Color quite literally colors the way we view our world. Here’s an in-depth look at what various colors symbolize in cultures around the world.
If you’ve ever had the blues or been so angry you saw red, then you’re familiar with the powerful ways in which color can describe intangible ideas and emotions. In art and anthropology, color symbolism refers to color’s ability to signify meaning to a viewer. While there are some universal associations people tend to have with a specific color, the symbology is often societally ingrained. Color meanings thus differ dramatically from culture to culture.
There are a range of cultural influences that affect one’s view of a specific color: political and historical associations (flag colors, political parties), mythological and religious associations (references to color in spiritual texts), and linguistic associations (idioms and expressions), to name a few.
The Symbolism of Color
What is the color of Life? Red
No matter one’s race, religion, or personal beliefs, we are all united by the same life force, the blood that flows through the red rivers of our veins.
What is the color of Love? Red or Pink
A visually hot color, red represents passionate, sexual love. Meanwhile pink, a softer hue, suggests a more gentle, feminine love.
What is the color of Happiness? Yellow
After a long winter, the return of a yellow sun and the subsequent bloom of spring flowers is enough to make most people smile.
What is the color of Hope? Yellow or Green
In some countries such as Canada, while a loved one is away at war, families display yellow ribbons on the walls of the family home to keep hope alive for their safe return.
In the United States and Europe, green is often associated with hope due to its relationship with springtime and a sense of flourishing.
What is the color of Peace? Blue
Universally associated with the sea and sky, a natural phenomena well-known the world over, blue instills a sense of inner stability.
What is the color of Jealousy? Green
Back in 1603, William Shakespeare referred to jealousy as a “green-eyed monster” in his tragic play Othello. These days, the idiomatic phrase “green with envy” is common in the West.
- Crimson: Strong, bright, and deep, generally combined with blue or violet.
- Maroon: Dark brownish-red, its name comes from the French word marron (chestnut).
- Vermilion: A brilliant red or scarlet pigment, originally made from the powdered mineral cinnabar.
Most dictionaries define the adjective of “red” by referring to fire or blood. As a representative of both heat and heart, red invokes strong feelings in both the positive and negative sense.
It’s a color universally considered to be arresting. So, countries around the world use it to signify stop in traffic lights and stop signs.
In Western cultures, red also symbolizes excitement and passion, love and danger. Red is both powerful and sexy. It’s the color that the Lady in Red wears, an archetypal woman who is irresistible and yet not to be trusted. It’s the color women use most often to paint their lips or nails. In Hollywood, it’s the color rolled out as a carpet for celebrities, arguably the modern-day gods and goddesses worshiped in the West.
In China, red represents happiness, good fortune, luck, and prosperity. Since it’s such an auspicious color, people traditionally wear it for big celebrations such as the New Year. At weddings, the bride wears red. During holidays and other special occasions, gift-giving includes red envelopes containing money.
In East Asian stock markets, red signifies a rise in stock prices, whereas it signifies a fall in North American markets.
The Japanese flag is a white rectangle with a central crimson-red disc. Perhaps this is why most Japanese children often draw the sun as a large red circle.
Red carries a handful of negative associations in the West — “caught red-handed” (caught in the middle of a wrongdoing) and “red flag” (referring to a warning sign).
Meanwhile, South Africa associates red with mourning. The red section of the country’s flag represents the bloodshed — both in terms of violence and sacrifice — that occurred during the country’s struggle for independence.
- Coral: Vivid reddish-orange, like the sea coral.
- Peach: Orange lightened to a pale yellow, similar in hue to the fruit of its name.
- Salmon: Pinkish-orange, named after the color of salmon flesh.
Orange is the color easiest to see in dim light. So, it’s no surprise that life rafts, life jackets, and buoys all come in the “safety orange” shade. In the United States, “Detour” signs as well as the vests of highway workers are also orange in order to ensure they are visible.
In the West, orange tends to bring to mind autumn and harvest, the changing leaves and a candle’s glow in a pumpkin’s carved smile. When paired with black, it represents Halloween, a time when the veil between worlds is supposedly thin. Some suggest the colors were chosen for their opposing associations: orange being the warmth of life and black the darkness of death.
The Western world also associates orange with frivolity and amusement. Clowns often wear orange wigs. Mythological paintings traditionally depict Bacchus — the god of wine-making, fertility, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy — in orange robes.
In Southeast Asia (namely Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar), Buddhist monks of the Theravada tradition wear saffron-colored robes. Monks chose this hue centuries ago mainly due to the dye available at the time, but the tradition has continued into the present. So, these countries now associate what is sacred and holy with the color orange.
