【明報專訊】The seven simple colours of the spectrum that serve as the base for all our colour combinations are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. From these, most of the colours that we can identify on sight are broken down into 267 groups, starting with a colour called vivid pink and ending with one called pure black.
Realising this, is it any wonder that peoples of various cultures often see and think of colours in different — sometimes opposite — ways?
Take white as an example. Though it is not really a colour (it actually represents ''something without colour'') we generally think of it as one and have given it several meanings. The Chinese wear white at funerals and consider it a colour of mourning. In Western cultures, it represents peace, tranquility and purity, which is the reason you will see brides dressed in beautiful white wedding gowns.
Yet the Chinese wear red at a wedding because in their culture the richness of red symbolises prosperity and happiness. Westerners, on the other hand, view red as a symbol of power, and it also represents danger or even something that incites anger.
Another example is purple which, in the Western world, represents royalty and religion and is the colour of kings. Two thousand and more years ago in ancient Roman times, purple was considered an extra special colour and was reserved for the robes and dress of emperors. It represented power, but also a luxury that only an emperor and those of high rank were entitled to have. Later, purple became a royal colour and only kings were allowed to use purple ink to sign documents. To the Chinese it is considered a romantic colour in modern times.
Even further apart in meaning within the two cultures is the colour yellow. In most Asian countries it is the symbol of royalty, of the emperor. Up until recent times in China, only the emperor could wear yellow in any form, whether it was a robe or a ribbon. To Westerners it has had a number of conflicting meanings. Judas who betrayed Christ has always been painted in a yellow gown to symbolise disloyalty and treachery; yet other religious figures have been painted in yellow to show loyalty and wisdom.
Unfortunately, the negative aspects have prevailed and in the English-speaking world yellow is considered the colour of a coward. The reason for that may go back to ancient Biblical days, but it has been reinforced in more recent times by a form of punishment meted out to soldiers in the US Army. In the early days of America's history, when soldiers showing signs of cowardice in battle had yellow streaks painted down their backs by their officers, they were identified as being yellow. We continue to use the term to mean a coward.
You can see how different cultures view colours differently and, in the end, how one's overall conception of them has a way of influencing his language and his thought.
(C)John Bell Smithback
by John Bell Smithback