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Scarlet, vermillion, rouge, blood red, blush, flame,… Chinese. Ravishing red is all the rage as China celebrates its 73rd birthday on October 1, 2022. But what does the color mean?


Close-Up: China’s Lipstick Game and Its Lasting Impression

Red is associated with meanings of passion, desire, heat, sexuality, sensitivity, romance, courage, vim ‘n vigor, vibrance and radiance.

Red is assertive and linked to mankind’s most primitive needs of survival and self-preservation. Now, according to the Theory of the Five Elements, colors are associated with the five elements of water, fire, wood, metal and earth.

Red corresponds with fire. So allow us to enlighten y’all.

the color red

Chinese New Year, a season for red lanterns, red envelopes and red clothes. Image: found sitting in this author’s phone.

Painting the Town Red

The color red (红| hóngsè in Chinese) has existed since prehistoric times. Most of the cave drawings discovered in different parts of the world, including China, are said to have been originally done in red. Earlier on, China is also said to have used the color to paint early ceramics. With a history stretching to the beginnings of humankind, pottery is the oldest handicraft in China. As early as the Neolithic Age (7,000-8,000 years ago), roughly styled and artless grey, red, white, colored, and black pottery existed. Later it was used to paint the walls and gates of the Chinese palaces. Even in the paintings that exist of the emperors, most are seen adorned in red robes.

It’s not clear exactly when red became an official color, much less when it was introduced to China or became an important part of its culture. There are however some folklores that try to explain this…

Legend has it that red became an favorable color during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). The first Han emperor, Liu Bang aka Emperor Gaozu (256-195 B.C.), was the son of the Red Emperor. As such, people in that period saw color as a symbol of privilege and authority and decided to honor it until date.

the color red

Meet Nian. Image: online

Another myth is that there was a ferocious mythical beast called Nian (年| nián, meaning “year”), who lived a long, long time ago. Nian used to terrorize the Chinese people every New Year’s Eve—and we are indeed referring to Chinese New Year here. How on earth Nian knew it was NYE, we don’t know—and yes, we asked both humans and Google. Anyway. One day, the people found out that the beast feared loud noises… and the color red. So, they started hanging red scrolls and lanterns in front of their doors and would light firecrackers. “Painting the town red,” redefined.

Long story short: The beast disappeared and never returned.

This tradition was carried forward to the present day and during Chinese New Year celebrations, you will see all kinds of decorations in red, including red lanterns, couplets and paper-cuttings.

And of course, we must mention the country’s national flag—adopted in 1949 following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. In terms of its color, the flag’s red base represents two things: 1) the Chinese Communist Revolution (1948-1952), and 2) the blood of those who put down their lives for China’s liberation. We’ll tackle the meaning of the golden yellow stars another time, when we reach that point on the color spectrum.

But… Speaking of yellow, the unparalleled Zhang Yimou, one of China’s pre-eminent directors for 30-ish years, heavily featured this hue in his 2006 epic Curse of the Golden Flower, with the empress (played by the supreme Gong Li) frantically embroidering golden yellow flowers for her 10k gold-armor-clad warriors about to charge in to overthrow her husband. The movie’s a feast for the eyes, just go watch it.

the color red

Still from Zhang Yimou’s 1988 debut Red Sorghum depicts the sedan that whisks off Jiu-er, played by Gong Li. Front left is the man about to have his way with her in the sorghum field.

The Color of Controversy

Though red is traditionally interpreted in Chinese culture as the symbol of honor, courage and related virtues, Zhang over the years has lifted the hue to whole new levels, incorporating some traditional Western culture-related ideas, such as lust for life, passion and sensualness.

One prime example thereof is his stunning debut: Red Sorghum (1988)—ok, the title admittedly is a dead giveaway, but just bear with us.

Just to set the scene for you—courtesy of IMDB: “When a leprous winery owner in 1930s China dies a few days after his arranged marriage, his young widow Jiu-er [played by, yep, Gong Li] is forced to run the winery to make a living while contending with bandits, her drunkard lover, and the invading Japanese army.” It’s basically a tale of feminism and women’s sexual liberation— with the color red setting the tone.

Movie poster for Red Sorghum

Red in the movie symbolize passion and desire. The connection between passion and the red marriage sedan that whisks off Jiu-er on a trip to marital “bliss” details the illicit love affair of Jiu-er and the mysterious man she loses her virginity to in the red sorghum fields. After the deed is done, the man sneaks along, hidden in the sorghum stalks, and sings Jiu-er a lewd song exalting all the virtues of red.

Zhang’s masterpiece uses the color red to symbolize the sexual freedom of Jiu-er to break down the patriarchal tradition of forced marriage in Chinese feudal society. The red wine and sorghum depicted in the film represent the desires of a woman who is impregnated—yes, that on top of everything else–by an outlaw before her marriage day.

And there’s more.

Having lived through the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Zhang and his generation of Chinese filmmakers, wary of overtly criticizing the Chinese government but keen to explore the possibilities for filmmaking in a less restrictive age, frequently used stories from the past to illuminate the concerns of the present.

In Red Sorghum, Zhang challenges the conservative values of Chinese culture by using red in the wine, the sedan, and the spilled blood of the revolution he implies in this story. He further challenges the stereotypical role of women in Chinese society and basically offers up red as a symbolic liberator.

Just go watch it. It’s yet another visual feast.


Fun fact:

Whereas getting red-faced in Western culture often implies shame or disgrace,

being red-faced in China is historically considered a manifestation of courage and determination.


















FEATURED IMAGE: Still from the revered Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1988) starring Gong Li as Jiu-er
Elsbeth van Paridon
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