There’s a phenomenon in the Netherlands called Oranjegekte (orange craze) that occurs during major sporting events, the F1 Grand Prix, and an annual holiday that celebrates the king’s birthday. When the orange craze takes over the Dutch they wear orange clothing and decorate their cars, houses, shops, and streets in orange. It started as a way to celebrate the Dutch royal family — the House of Orange-Nassau.
- Canary: Bright yellow, resembles the plumage of a canary bird.
- Gold: Vivid yellow, sometimes metallic in color, associated with wealth.
- Lemon Chiffon: Very light yellow, like that of a lemon-chiffon pie.
Need to grab a viewer’s attention? Yellow is the most visible color on the spectrum and the first color the human eye notices. The yellow ochre pigment dates back thousands of years, and thus was one of the first colors in human artwork. For example, the Lascaux cave in France has a 17,000-year-old painting of a yellow horse.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Canada, and Europe, surveys have found that people tend to associate yellow with gentleness and spontaneity, but also with greed and duplicity. People in the United States also associate it with cowardice. Some believe the phrase “yellow-bellied” as a term for those who are cowardly may have originally come from an association with acting like a chicken, an animal that startles easily and runs away in fear. The rich yellow of a chicken’s egg yolk may be how the colorful name came to be.
In China, yellow has strong historical and cultural associations. The first emperor was called the Yellow Emperor. After the Song Dynasty, which ended in 1279, only the emperor was allowed to wear bright yellow. Distinguished visitors to China were honored with a yellow carpet. In current Chinese pop culture, however, a “yellow movie” refers to films that are adult in nature.
Yellow is a sacred color in Polynesia, considered to be the color of divine essence. In local languages, the word for yellow is the same as the name of the curcuma longa plant, which is thought to be the food of the gods.
In Christian lore, yellow and gold are often used interchangeably. The color is said to symbolize faith and the divine glory, and golden halos adorn saints in religious paintings.
- Forest Green: Vivid yellowish-green, resembles trees and plants in a forest.
- Lime: Vivid yellow-green, named after the citrus fruit.
- Olive: A dark, earthy, subdued shade.
In North and South America, Europe, and Islamic countries, surveys have shown that green is most commonly associated with nature, spring, and good health. Conversely, the United States and European Union sometimes associate it with poor health. The saying “green around the gills” refers to someone who appears sick. Although the origin of the phrase is lost, it’s likely due to the discoloration of one’s skin when they are nauseated.
Green means go. We see this at traffic lights and even in the Hollywood film industry, where the term “greenlight” means that a creative project has been given the go-ahead. We also see this in the United States immigration process. A “green card” is what immigrants receive when they have permission to permanently stay in the country.
Ireland is commonly known as the Emerald Isle because its countryside is very green due to lots of rain. American country singer, Johnny Cash, even has a song about the lush landscapes of Ireland entitled “Forty Shades of Green.” In Irish and English folklore, green is often associated with magical beings. For example, the Irish leprechaun is commonly portrayed in a green suit. Legend has it that leprechauns pinch those who aren’t wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, an Irish holiday that celebrates their foremost patron saint.
The traditional color of Islam, green is associated with paradise in the Qur’an. This holy text states that the people of paradise wear green and sit upon green cushions. Green is also said to be the favorite color of the Prophet Muhammad, and the color in which he was buried.
- Cerulean: A range of colors that includes teal, sky-blue, azure, and deep cyan. The name comes from the Latin word caeruleum, which means “sky” or “heavens.”
- Indigo: Deep rich blue, close to the blue shade on the color wheel, named after the ancient dye.
- Periwinkle: Very light purplish-blue, named after the flower.
While most colors conjure tangibles (a red rose, orange fruit, yellow lemon, or green grass), blue more often brings to mind the sea and sky, and the dreamy space where the two meet. Blue transcends cultural boundaries and is considered a color of calm worldwide. It soothes us the way sitting in the sand to watch gentle waves wash ashore soothes us. This is also the reason most airplane interiors are blue, to comfort anxious flyers. Perhaps it’s also the reason why the United Nations (an intergovernmental organization that aims to maintain international peace) chose light blue as the color of its flag.
Blue has significant religious meanings around the world. Ancient Egypt associated blue with divinity and the sky. Amun, the chief deity of the Egyptian Empire (also known as King of Gods), would turn his skin blue in order to fly (invisibly) across the sky. Meanwhile, in Hinduism gods such as Vishnu, Krishna, and Shiva, are all depicted as having blue skin. When it comes to 12th century Catholicism, the Roman Catholic Church insisted that painters color the Virgin Mary with the new, most expensive pigment imported from Asia: ultramarine. The color thus became associated with holiness and virtue.
The Nazar is a blue glass bead also known as the Evil Eye. Its origin traces to ancient Egypt, where the eye of the god Osiris was believed to have protective powers. It’s now worn as a protective talisman intended to ward off evil and bring good luck in a number of countries, including Turkey, Greece, Pakistan, and Iran.
