Avoiding insult and injury when using color in China

Mondrian Came to China

"Mondrian Came to China". Shot in Beijing by Simon.

If you’re like most of our clients, you want to enter and prosper in the Chinese marketplace with a product or service which is presented — calibrated, if you wish – to Chinese cultural expectations. You want to avoid confusing your market by ensuring you’re localizing your product or service so that its not misunderstood, or worse, dismissed or derided, due to some cultural faux pas.

While every world culture has its own unique symbolism and taboos, its fair to say that the ancient and very complex Chinese culture is the big daddy of cultural symbolism. Highly resonant symbolic memes run so old and deep that it’s impossible to summarize them into one blog post, or even a hundred posts.

Instead, we will be talking about something more directly linked to successful business practices in China: the hidden meanings behind colors, especially in connection to effective marketing and communications in China.

There are many traps for young players!

Everything old is new again (or never became old in the first place)

Contemporary mainland Chinese culture places great importance on symbolism. Since ancient times the Chinese people have had hidden meanings and deep significance in connection with, well,  just about everything. Some little-known cultural superstitions about color continue to have resonance in many parts of contemporary Chinese society — your product’s or service’s audience.  For example, did you know that…

Green hats mean that the wearer’s wife is cheating on him, and

Black borders around photographs mean that the person pictured is dead, and

White gift wrapping makes the recipient think of his own death.

Colors are deeply symbolic in China, and can make or break your commercial offering in the Chinese marketplace

We’ve been advising our clients on the cultural appropriateness and effectiveness of their corporate identity, branding and positioning for almost a decade, so we felt it might be helpful to outline the main cultural cues caused by popular colors in contemporary mainland Chinese society.  Naturally, color is only one of a number of key elements in every brand, but it is a very important element.

Red:

Chinese Flag in a hutong

While red is the signature color in mainland China, it really shouldn't be used in every circumstance. Shot in Beijing by Simon.

When accepting briefs to design marketing collateral for the mainland Chinese market, we’re often asked: “How can I make it look perfectly Chinese, or maybe not 100% Chinese, but Chinese enough to be effective?”  The follow-up question is usually “Why don’t we use the color red? Everything else in China seems to be red!”

To non-Chinese, red is the most obvious color to use in marketing work. According to a less-informed understanding of Chinese culture, red represents China and everything Chinese. Fundamentally, this is correct, but there are important subtitles which must be considered in correctly positioning your product or service.

In ancient China, the color red gained its meaning from fire. Unlike many other countries where fire has long been regarded as a symbol of danger or destruction, fire is generally considered to be a good thing in China. The Chinese people have a saying, 红红火火 (hóng hóng huǒ huǒ, or literally “red, red, fire, fire”) meaning the life of someone expands, prospers, cracks and rockets like red flame. By the same principle, 火了(huǒ le, “caught fire”) means something has gained considerable popularity, and the adjective 火爆 (huǒ bào, “fire and explosion”) refers to places such as busy markets jam-packed with people, or a book or movie which is packed with action and excitement.

The color red has acquired these characteristics over millenia, and has is today the symbol of prosperity and happiness. Importantly, it’s also the primary color for celebrations, especially the Lunar New Year and wedding ceremonies.

With the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, red was adopted as the symbol of communism, revolution and (as the Party has it) “liberation”. Do understand however that this choice of red was influenced by the USSR rather than the ancient characteristics of the colour (remember that Mao’s communist party was philosophically (and often violently) opposed to superstition). So don’t confuse the red of China’s contemporary political system with “the red of the common people”.  The ancient roots of red don’t include revolution.

Our advice: It’s good to use some red to create “Chinese elements” in your collateral, but don’t abuse it.

Producing marketing collateral which is predominantly red will almost certainly make it look out of place, and cause confusion in the minds of your audiences. Your audience’s first impression will reliably be “What? Is it the New Year time already?” For non-Chinese, imagine how you react when you see Christmas decorations or marketing in the middle of June — silly, right? And don’t handwrite in red ink: it communicates that you’re ending your relationship with your correspondent.

To overuse red out of context is certainly poor conceptual communication, so if you have a lot of red in your marketing materials, seek expert advice prior to publication in China.

Yellow:

China National Games 2005 - Opening Ceremony (ancient times sequence 1)

Yellow representing ancient imperial China in the opening ceremony of the China National Games 2005. Shot in the Nanjing Stadium by Simon.

We’re addressing yellow second, because like red, the color has some quite distinctive and problematic meanings.

Yellow can be dangerous to use in your marketing materials. If your copywriting refers to a product or service and that is connected to yellow, great care should be taken.

