Category Archives: perception

The colours associated with the cardinal directions in Chinese, Turkish and Lakota

Today’s blog post will take us to Asia and America, namely to Chinese, Turkish and the Native American Lakota language. All three languages and cultures associate different colours with the four cardinal directions.

Colours associated with the cardinal directions in Chinese

In China, each of the 4 cardinal directions is associated with a colour, as well as an animal and a season. The centre is yellow and is associated with the human realm. The North is associated with the colour black, as well as winter and a turtle  Guī or snake. The South is thought of as red, and its associated animal is the phoenix 凤凰 Fènghuáng and the summer season. The East is associated with the Chinese colour qing 青, which denotes green as well as blue. (See a previous blog post on colour perception in different languages). Its animal is the dragon  lóng and its season is spring. The West is white, and its animal is the tiger   and the season of autumn.

colors/directions in Chinese and Turkish

Colours associated with the cardinal directions in Turkish

Also the Turkish language associates different colours with the four directions. The North is thought of as black (kara), the East is associated with the Turkish colour gök, which is a sky blue or turquoise, the South is seen as red (kızıl, a rusty shade of red) and the West is associated with the colour white (ak). What is interesting in Turkish is that the seas surrounding the Turkish peninsula and Anatolia take their names from these colour associations: the Mediterranean, which is west of Turkey, is called Akdeniz, or the White Sea, the Red Sea is Kızıl Deniz, and is located to the south of Turkey (its name is said to come from the rust-coloured sediments flowing into it) and the Black Sea, or Kara Deniz, is north of Anatolia (the Black Sea is also rich in iron sulfides, where only sulphur bacteria can thrive, and its sediments are dark).

Colours associated with the cardinal directions in Lakota

The Native American language Lakota associates not just a different colour with each of the cardinal directions, but each direction also has a value or virtue attributed to it as well as an animal nation, and a stage of life. There are two different systems of colour association, which vary from dialect to dialect. The centre of the sacred circle, or hocoka, is green and blue, the green standing for Grandmother Earth and the blue for the Sky. The North is associated with cold, discomfort and hardship (the direction from which winter comes), the East is associated with the sunrise, the South is the direction from which the sun is strongest, and the West is associated with the sunset and, by extension, the end of life.

colors/directions in Lakota


Colour perception in various languages


Today’s blog post will be about colour perception in different cultures and languages around the world.

The terms for colours cannot always be translated in a straightforward manner since some colours, esp. green and blue (“grue”) in some Asian languages, are often perceived differently from those in the West, and are considered separate colours in those countries whereas in English there is just one term for both shades or vice versa.


In Russian, there are two different terms for blue which are considered as separate colours and not just as shades of the same colour as in English: голубой (‘goluboy’) light blue and  синий (‘siniy’) dark blue.


In Hungarian, there are two separate terms for red: piros is a bright red and vörös is a dark red.


In German, there are two different terms for pink: Pink is the same bright saturated shade as in English, but when the colour is pale pink it is called rosa.

‘Grue’ or green and blue in various Asian languages

The origin of the perception of a green-blue (‘grue’) colour, which in English is called ‘teal’ or is seen as two separate colours (blue and green), comes from the Chinese character 青 (qīng).

The colour qīng 青 can mean either of the colours that in English are referred to as ‘green’, ‘blue’, or ‘black’, depending on the context and the nouns or fixed phrases it is used with. To give an example, qing means ‘blue’ when used with ‘sky’ 青天 (qīngtiān) or ‘eyes’青眼 (qīngyǎn) , but ‘black’ when used with ‘hair’ 青丝(qīngsī) and ‘green’ when used with the character for ‘mountain’ 青山 (qīngshān), ‘grass’青草 (qīngcǎo)  or ‘vegetables’ 青菜 (qīngcài).

Qing  , according to tradition, is the colour of things that are born and the term 青春 (qīngchūn ‘green spring’) means youth. This is connected to its meaning ‘black’ since young people in China have dark hair, or 青鬓 (qīng bìn) ‘black temple hair’, an idiom referring to young people. Qing can also refer to black clothes or fabrics and one of the main female roles in Chinese opera, 青衣 (qīngyī), refers to the fact that most actors wear black clothing.

Qing can also refer to the colour ‘blue’, which originates from the dye bluegrass which in ancient times was used to dye things in the colour of qing. The idiom 出於藍,而勝於藍青出于蓝,而胜于蓝 (qīngchūyúlán ér shèng yú lán, ‘blue comes from the indigo plant but is bluer than the plant itself’) describes how a student could come to excel their teacher.

The character 青qing originally derives from the components for 生 ‎’growth of plants‘ and 丹 ‎’cinnabar‘, which was also used for dyeing and by extension came to refer to ‘colour’ in general, so 青qing came to be known as the ‘colour of growing plants’ and green-blue, and came to describe a range of colours from light green through blue to deep black 玄青 (xuánqīng). Over time, the character for cinnabar was exchanged with the similar character for ‘moon’月.

The modern Mandarin Chinese language, however, also has the blue–green distinction with 蓝/ 藍 lán for blue and 绿 / 綠 for green. Another peculiarity of Chinese colour perception is the case of ‘red’ / , hóng and ‘pink’ 粉红, fěn hóng (lit.’powder red’), which are considered varieties of a single colour.

青 qing (Cantonese 廣東話 )

In Cantonese, qing 青 can describe the same range of colours as in Mandarin Chinese. It means ‘green’ when referring to grass, plants or the mountains, ‘blue’ when referring to the sky or stones, and ‘black’ or ‘young’ when referring to hair or fabrics. However, in Cantonese (廣東話), 青 qing meaning ‘black’ is still used in contexts where the use of  黑 would be inauspicious since it is a homophone of ‘乞’ (beggar), for example 黑衣, ‘black clothes’, would also mean ‘beggar’s clothes’.


Vietnamese has taken over the green-blue colour perception from the ancient Chinese character and is read as xanh, which can mean both ‘green’ or ‘blue’ depending on the context. To specify which shade exactly you mean, you have to add some descriptive terms, so xanh da trời means ‘blue as the sky’, xanh dương or xanh nước biển means ‘blue as the ocean’ and xanh lá cây means ‘green like the leaves’. Vietnamese sometimes uses the terms xanh lam for blue and xanh lục for green, which derive from the Chinese characters 藍and 綠 respectively.



Also Japanese has the colour green-blue, or ao ‎(hiragana あお, romaji ao, historical hiragana あを), which also derives from the ancient Chinese character and its connotations. So ao can mean ‘blue’, ‘green’ or ‘black’ depending on the context. In the case of Japanese, the colour connotation ‘black’ comes from the bluish-black colour of a horse’s hair. Ao is also used in particular to refer to the green of traffic lights and to the colour of plant leaves, vegetables and apples. By contrast, other ‘green’ objects will generally be referred to as being midori, e.g. clothes, cars, etc.


Also in the native American language Lakota (‘Sioux’), one word is used for both blue and green, namely the term tȟó. However, a term for ‘green’ – tȟózi- has come into use, which is made up of the terms  tȟó meaning ‘blue-green’ and meaning ‘yellow’. In the same way,  zíša/šázi refers to the colour orange, šá on its own meaning ‘red’. The colour purple or violet is thus šátȟo/tȟóša.



Some interesting links for further reading on the topic:

Does your language also have a different colour perception from the English one? Let us know in the comments!! 🙂