- Lavender: Pale, light bluish-purple, often associated with softness and femininity.
- Mauve: Pale purple containing gray and blue, named after the mallow flower.
- Plum: Dark brownish or reddish-purple, named after the fruit.
Europe and the United States most often associate purple with magic and mystery, royalty, and religious faith. It’s still linked to wealth in the modern day because it was once extremely expensive to produce purple fabric. Just one gram of Tyrian purple needed nine thousand small mollusks to produce. The hue took its name from Phoenician trading city of Tyre where it first manufactured, and the only city in the world where it existed. The color was soon linked with the imperial classes of Rome, Egypt, and Persia, as only the rich and powerful could afford it. Because these ancient rulers were often thought of as gods, purple also came to be seen as a holy hue.
Blending the primary colors of red and blue produces purple. So, the color evokes a sense of ambiguity, or the quality of being open to more than one interpretation. The color is also often linked to bisexuality, due in large part to the bisexual pride flag which combines pink (representative of homosexuality) and blue (suggestive of heterosexuality). The United States views a state equally balanced between Republicans (associated with red) and Democrats (associated with blue) as a “purple state.”
In many cultures, purple is the color of death or mourning. Thai widows wear purple, as do devout Catholic mourners in Brazil. Italy also strongly associates purple with funerals. Therefore, Italians consider wrapping a gift in purple paper poor taste, and brides avoid the color when planning their big day. It’s even considered bad luck to wear purple to an Italian opera.
- Cream: White mixed with a touch of yellow, named after the dairy product produced by cows.
- Eggshell: Pale yellowish-white with little or no gloss.
- Ivory: White with a very slight tint of yellow, named after the material that comprises animal tusks and teeth.
The lightest color, white represents perfection and purity, the new, and neutrality in the West. Despite having no hue, white plays a colorful role in religions around the world. Representative of beginnings, in Christianity children wear white when they’re baptized and first take communion. The Pope (head of the Roman Catholic Church), has worn white since 1566 to symbolize sacrifice. Muslim pilgrims wear Ihram, a simple white attire intended to signify that before God, all are equal.
The Bedouin (Arab-speaking nomads of the Middle Eastern deserts), associate white with milk. As camel milk is a staple food for the people, highly nutritious, good for the bones, and a strengthener of the immune system, it makes sense that white is considered the color of gratitude, fertility, and joy.
Many are familiar with the Western tradition of brides in white dresses. Some believe this dates back more than 2,000 years to the Roman Republic, when brides wore white tunics to represent their chastity. The modern trend came into fashion thanks to Queen Victoria, who in 1840 chose to wear a white lace gown instead of the coronation robes of royal tradition.
However, not every association with white is pleasant. In many cultures, it’s the color of death, ghosts, and phantoms. As expressed in the English saying “pale as a ghost,” the color is connected to the paleness of death. White also represented death in ancient Egypt because of the color of the lifeless desert that covered much of the land.
Ebony: Very dark black, related to the dark wood that comes from the persimmon tree.
Jet Black: A glossy, deeply dark black, refers to the geological material “jet.”
Sable: Dark brownish-black, related to the fur of the small animal of the same name.
The darkest color, black is the result of the absence or complete absorption of visible light. Europe and North America often associate it with mourning, magic, evil, elegance, and death.
Many religions around the globe believe that the world was created out of a primordial darkness. Christian theology states that black was the color of the universe before God created light. It also refers to the Devil as the “prince of darkness.” Kali (the Hindu goddess of time, change, and death) is portrayed with black or dark blue skin. Her Sanskrit name translates into English as “She Who is Black” or “She Who is Death.” In India, black is also the color of protection against evil. Sometimes a black dot is painted under a person’s chin or behind their ears to protect against the evil eye.
The Japanese associate black with mystery, with all that is supernatural, unknown, and invisible, including death. In the 10th and 11th centuries, it was believed that wearing black could bring misfortune, so only renegades or those who had renounced material possessions dared wear the color in court. It’s also commonly viewed as the color of experience, as is evident in the black belt in martial arts, the highest rank one can achieve.
China links the color black with water, winter, cold, and the direction North. When the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, seized power, he changed the imperial color from red to black, stating that black extinguishes red (the color was later changed back in 206 BC).
While many associate black with death, the ancient Egyptians positively associated black with life due to the rich, black soil that flooded the Nile. It was also the color of the god Anubis (ruler of the Underworld), who took the form of a black jackal and offered the dead protection against evil.
With such different cultural associations for color the world over, it’s important to have a base understanding of these meanings when engaging with people from a culture outside your own. By knowing the symbolism, you’ll be able to speak to your audience in a way that’s both culturally appropriate and effective.
Cover image via Dmitry Zimin.
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