Thor's China Diary

A Red, Black & White Culture
[see the end of the article for a comment from the Korean perspective]

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 Red, crimson red, is much favoured in the Chinese universe. It goes with weddings (the bride's dress), and New Year. HB suggests to me that it was the colour associated with births of both human babies and animals, traditionally occurring in the springtime. The slender ladies in dresses slit to the thigh, who inveigle passers by and guests in lush restaurants, also go for crimson in a big way.

So I wondered just how important colour was to the Chinese world view. My two well cultured informants have been unanimous for once. Colour has never counted for much in China. It is not rich in symbolism. This then is a major difference with many of the world's cultures, and the reasons might make for some fascinating anthropological study. Perhaps Chinese indifference to colour is related to a popular indifference to artistic creativity in some way. Curiously, bookshops all have sections devoted to learning to draw, but the outcomes are nowhere to be seen.

Although the Chinese themselves would hotly dispute it, my own feeling is that Chinese art and craft, taken overall, has remained undeveloped and unsophisticated. It certainly does not loom large in the popular consciousness of central China at least. In today's culture, in Wuhan, original tasteful and skilled craftwork or painting is extremely difficult to find. The single artistic activity that attracts a fairly wide following is calligraphy. That choice is significant. Calligraphy involves the reproduction of formal symbols in a medium that is exclusively black & white.

Western cultural guides to China have always told me that white was the colour of death. HB pulls a face. Well, yeah, in some places. Long ago there was a king in Shandong who, when he died, was mourned by his son in black. Thereafter black was the colour of mourning in Shandong, and after some time, also in various other provinces. It even varies from town to town. In his hometown, HB says, a son will wear a black arm band on the passing of his father, but the grandson will wear red. In another town the armbands might be white.

Red, white and black seemed to exhaust the intuitions of my informants; (but see another view, from a twenty year-old woman, Rebecca, on this site also). I am reminded of some culture groups in New Guinea who have no counting system above three. XF fishes in her memory, and suggests that "red eyes" indicate jealousy. Also "the red way" is presented publicly as "the good (official) way", while "the black way" is against the good.

Whatever the symbolic significance of colours, travelers who are visually sensitive will often remember a part of the world for particular qualities of light and hue. Australia is well known to painters for its "hard" light for example. Hard light is certainly not a feature of the Chinese landscape: at its best (especially very early in the morning) it is a misty, soft-focus world of winter-bare avenues of trees and spindly silhouettes of figures on black bicycles. The man-made world is rather ruder in its impact. Dirt-grey buildings, dirt-grey skies, grubby facades of rust-streaked white or pink mozaic tiles (favoured instead of paint), advertizing hoardings in blunt, primary colours. The taxis are universally dark red in Wuhan, and almost all trucks a bright, solid blue. In fact, if communism & government services have a colour in my mind now, it is this solid, faceless blue.

Yes, there is green in the place too, the green of trees, and a surprising number of them (especially in the academic districts). Before coming to China I had formed this image of a land almost stripped of trees under the impact of Mao-madness and population pressure. In huge tracts of uninhabitable mountains however there are still great forests, and in the more enlightened urban districts trees are finding their way back. It is true that whole areas of Wuhan, the industrial wastelands, are almost denuded, and in such places the desolation is at its bleakest. Maybe we have a race-memory of swinging through the trees. Like the sea, natural vegetation is balm to the soul. It may even happen that as the visual universe of Chinese cities re-civilizes with trees and parks and flowers, then a feeling for the moods of colour will re-enter into the Chinese world-view.

Korean postscript : an Australian artist, Andrew Marley, working in Busan, South Korea makes this observation : ".. here they have a totally different colour theory based on  direction: North - black, South - red. North - death/winter, South - red/vibrant. East - green/blue, youth/Spring. West - autumn/harvest, white. The center, gold, represents the king. The center is a direction in itself ..." [Andrew Marley, interviewed in The Beat, Issue 6, January 2003].

"A Red, Black & White Culture" copyrighted to Thor May 1999; all rights reserved

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