When the term for “yellow”, “黄” (huáng) is used in connection to any kind of publication or media, it means the thing it describes is pornographic. For example, 黄图 (huáng tú, “yellow picture”) means pornographic pictures and graphics, 黄书 (huáng shū, “yellow book”) means pornographic writings, 黄片 (huáng piān, “yellow clips”) means pornographic movies, and 黄网 (huáng wǎng, “yellow web”) means pornographic websites.

So the next time you see Chinese police officers wielding a big banner saying 扫黄打非 (sǎo huáng dǎ fēi, “sweep the yellow and beat the un-”), you will know it’s time for one of their raids on pornography.

(Yes, that direct translation is a little obtuse — such is the habit of writing contemporary Mandarin in the mainland — more accurately, the police banner expresses the People’s Armed Police’s will to “sweep the street of yellow publications and beat unlawful activities”).

The other key cultural marker for the color yellow is that in ancient times, pure, bright yellow was used exclusively by emperors of several dynasties. To say someone has 黄袍加身 (huáng páo jiā shēn, “to wear the yellow robe”) means he has ascended to the throne, most likely by usurping. These ancient emperors reserved the color yellow for their own exclusive use, and anyone caught using yellow in any way during their dynasty would be put to death.

Our advice: Be very careful with using the color yellow in your marketing and communications activities. Avoid large swathes of yellow, and avoid yellow in your key corporate identity brandmarks and product brandmarks.  Judicious use of yellow is possible by a deft marketing agency: for example, a bright yellow background and dragon (the Chinese kind, with five claws) may be a strong visual design choice to market a product or service that should appear to be “majestic” (but that’d be a ballsy decision, best discussed with your in-market advisors).

Gold:

Gold is a color which has long been used in China as a symbol of nobility and wealth. It is closely related to the ancient emperors’ “bright, pure yellow” (see above).

Our advice: It’s fine to use metallic gold and golden colors in your marketing materials. There are few, if any, cultural faux pas to be watchful for.

However, we advise our clients to avoid over-use of the color gold. There was a time from late 1980s to middle 1990s when practically every Chinese mainlander became crazy about gold ornaments and golden colored paints. This “gold rush” has caused over-use of the color to become the domain of the nouveau riche, and as such, can easily appear to make your message gaudy and cheap-looking.  Appropriate use of gold is one of the keys to productive marketing and advertising in China.

Purple:

Graffiti is rare in China. This purple heart is an exception. Shot in Beijing by Simon.

Graffiti is rare in China. This purple heart is an exception. Shot in Beijing by Simon.

Like in many European and British cultures, purple is a symbol of nobility (however it was never the imperial color).

Unlike European and British cultures, purple has deep religious meaning in China. An ancient Taoist symbol of divine presence is canonized as “a purple cloud coming from the east”.  This phrase is always used in connection to anything mortal ascending to immortality.

Our advice: Get creative and consider using purple to your advantage. We recall a campaign for Dewar’s Scotch Whisky executed in China a few years ago with purple velvet covering every surface of the set. This was a very effective method of connecting the Dewar’s brand with positive notions of nobility and immortality.

Green:

Green is a color which can confuse new entrants to the China marketplace.  While the idea of “green” in the western world has some similarity in China, there are subtle but important differences which most new market entrants fail to grasp.

In China’s mainland, green means “clean” or “free of contaminants”.  Put into practice, this is not the same definition of clean that westerners might assume. Mostly when westerners talk about “green technology” or “green energy”, they mean “sustainable” or “eco-friendly”. A sort of cleanness to Mother Nature.

However in China, “green” vegetables are free of pesticides, but may contribute to environmental degradation. “Green” milk is milk without toxic melamine. “Green” publications are without explicit or prohibited content. So you see, “green” a widely applicable adjective with much broader and quite different meanings to “green” products or services in western society.

(As an aside, the term “organic” is even more troublesome than “green” in China. You see, because “green” is so broad in the minds of Chinese consumers, (and “green” products can still contain harmful characteristics) the even more specific term “organic” is very poorly understood. We’re experts at marketing organic foods and beverages in China, and we have had to develop extremely detailed campaign materials to accurately present organic product provenances and benefits.)

In general terms, green is a good choice of color in just about anything, except for hats. Symbolically, “getting a green hat” means a man has an unfaithful wife (in ancient China, husbands of prostitutes wore green headscarves). When preparing gifts for guests, partners or clients, green should be avoided at all costs if the gifts are intended to be worn anywhere on or near people’s heads.

