Category Archives: Chinese

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!! 🙂

Vocabulary: ‘Rice’ in Indonesian and Asian languages

indon rice

Today’s blog post is taking us to Asia again, to Indonesia and Japan and China, and to the various words for ‘rice’. Unlike in western languages, where there is just one word for any type of rice, in many Asian languages, there are different terms for ‘rice’ depending on what condition the rice is in, i.e. whether it is raw grains, cooked rice or still a rice plant.

In Balinese (Basa Bali) the various term for ‘rice’ are:

Pantun = rice plant (indon. padi)

sawah or manik galih = rice field/paddy

beras or baas = raw rice, rice grains

nasi = cooked rice

ketan = sticky rice

The Indonesian word for ‘rice plant’, padi, is the origin of the English term for paddy field. 🙂

There are also different words for ‘rice’ in Japanese and Chinese (Mandarin).

In Japanese, these are:

ine =rice plant

kome = rice grains, uncooked rice

白米 hakumai = white rice, polished rice

momi = rough rice

玄米 genmai = brown rice, unpolished rice

ご飯 gohan = cooked rice

餅米 mochigome = sticky rice

水田suiden = paddy field, rice field

And the Chinese terms for different kinds of rice are:

米饭 Mǐfàn = cooked rice

大米 Dàmǐ = raw rice

糯米饭 Nuòmǐ fàn = sticky rice

稻田 Dàotián = paddy field, rice field

 Does your language also have different terms for rice? Tell us about them in the comments! 🙂


Chinese: the meaning of some place names


Author: Laitr Keiows via Wikipedia Commons Osmanthus fragrans tree, also called sweet or fragrant olive

Today’s blog post is taking us to China (中国  Zhōngguó, land of the middle), and to the meaning of some place names when their characters are translated literally.

北京 Beijing = northern capital

南京 Nánjīng = southern capital, having served as capital in the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as of the Republic of China founded in 1912

上海 Shànghǎi = (city) at the sea

重庆 Chóngqìng = double celebration

福建 Fújiàn = the blessed establishment, the foundation of good fortune

青海 Qīnghǎi = the blue-green sea, named for Lake Qinghai 

河北 Héběi = north of the river, referring to its location north of the Yellow River or 黄河 Huáng Hé

湖南 Húnán = south of the lake, referring to its location south of Lake Dongting or 洞庭湖 Dòngtíng Hú

湖北 Húběi = north of the lake, referring to Lake Dongting or 洞庭湖 Dòngtíng Hú

河南 Hénán = south of the river, referring to its location south of the Yellow River or 黄河 Huáng Hé

桂林 Guìlín = forest of fragrant olive (Osmanthus fragrans)

杭州 Hángzhōu = capital of the Hang province

苏州 Sūzhōu = “the province that is awake”; the character for Su in its name is a contraction that actually refers to nearby Mount Gusu 姑蘇山 Gūsūshān; the su refers to the mint Perilla frutescens, also known as shiso

四川 Sichuan = four rivers; the name of the province is an abbreviation of Sì Chuānlù (四川路), or “Four circuits of rivers”, which is itself abbreviated from Chuānxiá Sìlù (川峡四路), or “Four circuits of rivers and gorges”

贵州 Guìzhōu = the precious or noble province

山西 Shānxī = west of the mountains, refering to its location west of the Taihang Mountains or 太行山 Tàiháng Shān

安徽 Ānhuī = the quiet or safe emblem, actually named for two cities in southern Anhui, Anqing and Huizhou

云南 Yúnnán = “the region south of the clouds”, is actually named for the 云岭  Yúnlǐng or “Cloudy Peaks” mountains, which run north and south of Yunnan

香港 Xiānggǎng or Hong Kong = Fragrant Harbour

九龍 Kowloon/Gau2 Lung 4 in Cantonese= Nine dragons

澳门 Àomén, better known as Macao = the Bay Gate

广东 Guǎngdōng / Gwong2 Dung1 in Cantonese; Canton province = the wide East

台北 Táiběi = North of Taiwan