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RED, THE COLOR OF THE CHINESE PEOPLE
by Desmond Lam

As one of the finalists for the 2009 International Gaming Awards, Wynn Macau is a property that deserves a second look. One of the elements that differentiate Wynn from other nominees is its effective mastery of colors in the design of its casino. Colors have multiple psychological and emotional properties, which can affect patrons’ feelings about a place. In the mind of ordinary Chinese people, color holds strong associations that are carved over thousands of years of existence as a collective whole. This tradition is, however, challenged and shaped by modern as well as western influences.

Among all, red is universally considered the most “Chinese” color – a representation of the Chinese people and their culture. And according to a study, it is not just any red but vivid red that intrigues modern Chinese people (see Table 1). Generally, Chinese like vivid colors and dislike dull ones. Another study shows that Chinese consumers prefer colors that are clean, fresh or modern, and feel tense with colors that are hard, heavy, masculine or dirty.

Table 1: Top 10 Color Preference of Mainland Chinese

Color that they like*:
1 Vivid green, vivid blue
2 -
3 White
4 Vivid violet, black
5 -
6 Vivid red
7 Vivid orange
8 Light blue
9 -
10 Light green, light violet, vivid yellow

Color that they dislike*:
1 Dark gray
2 Olive, gold
3 -
4 Black
5 Silver
6 Dark blue
7 Olive-green, dark greenish blue
8 -
9 -
10 Dark red-purple, dark yellowish brown

*Ranked according to preferences
Source: Saito (1996)

The color red, yellow and green are basic colors of the great Forbidden City and are often used to decorate Chinese temples. The emphasis of red in Chinese culture is said to originate from the Han period. To the Han Chinese, red symbolizes celebration. In ancient Chinese marriages, the bride wore red costume with a piece of red veil to cover her face. She would go through a wedding procession to the bridegroom’s home in a red sedan, accompanied by others dressed in red. Red candles filled the couple’s new room with a dim but warm light, while red couplets were pasted on the door and walls. Those were in the past.

All have changed in the modern Chinese weddings, in which a bride would typically wear modern white wedding gown. At the reception, however, many would still choose to wear (at some point) the more traditional one-piece red Qipao (for northern China) or the two-piece red Kwa (for southern China). Qipao, also known as cheongsam, is a traditional dress with unique Chinese features. This connection with red as the color for celebration and happiness is still very strong among modern Chinese people.

Red is among the popular choices among other colors among Chinese people. It is known to represent auspicious/luckiness, vitality, love, reunion, happiness, and prosperity in modern Chinese culture. Table 2 shows the result of a cross-cultural study on the meanings and associations of red color in marketing.

Table 2: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Meanings and Associations of Red Color in Marketing

Chinese: Love, happiness, lucky, good taste
Japanese: Love, anger, jealousy
Korean: Love, adventure, good taste
Anglo-Saxon: Masculine, love, lust, fear, anger
Germanic: Fear, anger, jealousy
Latin: Masculine
Nordic: Positive

Source: Aslam (2006); Grossman and Wisenblit (1999)

In modern context, red is a sexy and energetic color. In Chinese Feng Shui study, red is regarded as the most “Yang” color. Its energy is expansive, which gives out positive chi. It is an important source of energy to ordinary Chinese people. In the Five Element Theory of Feng Shui, red is used to represent fire. Other colors in the Five Element Theory include green, yellow, white and black. Green represents wood and yellow represents earth. Black is the color of water, while white symbolizes metal.

Red has now become an official color that symbolizes China. It has given China the spirit of a nation and the color of modern life. This can be seen during the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, in which the central color theme of the Beijing Olympic torch is red. For centuries, red is used extensively in ordinary Chinese people’s lives. It is featured everywhere in China. Red is traditionally used to ward off evil spirits and hence ensure good luck. Some Chinese believe that decorating their offices or apartments with (some) red colors will bring them good fortune. Others think that wearing red clothing on auspicious occasions like the Chinese Lunar New Year is good.

Red is well-liked by overseas Chinese as well. The New Strait Times reported that red underwear decorated with auspicious animals of the Chinese zodiac and characters have become very popular among Malaysian Chinese men ahead of Chinese Lunar New Year celebration. Such red undergarments can also be found on the streets of Chinese cities, Macau, Hong Kong and Singapore, days leading to the Lunar New Year. In some Chinese dialect custom, babies are given "red-egg" ceremony after birth and these eggs are then given to guests as gifts. Interesting items in red that are associated with Chinese celebrations include:

#Chinese Couplet – Chinese couplets are popular during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration. It is a Chinese tradition to stick them on doorframes, gates and walls. Chinese couplets typically consist of a pair of four Chinese characters (i.e. two line of poetry), written from top to bottom on red papers. To modern Chinese people, red couplets serve as beautiful decorations and lucky charm/talisman.

#Firecracker – Firecrackers are known to have originated in China. Each firecracker is wrapped in red paper. To celebrate special events, Chinese set off long strings of red, noisy firecrackers to fend off evil spirits, ensuring prosperity and good luck. Chinese people love to light up their red firecrackers to welcome each Lunar New Year.

#Paper Cuts – Chinese paper cutting is a traditional Chinese art form that existed for many centuries. Paper and paper cutting art are invented during the Han dynasty. Chinese artists typically cut pieces of papers into patterns like meaningful Chinese characters, symbols, and animals of the Chinese zodiac. Red is the most popular form of paper used. Red Chinese paper cutouts are commonly pasted on entrances, doors, doorframes, windows and columns as decorations during Chinese Lunar New Year. Again, they are supposed to chase off evil spirits and bring good luck.

#Red Lantern – Lantern is closely linked with the lives of ordinary Chinese people. Chinese lanterns are regarded as a symbol of happiness and celebration. Lanterns, when painted in red, are supposed to chase away evil spirits and commonly hung during festivals. Often, lucky Chinese characters (like ‘fu’ or ?) are written on a red lantern to bring added auspiciousness to it.

#Red Packet – A red packet is essentially a red envelope enclosed with money in it. These red envelopes used to be just plain red. In ancient times, Chinese used to tie coins together with red strings and gave to their kids in order to fend off evil spirits. It has now evolved into red envelopes. Nowadays, the envelopes themselves are now often decorated with auspicious Chinese words, pictures or symbols like carps and Chinese zodiac signs. It is a tradition to give red packets (with some money) to the young and/or unmarried during Chinese Lunar New Year. “Hong Bao” as it is called in Mandarin is given to others for good luck and to protect the recipients from evil spirits.

Further References
1. Aslam, M. M. (2006), “Are You Selling the Right Color? A Cross-Cultural Review of Colour as a Marketing Cue”, Journal of Marketing Communication, 12 (1), 15-30.
2. China Odyssey Tours website: http://www.chinaodysseytours.com/special-topic-about-china/china-red-the-color-of-china.html
3. Grossman, R. P. and J. Z. Wisenblit (1999), “What We Know About Consumers’ Color Choices”, Journal of Marketin

Date Posted: 19-Jan-2009

Desmond Lam is a visiting senior research fellow at the School of Marketing/Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, University of South Australia. He can be contacted at DesmondL@hotmail.com.

 
 
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