(We recall being asked to comment on a national Olympic committee’s prototype uniform for the Beijing 2008 Olympic opening ceremony a few years before the Games.  It featured a traditional national hat in… you guessed it… green. We vociferously talked the committee down from what would have been the sound a one and a half billion people laughing at that team’s most solemn moment during the Games!)

Our advice: Go ahead and use green for just about any marketing purpose, but do not assume that your “green” product or service will be correctly understood by your Chinese audience without specific market education built into your campaign. And don’t give green hats away at your next (or any) trade fair unless you want to become a laughing stock.

White

White is used in funerals, which is quite different from western culture. A 白包 (bái bāo, “white envelope”) is an envelope of money to show the sympathy to family of the deceased, much opposed to the 红包 (hóng báo, “red envelope”) given to newlywed couples and children.

White is one the color that you must avoid for anything festive or celebratory (and that includes product launches).  White should never be used in connection to wedding ceremonies, especially in the less westernized (that means most) regions of the country.

And when giving gifts of any kind, never wrap them in white.

Our advice: Do be judicious with the use of white according to the context of the marketing material or activity.  Seek expert advice before committing to white as a brand or marketing feature element.

Black

Black, when used in copywriting and text, has a wide array of symbolic meanings that include evil, morbid, corrupted, illegal, and/or greedy. As a color it has a hint of formality and solemness in the minds of the Chinese people.

And when giving gifts of any kind, never wrap them in black.

Our advice: Take care not to over-use black.  Never put black borders around photographs of people.  It means that they are dead and are being memorialized!  Avoid presenting someone’s portrait (a photo focused on the face) in black and white mode. This makes your audience think of pictures on graves.

Multi-color and rainbow spectra

Chinese people seldom use a rainbow spectrum in things. The Gay Pride rainbow is unknown in China. Use of spectra in Chinese marketing materials is likely to make your Chinese audience think that you’re presenting the national flag of a minor country, or that you’ve used cheap, end-of-run colored materials in your production.

In ancient times, a rainbow across the sun would foretell that the emperor would soon die or be challenged.

Our advice: If you must use a rainbow or a color spectrum, go right ahead, but any hope for cultural resonance will probably be lost on your audience.

Qing

Its not grey. Its not blue. Its not green. Its qing. Typical hutong colour, shot in Beijing by Simon.

Its not grey. Its not blue. Its not green. Its qing. Typical hutong colour, shot in Beijing by Simon.

青 (qīng) — its pronounced “ching”, not “kwing” or “king” — is an interesting color that doesn’t appear in the standard set of colors commonly identified in western cultures.

Some people (Chinese included) say it’s a sort of blue, while others say it’s part of the green family. There is actually no right-or-wrong with these ideas. Technically qing is a color that sits anywhere in between blue and green. You can call it green, blue, green-ish blue or blue-ish green, and not be thought of as being odd.

Adding a little more interest to this unique Chinese-only color, qing may include some grey. So qing can also be described as greenish-grey blue, or bluish-green grey, or any other combination of these shades.

Qing is closely linked to historical buildings and clothing, like qing bricks, and qing pattern porcelain.  Also, there is a type of female character in Peking Opera called a 青衣 (qīng yī, “qing colored costume”) because they usually wear costumes of this interesting color.

Our advice: Give qing consideration if you need to instill a feeling of history and traditional culture. Search for the term 青 in search engines, browse through pictures you get, find your idea on what kind of green-blue should your qing be.

Summary

China, as a modern country, has a lot of facets, and a full spectrum of colors. Stereotyping it with red is but a safe but boring practice. Free your creativity and experiment with different colors in a different cultural context. The pitfalls outlined in this article are easy to avoid. All will be fine as long as your campaign or design is backed by reliable market research and cultural analysis — please contact us to discuss your particular challenge.

Article by Kane Gao, Illuminant’s head of research, and Simon Cousins, Illuminant’s chief executive.

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3 Responses to “Avoiding insult and injury when using color in China”

  1. Chinese Mandarin Learner
    3:50 pm on October 2nd, 2012

    Mondrian came to China….just not in the photo….Mondrian loathed the colour green…so much so that he once painted the green parts of a lily in a vase (in his studio) white!

    I only just discovered your Awesome site. Lots here for me to learn….very clever ideas and information. Cheers Chinese Mandarin Learner

  2. Simon Cousins
    6:46 pm on October 2nd, 2012

    So interesting! We were just being silly with that caption. Thanks for your comment and we’re delighted you like our stuff! Editor.

  3. Free Online Resources for Intercultural Ministry - Face to Face Intercultural
    7:01 am on October 26th, 2012

    [...] Avoiding Insult and Injury When Using Color in China (Kane Gao & Simon Cousins; Illuminant) [...]

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