Y: “Yanse” – The Cultural Significance of Color

Chinese Boat - Calm Water


Yanse is the Chinese word for “color.” In its most ancient meaning, the word was translated “color in the face,” or “passion and desire.” During the Tang Dynasty, however, it began to refer to colors of all kinds.

I became fascinated with Chinese art during college, when I spent two summers teaching English in Mainland China as part of a foreign exchange program. During a six-week stay in Shanghai, I had the opportunity to tour the Shanghai Museum of Art. During the tour, a guide explained the significance and meaning of color in Chinese paintings, and I began to realize that the meanings were very different than what I expected given my Western background. I had always assumed that certain colors, like black, held universal meanings, but I learned that certain colors can be significant in strikingly different ways, according to your culture.

See if any of these Chinese color associations surprise you:

  • Black – The “King of Colors,” and the color of Heaven (the night sky) –
  • Red – The color of Fire, symbolizing good fortune and joy. Chinese wedding dresses are red, but the color is strictly forbidden at funerals.
  • Qing – All shades of blue and green are included here, and symbolize living plants, vigor, and vitality.
  • White – The color of Death, purity, and fulfillment. This color is worn at funerals, since it is the official color of mourning.
  • Yellow – A heroic color, it is the most beautiful and prestigious color. It was the Imperial Color, and often decorates royal palaces, temples, and emperor’s robes.

A Whole New World of Understanding

Why does this matter? Because, instead of thinking Oriental art looks strange, you’ll begin to pick up on its deeper meanings. A common theme in Chinese painting is the tiny sailboat sailing past a gigantic mountain, such as the one below*:

Chinese Boats - Tall Mountains

While touring a street market, I found an ancient Chinese painting with a tiny sailboat sailing into a gigantic storm. The waves, covered in white foam (the color of death), were about to swallow the small ship whole, but it continued to sail directly into the face of the storm. Want to take a guess on the color of its sail? Red – the color of passion, strong emotion… and happiness.

I ended up buying the painting, and now I have it hanging on my office wall. For me, it’s a reminder to not view life from my perspective alone. For example, when reading Scripture we need to examine the context and ask ourselves, “What was this author intending this to mean?” rather than “What do I want it to mean?” And the same applies to art. We need to discover what the work meant to the artist, instead of simply deciding that it means what we want it to.

When we take time to understand where others are coming from, there is great beauty to be found.



* Pictures courtesy of We Heart It.Com: http://weheartit.com/entry/group/2040187

14 thoughts on “Y: “Yanse” – The Cultural Significance of Color

    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving that encouraging word! It’s easy to think only in terms of our own culture, and sometimes it’s neat to see the world – and color – through someone else’s eyes!


  1. I remembering hearing before about white was the color of mourning to the Chinese, but I never really heard about other colors. Interesting thoughts and a great Biblical application. 🙂


    1. The biblical application is an important point, I think…we love to take Scripture out of context and “tell it” what to mean, when in reality we should study to show ourselves approved (2 Tim 2:15) and find out what the passage was actually intended to mean (in its Scriptural and cultural context) and let it tell us how to think!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That was really interesting, thank you! I knew a bit about the colours, especially red being lucky, but had not thought about the significance of the little boat and the cliffs. We have a scroll with a very similar image which we brought back from China.


  3. Good comparison with scripture. I also am frequently amazed at the phenomenon when I read scripture of finding something new–some message I never got before–even when reading passages that I’ve read and are familiar. It depends on my needs and experiences at the time as to what message I need to hear!


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