Red holds a special significance in Chinese culture that traces back thousands of years. The vibrant crimson hue is found everywhere during Chinese festivities and holidays, from red lanterns at Lunar New Year to red envelopes for newlyweds. Red symbolizes many positive attributes in China such as luck, joy, and prosperity. Ancient beliefs and traditions have solidified the color’s popularity over time. Today, red remains the most commonly used festive color in China. In this post, we will explore the history behind red’s prominence and examine the cultural meanings it carries for Chinese people. From ancient mythology to modern day practices, it is clear that the color red holds a special place in Chinese culture.
It is said that Chinese people’s worship of the color red originated from the worship of the “sun” (taiyang 太阳) and “fire” (huo 火). The rising and setting of the sun brought about the alternation of day and night. For ancient people, these were mysterious natural phenomena that were hard to grasp. People worshipped the sun and sought to conquer it, hence the ancient myths of Kuafu chasing the sun, Houyi shooting down the sun, Xiwangmu passing down the story, Taiyang Xingjun and others. Later came renowned works like “The flowers by the river blaze red like fire when the sun rises, and the river water turns green as indigo when spring comes.”
“Fire” (huo 火) changed the old habits of eating raw meat and drinking blood, and promoted the development of human productive activities. The emergence of fire not only improved human life, but also drove away beasts, protecting human safety.
The red rays of light emitted by the “sun” and “fire” were mystical and great to humans, laying down the earliest foundation for Chinese people’s worship of the color red.
Promotion Throughout Dynasties
The Records of the Grand Historian – Basic Annals of Qin Shi Huang: “Shi Huang promoted the transmission of the five virtues, believing that the Zhou dynasty represented the virtue of fire. As Qin succeeded the Zhou dynasty, its virtue must surpass that which had gone before.” From the Yellow Emperor representing the virtue of gold, and so on until the Zhou dynasty representing the virtue of fire (huode 火德).
The “virtue of fire” refers to associating the dynasties’ fortunes with the five elements, so the national color was red. The Han represented the virtue of fire, emphasizing red. Han Gaozu Liu Bang claimed to be the son of the Red Emperor, and early Han emperors wore red dragon robes. Emperor Han Jingdi decreed that officials’ carriages must use red mudguards.
It is worth mentioning that Confucius, a very famous figure in Chinese history, lived during the Zhou dynasty. In the Analects – Yang Huo, it is mentioned “I hate the manner in which purple takes away the luster of the color red (zhū 朱). I hate the noise of Zheng confounding the music of Ya. I hate those who with their sharp mouths overthrow kingdoms and families.” “I hate the manner in which purple takes away the luster of the color red” refers to hating the purple color taking away the glory and status of the red color. Confucius respected the color red, and with his great promotion, red became a representative respected in Confucian culture, to the extent that red became the mainstream color of many dynasties.
Auspicious Meaning (吉祥含义)
In Chinese culture, red symbolizes good fortune, prosperity, and happiness. The Chinese phrase “红红火火” (hóng hóng huǒ huǒ) conveys the auspicious wishes for vigor, passion and liveliness. Red is associated with major celebratory events including weddings, birthdays, Chinese New Year and the opening of a business. Brides traditionally wear red, and red envelopes containing money are given as gifts at weddings, birthdays and holidays. Red lanterns and banners adorn houses during festivals for good luck.
Warding Off Evil (驱邪作用)
Red is also believed to ward off evil spirits and bad omens. The Chinese use it prominently during celebrations to scare away monsters and demons. During Chinese New Year, people hang red couplets on doorways, light firecrackers and wear red underwear to fend off bad luck in the coming year. Elders give red egg dye to children for protection. Brides wear red largely to cast off misfortune.
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