làng màn de gào bái, shuí yě bù huì jù jué ba?
I believe with such a brave and romantic confession, who would be able to resist?
fáng dì chǎn kāi fā shāng de gào bái: lǎo bǎi xìng wèi hé mǎi bù qǐ fáng zi?
Real estate developers confess: why can’t ordinary people afford to buy a house?
坦白 (tǎn bái): Frank, candid
tǎn bái shuō, wǒ xiàn zài jiù xī wàng wán quán tuì chū zú tán
Frankly speaking, I’m now hoping to completely retire from football
dàn”90 hòu”men bìng bù shì “tuí fèi yī dài”, ér shì xìng gé xiān míng de chuàng xīn yī dài, tā men gǎn xiǎng gǎn gàn, sī lù kāi kuò, mù biāo míng què, tǎn bái zhí jiē
But those born after the 90’s aren’t a “decadant generation”, but are a generation with fresh personalities, bold vision and courage, open thinking with clear goals, frank and direct.
4. Without results, pointless
白说 (bái shuō)- Speak in vain, waste one’s breath
shì mín men zuì pà zì jǐ de tóu sù hé yì jiàn méi yǒu xiào guǒ,“wǒ men huì jué de shuō le yě bái shuō”
Citizens fear their complaints and suggestions won’t have any outcome, ” we think we are just speaking in vain“.
zhǐ yǒu cāo zuò xì tǒng de ān quán wěn dìng yùn xíng cái néng què bǎo qí tā ruǎn jiàn de zhèng cháng gōng zuò, fǒu zé yī qiè dōu shì bái shuō
Only with a safe and stable operating system can you guarantee the regular operation of computer software, otherwise it is just a waste.
白忙 (bái máng) – To be busy with pointless matters, “a wild goose chase”
kāi chú yī míng ào yùn ān bǎo rén yuán, yīn wèi tā jū rán dǎ “zhà dàn” diàn huà bào jǐng, ràng jǐng chá bái máng yī chǎng
An Olympic security personnel was fired for reporting a bomb to the police as a hoax, sending the police on a wild goose chase.
jù jué jiāo qián gěi piàn zi, nà piàn zi jiù shì bái máng le
By refusing to give the scammer money, the scammer has wasted his effort.
There are a few other, much more abstract uses of 白 (白事– bái shì-funeral), (白匪– bái fěi- bandit), but the above should be sufficient to help interpret uses of 白 you are likely to encounter.
Try out FluentU and you’ll see some of these used in practice.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
What other colors can you think of which have abstract meanings?
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.