Seeing Red with Rose-Tinted Glasses

By Daniel Morgenstern -HCC Intern

“Red” in China is not just about politics. Communism is only one cultural element in China that uses red as a symbol. Festivals, economists, fashion, history, and public service all use red in different capacities. Chinese stoplights flash red for caution, but “going into the red” is the goal of Chinese businesses. The differences and similarities in the symbolism of the color red between America and China are fascinating.

Red in China

The Chinese New Year is the main avenue for the national interpretation of red. According to legend, a monster with the head of a lion and the body of a bull called the Nian harassed a village every New Year. The villagers found relief when they discovered the beast was afraid of loud noises, fire, and the color red. Today, Chinese shoot off fireworks and put up red paper decorations to continue to scare away the Nian and other evil spirits, or at least so the legend goes. In reality, it is a time to celebrate family and good fortune of the previous year and give gifts, in the form of red envelopes, to the next generation.

Many westerners mistakenly assume that the usage of red in festivals and other capacities stems from the link between the color and communism. In fact, the use of red as a positive symbol predates communism by centuries, if not millennia. Originally, the high cost of red dye required to create red garments limited the use of the color to those with means.

Gradually, the use of red became associated with high position as well as wealth, imperial court attire almost always featuring some red. These positive associations stuck to the color even into the modern day, making red the color of wealth, good luck, and honor.

Red and wealth are so closely tied that financial growth is denoted by a red line while loss is shown in green. This is the exact opposite of Western markets.

Symbolism in Western Culture

As I was learning about the use of red to indicate nobility, I was reminded of the use of blue and purple in Western society. These two colors functioned in much the same way as red did in China with their price leading to their association with the ruling class. Indeed, there was a point in Roman history where it was forbidden for any but the emperor and his family to wear purple.

In the Church, this has manifested in our depictions of Christ. Many pictures of Christ or the cross showcase a blue or purple sash to denote his lordship. There are depictions with a red sash, but these tend to indicate his shed blood instead of nobility. The problem is that non-western cultures, like China, will not inherently understand this symbolism. The intended message of purple is lost as purple indicates romantic love in modern China.

When we in the West try to transfer our symbols to other cultures, we should remember that they are not reading off the same cultural script as us. Check out the symbols of other cultures; it’s the only way you would have known that red is not just about communism in China.

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