Colors used in Chinese idioms

In Chinese there are many expressions and idioms coming from colors. The metaphors can lighten up the whole conversation and let you impress Chinese native speakers. In this blog, we will teach a few commonly and widely used phrases or idioms with colors. Hope they will color up your Chinese!

1. 红红火火 [hóng hóng huǒ huǒ] (Literal: red red fire fire)

Both red and fire convey energy in Chinese. This phrase can be used to describe a thriving and rich life. It can also mean “flourishing” or “vigorous”. For example, you can wish someone’s business “红红火火”, which is the same with “best luck”, “make a lot of profits”, but only more vivid and subtle. A shorter version “红火” is also acceptable.

2. 黑白分明 [hēi bái fēn míng] (Literal: black and white clear)

It means have a distinction of black and white, which can be used to say a clear boundary, or a clear handwriting/drawing. Further it can be used as a metaphor for telling right from wrong. You can use this phrase to describe a person: “他这个人黑白分明。[tā zhè gè rén hēi bái fēn míng]” (He is someone who makes clear what’s right and what’s wrong).

3. 青红皂白 [qīng hóng zào bái] (literal: blue, red, black, white)

This idiom describes four colors “blue”, “red”, “black” and “white”, which when used figuratively, means a general situation. It often used in a negative way to say somebody does something without knowing the complete situation, or without a good reason. For example, “他不分青红皂白就打我。[tā bù fēn qīng hóng zào bái jiù dǎ wǒ](He hit me without any reason.)”

4. 面红耳赤 [miàn hóng ěr chì] (literal: red face and red ears)

Imagine a person flushes up (red face & ears) because of shame or embarrassment. Indeed this phrase is to say somebody is embarrassed. For example: 我揭穿了他的谎话,他面红耳赤说不出话了。[wǒ jiē chuān le tā de huǎng huà, tā miàn hóng ěr chì shuō bù chū huà le] (I exposed his lies so he flushed and couldn’t say a word).

5. 面黄肌瘦 [miàn huáng jī shòu] (literal: yellow face, skinny body)

This is a phrase used to describe someone who looks very unhealthy or malnourished. For example: 因为生病的缘故,他看起来面黄肌瘦。[yīn wéi shēng bìng de yuán gù, tā kàn qǐ lái miàn huáng jī shòu] (Because of the illness, he is in very bad shape).

6. 人老珠黄 [rén lǎo zhū huáng] (people get old, pearls become yellow)

When pearls are kept for a very long time, they also get yellowish and lose the gloss. Similarly, when people get old, the body tends to become a bit yellowish as well. Therefore, “Old person, yellow pearl” is metaphor to say people, often women, are getting old and become undesired. For example: “很多人认为女人应该尽早结婚,以免以后人老珠黄了没人要。[hěn duō rén rèn wéi nǚ rén yīng gāi jìn zǎo jié hūn, yǐ miǎn yǐ hòu rén lǎo zhū huáng le mái rén yào] (Many people think a woman should get married at an early age, otherwise no one would want her any more when she gets old.)”

7. 炉火纯青 [lú huǒ chún qīng] (Literal: stove fire become bright blue)

Originally it means that if a Taoist practices alchemy successfully, the fire becomes blue. But nowadays “blue fire” is used to refer to one’s knowledge, skills or techniques reaching the level of perfection. For example, “你的钢琴技巧已经炉火纯青了。[nǐ de gāng qín jì qiāo yǐ jīng lú huǒ chún qīng le] (Your piano skills are perfect.)”

8. 万紫千红 [wàn zǐ qiān hóng] (literal: tens thousands of purple, thousands of red)

This is an idiom used to describe beautiful blossoming flowers or scenery. It can also mean “various” or “exuberant”. For example, “这里的景色真是万紫千红。[zhè lǐ de jǐng sè zhēn shì wàn zǐ qiān hóng] (The view here is full of colors.)”

9. 近朱者赤,近墨者黑 [jìn zhū zhě chì,jìn mò zhě hēi] (literal: close to the cinnabar, it’s easy to get red; close to the ink, easy to get black)

This phrase is to say that the living environment has great influences on people. For example, making friends with good people, you will do good thing; Making friends with bad people, you will do bad things. So when you hear someone talking about how a person is changed due to his friends circle, you can say “近朱者赤,近墨者黑。”

As we can see from these expressions, colors indeed make the expressions more vivid and accurate. Proper use of colors can make your Chinese more natural and spontaneous. Just go ahead and try!

Have you encountered any other phrases with colors? Share with us below!

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