Written by Ng Li Wei
It’s a time for celebration. The streets are ablaze with bright lanterns. Shopping centres are competing for the unofficial prize of Best Decorated. Generic festive songs are blasting from every radio and speaker in existence. Thousands of cars flock in and out of the city, some doing last minute shopping, some leaving for their hometowns. Car alarms are set off and neighbours kept awake as an array of fireworks dot the night sky.
It’s a time for family. For the Chinese, this means reunion dinners that allow children to stay past midnight. Gatherings that bring family members together from all over the country. Tossing yee sang – a Cantonese-style raw fish salad – and engaging in light gambling with cards or mahjong is a surefire tradition.
And more than ever, it’s a time for red. Red lights strung on outdoor walls. Red ang pow packets concealing money, waiting to be given out. Red spring couplets (chūn lián) pasted on the front door. Red clothes on the first day of visiting relatives – because God forbid if you show up in any other colour.
Whenever Chinese New Year comes up, the first thing brought to mind is the colour red. It has become a representation of Chinese culture, proudly paraded around during Chinese New Year. Interestingly enough, another celebration that also embraces red is to coincide with CNY this year – Valentine’s Day. These two events are particularly related to red, yet in both cases the colour is associated with completely different meanings and symbolisms.
Red, in the Asian or, more specifically, Chinese sphere of the world, is generally recognised as a good colour. It indicates good fortune, prosperity, and success – all terms that sound particularly uplifting from a business standpoint. It is also considered a lucky colour, hopefully able to bring not only the individual but also their family more luck and wealth.
Red is such an important and significant colour in Chinese culture. China’s flag is coloured red. In the past, the emperor used to issue decrees stamped with red ink. Traditional weddings had the bride and groom dressed in red from head to toe, even coating their bedroom with red cloth. Red hard-boiled eggs are eaten on a baby’s one month birthday. Throughout history and to this day, red remains a proud, defining characteristic of the Chinese culture.
The symbolism of red came from an old myth that concerns CNY as well: every year on CNY, a beast called Nian would emerge to feed on villagers and their livestock. The people soon discovered that Nian was terrified of the colour red and loud noises, and therefore began using red lanterns and red firecrackers to scare away the beast. Once the evil spirits and beasts were warded away, only then could good things enter the household. The colour then evolved from being a warning and a scare tactic to a symbol of fortune and prosperity. The tradition of hanging red lanterns and playing with red firecrackers – especially deafening ones lit on the first day of CNY – continued to be passed down from generation to generation.
Another reason red specifically symbolises fortune and prosperity is due to the Chinese culture’s strong fixation with money. If you were to ask anyone of the older generation about the validity of this statement – believe me, I speak from experience – they will say that yes, money can and will buy you happiness. The wealthy are the more well-off. (In hindsight, they’re not wrong.) Embedded in their mandatory shouts as they toss the yee sang are wishes for tsunamis of money to flood through their doors. It is seen as the foundation of their family-centric society. Money is required for everything – starting a family, adequately supporting that family, improving the lives of that family – and the Chinese have integrated that prevalent mindset into their most defining colour.
In stark contrast to how the Chinese culture perceives the colour red comes the Western interpretation. Red, in the Western sphere of the world, has dual meanings – it’s seen as both a good and a bad colour. On the good side of the fence is the red of romance, passion, and desire. On the bad side comes the red of anger, danger, and violence. Again, two very polarised viewpoints of the same colour.
The Western idea of red can embody every emotion ranging from love to hate. Red roses given to a lover on Valentine’s Day. Red lipstick marks on a note stuck to someone’s locker. Doodles of red hearts surrounding a name in the corner of a textbook page. But also – red stains on your vision as you charge toward your sister’s bully. Red alarms of an ambulance flashing and speeding down an empty street. Red blood gushing out of an open wound.
Red is known to evoke positive – mostly romantic – feelings due to it being the colour of the heart and blood and, more specifically, their connection with the scientific results of love. Seeing someone you’re attracted to causes a stimulated, accelerated pumping of the heart, increasing your blood pressure. As blood gushes underneath the surface of the skin, the person would appear to be flushed or blushing – red. Naturally, the colour began being associated with the emotion. Studies found that red can heighten a person’s attraction to the other, for example a man being more drawn to a woman wearing red clothing.
Similarly, red can also stir negative emotions, namely from the sight of substances like blood. Red is the colour we see when we are wounded. In pain. Crying. Screaming. It brings up jarring images of gore, of violence, and of death, all very much unpleasant things. Subsequently, red came to be a sign of warning. Its striking hue further intensifies its power as an effective warning symbol – bright and ominous at the same time. Red in traffic lights warns cars to stop moving on the road. Red dripping from your nose warns you that your body’s not well.
Two halves of the world; two separate cultural traditions; two respective mindsets. All of which can be represented through contrasting views of a single colour.