Let’s talk about colors. I mean everyday colors, the colors of towels and napkins, bowls, plates, and cups. The colors found in all the stores and in everybody’s apartment.
I was surprised that my students also described themselves as “yellow” when they clearly weren’t.
Except they were. “Yellow” is the English translation of “huang.” Fine and dandy. Except the color Chinese people refer to when they say “huang” really isn’t the same color most westerners mean when they say “yellow.” I’d say “huang” is perhaps better translated as “tan.”
We would call the color they call “green” green, but it’s not the first shade of green that would come to mind. It’s also one of the last shades of green I would buy.
The linguists talk about this. Well, they “parle” about it. Ferdinand de Saussure talked about it in French. He spoke French but he was Swiss. You, however, cannot speak French. He talked about it in his most famous book but he didn’t write about it because his most famous book was written by his students from lecture notes they took while he talked. I think some of Aristotle’s works were done the same way. My students—ungrateful, lazy slobs—never would do such a thing for me.
Saussure said, if his students wrote down this stuff correctly—most of my students couldn’t—that the relationship between the sound of its word and its meaning is arbitrary.
Anyway, this is linguistics, which China made me learn about.
Chinese has two words that are translated as “green:” “lu” and “qing.” But “qing” can also be translated “blue.” “Qing” is more favored because it used to be spelled “Tsing” and “Tsing Tao” beer is a product of Qingdao city, where the Germans built a brewery to slake their soldier’s Germanic thirst, and Qingdao is named “Blue-green Island” which is as arbitrary as it gets because it is neither blue-green nor an island.
Maybe it looked more “qing” before I got there.
And don’t tell me turquoise is the same color. As “qing.” It is not at all, even though it could be called “blue-green.” What does turquoise mean, anyway? From Turkey. That is to say, it means “some Asian color we don’t have.”
Or “some Asian rock we don’t have.”
Turquoise is much lighter and much shinier than “qing,” which is, classically, the color of shadows on green hills as the sun goes down.
“Shadows on green hills
the sun goes down.”
“Qing” is already a poem.
Aqua and aquamarine are not only not the same color as “qing,” they are not even the same color as each other. I suppose cyan might be the English word for “qing”, if you are broadminded enough to consider cyan a word. But it’s hard to imagine one English hunter, right when English is bubbling up as a language, telling another, “Now follow the blue river until you reach those cyan hills in the distance.”
Though apparently, a Gaelic speaker maybe could have said that. But it seems what he would have said was, “Now follow that glas river until you reach those glas hills in the distance.”
For some reason, Chinese people needed urgently a short word to designate a color we need to stop and explain.
Then again, apparently for centuries the Chinese, like the Gaels, didn’t bother to distinguish between green and blue and blue-green.
People write books about this stuff.
Tsing Tao cans are not “qing.” It would be a marvelous contribution to cross-cultural understanding if the brewery would rectify this.
So westerners don’t include “qing” among our important go-to colors; we don’t even have a short word for it.
But we have purple. The Roman emperors wore purple. Catholic bishops wore purple. Big-shot color. Big-shot word—comes from Latin which got it from Greek. Not a simple German word like red or blue or yellow.
Purple is a go-to color.
How do I establish a color is a go-to color? Scientifically.
A go-to color has to be in the Crayola 8 pack box. This creates the problem of leaving out “white,” it’s true. But the 8 pack, which does not include blue-green, does include purple even though all children know that it’s possible to make purple—and green—and orange from the primary-color crayons.
Of course China has the color and has a word for it. “Zi.”
I had to look it up just now because unlike basic colors, like blue, green, red, and qing, nobody ever taught me the word for purple; it’s not on any of my flashcards.
The color orange is all over China; probably more common there than in the west. They had the fruit orange long before the west too.
In fact, my two English hunters would have had to say “yellow-red” since orange is a relatively recent word.
But the Chinese name for the color orange…it turns out there is one but I’m told even most Chinese people don’t know it. “緹 tí.” My flashcards inform me that “Oranges (the fruit) are huang.” “Oranges are yellow.” A Chinese might say something is orange by saying it is orange-fruit-colored. But some things we say are colored orange a Chinese person will say are colored red. Meanwhile, the color orange in Asia is associated not with the fruit orange but with saffron.
“Huang” can also be used for brown. Again they’ve the color but not a simple word.
Red and “hong” pretty much are the same, although you should know what we call black tea Chinese people call red tea—“hong chai.” Blue and “lan” are also pretty much alike. Then we get to “bai”–white, and the whole thing becomes racialized and confusing again, because many Chinese people pride themselves on having white skin.
Anyway, a Chinese person and an English speaking person could have a seemingly agreeable conversation about colors and never really be referring to the same colors at all.
And this is just when I was in Fujian and in south China in general.
When I moved to north China, the color palette changed again.
Judging from the colors of their towels, northerners are a sullen, joyless lot.
[Editor’s note: “Colors” is part of the Scratch Dupree Project.
Featured image by daniel sandoval via. Flickr.]