Colours in different cultures
Colour is an extremely important part of our lives. No matter where we live, we are surrounded by colour. It is everywhere and is deeply rooted in our imaginations. Each of us use colour to say different things and make statements without having to use words. Every country, every culture has a unique relationship with colour. What might be a happy colour in one place may be the colour of doom in another. Let’s learn what colour means, and how it is perceived by people across the globe.
White consistently signifies purity, cleanliness & peace to people everywhere. In Hinduism, white is the colour of mourning. This is because death is not considered a final end in the endless journey of man. China and Japan also have a tradition of wearing white after a death and it was considered the colour of deepest mourning amongst medieval European queens.
In Christianity, a bride wears white to her wedding. In Zambia white could mean good luck and in New Guinea it is a symbol of prosperity.
Black is the colour of the night and for ages has been considered the colour of ‘evil’, like in Tibet. Black can also signify sophistication and power (black suits & black dresses), darkness or emptiness. In the west, black is associated with mourning. In Egypt it could mean rebirth while in Australia it signifies the colour of the Aboriginal people.
Red is the colour of fire. Red is associated with blood, danger, emotions, fertility & emotions. In India it is associated with celebration, where brides wearing red saris adorned with gold. Red is also the colour of the tika, and kum kum, the red powder that married women put in the parting of their hair to signify that they are married.
In China red has a very positive connotation. It is associated with loyalty, honour, success, happiness, passion, and many others. Chinese people use red envelopes to gift money, or red paper to wrap presents. Also, the manifesto of Chairman Mao is called the Little Red Book and contains quotations that form the base of Communism in China.
For the Celtics, red is a colour of afterlife.
The Ndembu warriors of Central Africa see red as a colour of life and health and so they rub themselves with a red paste to mark celebrations. They also rub their sick with the paste to help them get better. Similarly, the aboriginals of Australia associate it with mother earth.
Orange is a warm & vibrant colour that signifies fire, balance, attraction, warmth and attention. It stimulates appetite & conversation and hence is used liberally in restaurants across the world.
In the Netherlands orange is the colour of royalty. In Japan it is the colour of courage & love. In India, monks & sadhus wear saffron because it is considered sacred. In the US, orange is a popular colour seen during Halloween while in Egypt it signifies mourning.
Yellow is the colour of self confidence, intellect, communication and sanctity. In Germany yellow signifies envy while in Italy it represents the summer. In China it could mean royalty and in Mexico, mourning. In South Africa amongst the Zulus, yellow means wealth. In India yellow is the colour of sanctity.
Yellow and black also happen to be the most visibly identified colour combination because it is the highest contrast combination on the color wheel. Hence it is used internationally in road and warning signs. Next time you see yellow stripes on a black tarmac road, you will know why.
Green symbolises, nature, envy, money, growth & fertility. Green is the colour of chlorophyll and hence it is widely present in trees & plants. Green also symbolises health, healing, the environment and vitality. It is also considered the colour of envy.
Green is a special colour signifying paradise in all Islamic nations. In the west green is associated with spring, environmental awareness and recycling. In Ireland it is associated with Saint Patrick. In Japan it means life and also signifies high-tech. It is the national colour of Egypt. Worldwide, it is also the colour most worn by the military.
Blue is the colour of the sky and oceans, rivers & lakes (because they reflect the blue in the sky), tranquility, spirituality, peace, loyalty & security. Ancient Egyptians used blue to depict the heavens.
In Scandinavia blue is a soothing colour. In Ukraine it signifies good health. In the United states it signifies baby boys. In India blue is the colour of gods – Lord Shiva is depicted as blue. He is also called Neel Kanth – one with the blue throat. In Nigeria it is the colour of positivity and in Israel it is the colour of Holiness.
Purple represents success and hence the saying when someone is doing well is that he’s ‘going through a purple patch.’ It is the colour of wisdom, enlightenment and sometimes mourning. In India purple could signify reincarnation and in China it represents nobility. Throughout the western world the colour purple also signifies royalty. In Brazil it could mean mourning while in Egypt it means virtue. The Zulus of South Africa consider it it the colour of poverty.
We have briefly seen how colour can have so many meanings. The study of colour is very important as it gives us insights into culture and how people from various cultures perceive colour. This knowledge of colour allows us to make statements by wearing certain colours on certain occasions. Wedding cards and other happy occasions use colours that signify joy and life.
Advertisers use this knowledge to help create feelings of positivity when they design ad campaigns. Product packaging experts use colour combinations to make a product look appealing so you will react positively to it and buy it. Fashion designers, illustrators, art directors are all very concerned with the meaning of colour and use it to convey messages through their work.
The next time you buy anything, take a moment to ponder why have you chosen that particular product. Is it the colour that made you make that choice? And why? Would a cool gizmo or a t-shirt be as cool if it were another colour?
- Look at the flags of various countries and find out their significance. Why does that flag have that particular colour and what does that mean to the people of that country?
- Do research and find out what is warm colour and what is cool colour?
- Why do warmer countries use bright and vibrant colours and colder countries prefer muted colours?
- Do all people see colour in the same way? Explore more about how people perceive colour and research things like colour blindness.
- Why do lawyers and magistrates wear black robes and why does the military wear green?
- What is iridescence? Research this wonderful phenomenon.
- Make a questionnaire about colour and ask people around you what colours they like and why.
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