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The Color of Culture 潘维廉博士 97年7月19日

In 1911, Joseph Addison wrote “Color speaks all languages.” But he neglected to mention that colors have accents, depending upon the language. The Chinese and English languages are perfect examples. These two languages often use entirely different colors to evoke similar memories or images. For example Americans call an auspicious day a “red-letter day.” For Chinese, it is a “yellow day.”

Color is a powerful tool for communication, for language, like life, is not black and white. But color can also miscommunicate. To help minimize these miscommunications, let us review how important a role color plays in English, and then note how Chinese and English differ in the meanings they attribute to color.

The value of color to the English tongue is seen in the myriad uses of the word ‘color’. A person who ‘sticks to their colors’ stands firm in their opinion. The tonal quality of music is ‘color.’ When we salute the ‘colors,’ we honor the flag. Caucasians used to call nonCaucasians ‘Coloreds’. Blacks retorted by calling Whites ‘people without color.’

If the word ‘color’ communicates so much, the colors themselves convey even more. Blue, the color of the vast sea and sky, conveys images of remote distances and times. A high-flying jet soars ‘into the blue’. An unexpected guest pops in ‘out of the blue.’ An unrealistic dreamer may be accused of “blue-sky thinking.”

Blue can even convey moral dimensions. In the 16th century, Ben Johnson, the English dramatist and poet, wrote “Blueness doth express trueness.”

Blue is a contemplative color, but red is passionate. Scientists have found that red rooms can induce anxiety or anger, so we say an angry or embarrassed man ‘sees red,’ or is “red-faced.” We honor people by giving them the ‘red carpet’ treatment. The latest news is ‘red-hot.’ Red can have negative connotations as well. To catch someone in an unsavory act is to catch them ‘red-handed.’ An alcoholic is a “red nose.” A “red herring” diverts attention from the main issue. When we operate at a loss, we are “in the red.” Low fare, overnight plane or train trips are called ‘red eye specials’ because passengers disembark with bloodshot eyes. A ‘red ribbon’ is the second prize in competitions. Third place is that controversial color, or noncolor -- white.

Is white the absence of any color or the sum of them all? G.K. Chesterton waxed lyrical in “Tremendous Trifles” (A Piece of Chalk, 1909):
God paints in many colours; but He never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.”

White implies purity, and freedom from spot, blemish, or moral impurity. We proclaim a truce or surrender by waving a white flag. A ‘white lie’ is a harmless untruth. ‘White magic’ is good magic.

But like its fiery cousin red, white conveys negative images as well. ‘Lily white’ implies purity’ but ‘white as a sheet’ denotes terror, the sheet suggesting shrouded ghosts. A ‘white elephant’ is something of dubious or limited worth, or a rare artifact that is a burden to maintain. A ‘white feather’ is a mark of cowardice, as in “show the white feather.” A ‘white chip stock’ is of minimal value. Prostitution is ‘white slavery.’ The good guys wear the white hats, the bad guys wear the black hats. No wonder that Malcom X complained that White men’s dictionaries glorify white and Whites, and portray black and Blacks as tainted and evil.

‘Black deeds’ are evil acts. ‘Black thoughts’ are gloomy. A ‘black look’ betrays anger. We ostracize someone by ‘blackballing’ them. If we sully someone’s reputation, we’ve ‘blackened’ their name or ‘given them a black eye. The disreputable member of the family is the ‘black sheep.’ ‘Black cats’ are bad luck because they are witches’ familiars. Malcolm X wanted to rewrite the “White man’s dictionary.” Like Solomon 3,000 years ago, Malcolm proclaimed “I am black but beautiful.” But Malcolm wasn’t green enough to think color prejudice would disappear overnight.

Green is the color of nature, spring, and new growth. A ‘Green’ is an Environmentalist, and anyone possessing a ‘green thumb’ has a knack for growing plants. The green growth of spring evokes memories of na?ve youth. If someone is ‘green,’ they are fresh, inexperienced. A greenhorn is easily deceived and unfamiliar with the ways of a place or group. Green also implies weakness. If someone is ‘green around the gills’, they are pale or sickly.” Oscar Wilde, in “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” carried the green infirmity to a moral dimension:
“He had that curious love of green, which in individuals is always the sign of a subtle artistic temperament, and in nations is said to denote a laxity, if not a decadence of morals.”

Every color on the English palette, whether patrician blue or angry red, or white or black or yellow or purple, awakens some memory or emotion, but before I translate into Chinese, I have to doublecheck that I’ve got the right pigments on my palette.

To be called a “Red” is a compliment in China, but an insult to those Americans who still insist ‘better dead than Red.’

Chinese “red tea” is, in America, called ‘black tea,’ though to my unpracticed eye it looks neither red nor black.

Chinese might say a friend is red-eyed to suggest they are jealous. In English, red-eyed means weepy or sleepy, and it is the green-eyed who are envious.

In Chinese, supercilious people are ‘white-eyed.’ In English, “white-eyed” conveys the impression of terror or shock.

In Chinese a bluebook, lanben, is a writing upon which later work is based, a chief source. In English, a blue book is a register or directory of socially prominent persons, the bluebloods. College students take exams in blank booklets called blue books. And the U.S. Air Force’s project for studying UFO’s (Unidentified Flying Objects -- flying saucers) was called Project Bluebook.

Chinese wear white for mourning, but which wouldn’t go over well at many American funerals, where black is more appropriate.

At American weddings, brides wear white, the color of purity and virginity, while Chinese brides might wear red for good luck -- shocking those sensitive, American souls who associate red attire with prostitution.

In Chinese, pornography is “yellow literature” – easily confused with English’s “yellow journalism” -- sensationalist journalism. And while Chinese call a pornographic film a ‘yellow movie,’ Americans call them ‘blue movies.’

Whether we are an artist or a writer or a speaker, we must portray life as we see it, not in black and white but in color. As Claude Monet, the French painter, cried, “Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.’ Color is as invaluable for the pen as for the brush. But when we translate or communicate cross-culturally, we’d best make sure that we use the right color for the culture – or else our audience may see red.
潘维廉博士 (Dr. Bill Brown) 97年7月19日

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