chinese colors

Colors in Chinese: 86 Mandarin Colors with Idioms and Cultural Notes

When you’re learning Chinese vocabulary, you need to pick up basic words like colors ( 颜色  — yán sè) that help you give better descriptions.

Having a wide and varied color vocabulary will let you express greater nuance when you describe things in Mandarin. 

This mega guide to Chinese colors will expand your knowledge of Chinese color vocabulary.

It’s organized into color families, including descriptions, varieties, everyday idioms and helpful notes on the significance of colors in Chinese culture.


1. 红色 (hóng sè) — Red

Red 红色 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 and weddings.

Varieties of red:

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 ěr 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 the 18th century Qing Dynasty by Cao Xueqin

2. 橙色 (chéng sè) — Orange

Orange 橙色 is a lively and happy color, reminiscent of autumn and plentiful harvests. It can represent good fortune, celebration and wealth.

Varieties of 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.

3. 黄色 (huáng sè) — Yellow

Yellow 黄色 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 seven-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 King Arthur in Western legends.
  • 黄脸婆 (huáng liǎn pó) — “Yellow-faced woman,” meaning a faded old woman.

4. 绿色 (lǜ sè) — Green

Green 绿色 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 of 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:

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 (liǔ 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.

5. 蓝色 (lán sè) — Blue

Blue 蓝色 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:

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.”

6. 紫色 (zǐ sè) — Purple

Purple 紫色 is a luxurious, mysterious color, suggesting beauty, passion and emotional depth.

Varieties of 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.

7. 白色 (bái sè) — White

White 白色 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:

Idioms using white:

  • 一穷二白 (yì qióng èr 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. 黑色 (hēi sè) — Black

Black 黑色 is a basic and ever-trendy color. Black can be somber 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. 灰色 (hūi sè) — Gray

Gray 灰色 is sometimes dark and gloomy, but gray can be modern and trendy at other times.

Varieties of 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. 棕色 (zōng sè) — Brown

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. 其它颜色 (qí tā yán sè) — Other Colors

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

Note: You can pair (shēn) “dark” or (qiǎn) “light” with any color hue to describe varying intensities of that color.

For example:

深橙 (shēn chéng) — dark orange

浅桔黄 (qiǎn jú huáng) — light tangerine yellow


Whew! Those were a lot of colors!

Hope this journey into colorland expands your knowledge and love for the Chinese language and culture.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe