Colour symbolism around the world

Hey, Messians! Misty here to talk about the cultural connotations and the symbolism of color from around the world.

That’s me in Pokhara, Nepal in 2012!

My interest in how colors are used in other cultures started when I traveled to Nepal a few years ago. Women love red in Nepal. They wear it to get married in and use it to celebrate their status as a women. I couldn’t come up with a satisfying US equivalent. This, of course, led me to think about what other cultures thought about color that differed from my experiences in America. If you are a travel junkie or love learning about culture, I think you will find this stuff fascinating. In writing this, I talked to a handful of Get Messians and a few of my friends who have cross-cultural experience. Since the subject of flags came up in my conversations so often, I thought it would be fun to create a personal flag as part of our color explorations this season.

Colors from Around the World

Bangladesh

I talked with Fahmida, a Bengali-American, about color in Bangladesh. She pointed out that green is a signifying color for Islam, so many countries with Islamic roots have green in their flags. Bangladesh is no different. The Bengali flag is a red disk on a green field. The green field on the flag also stands for the rice fields of Bangladesh. The red disk signifies a sunrise/sunset and also represents the people who sacrificed their lives for Bengali independence.

Saffron orange is seen as a lucky color in Bangladesh. It’s the color of turmeric, so it’s tied to being economically prosperous enough to afford spices for your food. Wedding parties often wear this color during the pre-wedding festivities to encourage good fortune for the couple. Red is the color of joy, so is worn by brides on their wedding day. White is the color for funerals. It is thought that it is used because you come into the world with nothing, so white signifies leaving this world with nothing also. Black is unlucky in Bangladesh.

China

Vanessa, a Get Messian who currently lives in Beijing, China, talked to me about the ceremonial nature of red in China. She said it is used in many forms and in many situations, from weddings to ancestor worship. “But my favorite thing is that they bring a piece of red joss paper that they place on the headstone, under a rock. The paper stays there when it rains, the color red seeping out of the paper and flowing onto (and into) the grave.” Vanessa explained that this tradition is part of Ching Ming (grave-sweeping day).

Sidebar on Joss Paper

I use a lot of Joss paper in my work. I love the colors and the characters on the papers and especially love the connection to the past and to the people who came before me that it conjures. If you haven’t played with Joss paper, you can often find it in your local Asian market and it’s typically fairly inexpensive. If you haven’t explored this wonderful resource, I highly recommend you do!!

My friend Kim, a Chinese-American, explained to me that men don’t wear green hats in China because it carries the connotation that the man’s wife has cheated on him. She also explained that in China white is much like black for US culture. “Dressing all in white would be the equivalent to dressing all in black/gothy.” Kim messaged me. I love that contrasting image of white to what I am used to with black. Gold is another important color in China. It’s a thread that often runs through the red and it symbolizes prosperity.

Columbia

Lali, a Colombian-American, shared these fabulous village houses in Antioquia Province, near where she grew up. She messaged me that Colombians prefer a bright aesthetic and greatly value beauty.

Germany

Sarah, a Get Messian in Germany, talked to me about blue in her country. She said that “being blue” can mean to be drunk or to “make blue” means you are skipping out on work or school. She said that blue also speaks of possibilities, a sort of everything-is-possible mentality. After talking with her about those possibilities and the color blue, I keep thinking about the English phrase, “The sky’s the limit!”

South Africa

Caylee, one of our illustrious leaders of Get Messy, had this to say about the South African flag:

“Our flag is a new flag that came out when apartheid ended in 1994. All the colours represent all the colours of people in the country (we call ourselves the Rainbow Nation). Black, white, yellow, green, red, blue 🙂 we were the only country that had so many colours in its flag. You can see how it also starts separate and comes together… the past to the future.

“The green, gold, and black are the colours of Nelson Mandela’s political party (ANC – the “black” party) and the red, white, and blue to symbolize the Dutch (where the white people originally came from). Again, all merging together. Basically, the flag = all colours coming together in unity (Ubuntu).”

She also talked a bit about how some of the tribes in South Africa use color. To the Zulu people, white is spiritual love and purity, black is marriage but also death. Yellow is wealth, while pink is for those with high status. Red is love and passion. They use a lot of blue, which is faithfulness. In the Xhosa tribe it’s similar, but red is for royalty and yellow means fertility.

Ukraine

I talked to Get Messian Sasha, who explained that in Ukraine, colors often have the same meanings as in the United States. Light blue for baby boys and pink for baby girls is exactly the same. Yellow is part of the Ukrainian flag and it signifies wheat and harvest, so the color has come to mean happiness, sun, or wisdom. Blue, which is the second color in the flag, means sky, freedom, fidelity, or trust. Red is big in Ukrainian culture. It means love, family blood connection, health, fire, purification. Purple, along with black, is often the color of grief and is used by funeral agencies. Purple is also used in church as a symbol of Jesus Christ: purple = red (blood) + blue (sky, heaven). Green is a signifier for youth or nature in Ukraine.

United Kingdom

I spoke with Julia, a Get Messian and textile designer,

“The biggest difference I have noticed between the UK and the US (actually Europe vs. the US) is the warmth of colour. Americans are super warm in their colour choices. Warm greys, blacks, etc. In Europe, we tend to go for colder, more desaturated cool-tones. For example, I find it very difficult to create a neutral grey with the American suppliers. Their colours are ALWAYS too warm. It’s like in Europe, to create grey we would start with blue but in America, it’d be brown.”

United States

When I asked for ideas of what color means in other cultures, I used a few examples. For babies, light blue signifies boys and light pink signifies girls. Women wear white when they get married and the white stands for purity. Red can mean love/passion, or stop when used in traffic. Green can mean growing things, or someone can “be green with envy” when they are jealous. Black is used for funerals and grieving but it is also a sign of sophistication in clothing. On the US flag, red stands for valor, white for innocence, and blue for perseverance and justice, which I had to look up because I didn’t remember that from school.

Make a Personal Flag

All this talk of flags has me thinking about the ways we Get Messians create visual language with what we make, so I wanted us to try our hand at making a flag that signifies who we are. Flags are best when they are made of 2 to 3 simple elements on a solid background. I find it tremendously hard to edit myself, so this is challenging for me! Take some time to sift through your ephemera, or draw a shape that has meaning for you. Think about what your signature colors are.

Supplies

Smallish journal, paint, ink, markers, pencils, stamps, special-to-you ephemera (now’s the time to use that tiny bit of whatever you’ve been saving because it speaks to your soul!). I’ll be working in my Strathmore Watercolor 5.5×8 inch journal so I can scan my flag and reuse it later. I decided to do an inked background. I used 3 colors of Liquitex ink. I sprayed it with a bit of water and used some stray book pages and the opposite side of the journal for blotting. I adore green. For me it stands for growth and renewal.

Next I stamped a lotus on some plain white card stock. I love lotuses and have one tattooed on my wrist. A blue lotus stands for the search for knowledge. (This handmade stamp came from the fabulous @pandaprintshop. I traded a handmade journal for this stamp.)

I trimmed the lotuses and played around with positioning.

Then I finished off my page with a few water lines below the flowers and a border. Messy, of course!

Once my page was dry, I scanned it. Then I placed it multiple times on a page in various sizes. You can do this in a word processing program like Microsoft Word or a page layout program like InDesign, which is what I used. Then I printed my page and trimmed them down to have a bunch of Misty flags to use in my journaling!

If you want to dive into learning more about flag design, there’s a fantastic podcast on it from one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible. If you’d rather watch something, here’s the Ted Talk where Roman Mars reprises the podcast.

Action Steps

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Look back though your journals and look at your color choices with the new knowledge of how someone from another culture might perceive them. Do you see anything that is a delightful surprise? Do you see anything that takes on a darker meaning?

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Pick a color or several that I’ve talked about above and create a page in your journal with these new cultural connotations in mind. Explore how adding these new-to-you meanings make you feel and journal them so you can remember the countries and cultures you were meditating on.

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Make a Personal Flag. Scan it and use it again and again in your pages to signify something personal for yourself.

Misty

Misty is ever-so-slightly obsessed with paint, glue, and paper. Her interests range across a variety of arts and crafts such as contemporary visual art, mixed media, book binding, crochet, and yarn spinning. When she isn’t in her studio slinging paint or gluing things together, she is busy with her family and serving as President of the Board of Directors for Global Women.

10 Comments

  1. Stephanie manic

    Love your post and all of the ideas you put in my French brains!!

  2. Gilly Welch

    Thanks Misty, I’m going to go and listen to the podcast now, such a lot of wonderful information, all in one post!!

  3. Katie Smith

    I just made mine. It may have a galaxy…….

    • Riet

      Of course you do!

  4. Riet

    I was waiting to read this since I saw your request in the forum as I thought it would be for the season, haha! 😉 Thank you so much, Misty! This was so interesting! I didn’t think I would feel tempted to make an own flag but I really do!

  5. Sasha Zinevych

    This is one more SUPER informative and interesting post, Misty! Love all the research that went into it.Thank you!:)
    P.S. This made me think of Sheldon Cooper and Amy and their Interesting Flags YouTube channel (any Big Bang Theory fans out there? 😉 )

  6. Vanessa Oliver-lloyd

    there is so much here! you are fabulous Misty, I love the idea of a personal flag.

  7. Cardelia Howell-Diamond

    I love all of this information Misty! I am also compelled to make a flag, but all that comes to mind for me is the Texas Flag. (Yes, I am possibly THAT brainwashed!) Thank you for your great work, and friendship.

  8. CIndy Jacobs

    Wow. This really fits in with some personal growth work I’m doing! It’s like you’re magic!!

  9. Julia Cusworth

    This is such an interesting post, I want to know more about colour around the world – please make a documentary?!