So what color is 青 really? Blue? Green? Help!

By Confused Laowai | Date: November 30th, 2011 | Category: Language

Oh boy. Here we go again with Chinese confusing the hell out of me. Today’s culprit is 青. Yes, that one that appears in 青年 meaning youth. I almost want to make a knee-jerk old timer joke about how confusing the youth are these days, but I’d resist. So, why am I confused about 青, because it seems to represent so many different colors! From “nature’s color” to “blue” to “green” to “greenish black”… heck it’s just crazy.

Such a beautiful display of 青 here hey?

Here’s the CC-CEDICT dictionary definition for 青:

nature’s color / green or blue / greenish black / youth / young (of people) / abbr. for Qinghai province

Now, color me impressed, that’s one versatile character. My android dictionary app, HanPing, also adds the definition “not ripe”. That’s probably where the idea for youth comes from: 青年 (not ripe years).

But, besides youth, I’m trying to figure out why this character has this multiple color reference. How do you predict which color it is actually referring to? Here are some example words with 青.

青菜: Green Vegetables

青丝: Fine Black Hair

青天: Blue Sky

青碧: Blue/Green (heh, not helping!)

青白色: Pale Color

青蚨: kind of insect mentioned in ancient literature; copper cash

青绿: Dark Green

青松: Pine

青筋: Blue Veins

青铜: Bronze

青苔: Moss

青楼: Mansion; Brothel; Adobe of Beauty

青椒: Green Cayenne Pepper

青花瓷: Blue-and-white Porcelain

青豆: Green Soybean

青草: Green Grass

青石: Blue Stone

青工: Palace of Prince

青金: Lead or Tin

青衣: Black Clothes

There are more, but I think I’ll just confuse you guys even further. Now what is going here. It seems that when 青 is with plants (moss, grass, vegetables) it goes for green. When weather/nature is talked about, stone and sky, it goes for blue, but there’s a weird outlier in blue veins. But oddly enough it goes for black when it talks about hair or clothes. The wiktionary page confirms this. Interestingly, the radical decomposition from an etymological view point, describes the character as a combination of 生 (grass) and 丹 (well). So grass around a well. Thus, green.

Further etymological research shows that it first appeared during the Bronze Script. The original meaning was blue according to ZDIC.

Yes, I’m just as confused as you are at this point. What the heck is going on here? There clearly doesn’t seem to be a clear cut definition or meaning behind why 青 represents all these different colors!

I’ve got my own theories though:

The NatureTheory

The definition of “nature’s color” seems to fit in the with the duality that it presents. Nature is filled with colors. It’s almost as if when 青 is used it represents the “natural” color of that item. Like Blue Sky, Green Vegetables, Black Hair etc.

The Ripening Theory

Maybe 青, being “not ripe” and being youthful is part of the process of changing colors. Fruits change from colors, ripening. Sometimes even going to far and turning black.

The Grass Well Theory

This one is closely tied to the original radical etymology. Grass around it is green, the well has blue water. As simple as that.

The Metal Theory

Now here’s a more interesting take on this. If you notice all the words that are being mentioned, there seems quite a lot that has to do with metals, like lead, tin, copper, bronze etc. Now if you look at some metals for instance, like copper, when exposed to air and it oxidizes it turns a bluish-green color. The same thing happens when you wear copper bracelets, you get this green/blue stain on your wrist.

I asked on Weibo for help with 青. The responses range from 青 being between green and blue, and 青 referring to both colors. But heck, it’s tough for me to accept that. I haven’t found such colors before. Usually color refer to one color, not more.

Guys, help me here. If you can anything on 青, I’ll be much less confused! Maybe I’m missing something blatantly obvious, but I’m surely stumped by 青. My best bet is the nature or metal theory.

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  • Anonymous

    This one is easy to answer.

    In Modern Chinese, 青 means dark green, like the color of moss.

    In Classical Chinese, 青 usually means blue, like 青天 and 青花瓷. 青 also means blue in Japanese.

    In Ancient Chinese, blue and green were the same color/concept, so 青 could be any shade of blue or green or anything in between.

  • NielDLR

    Yeah, I’m aware of the different color mappings. It’s just odd for me that 青 spans such a wide range. The linguist in me wants to attach an easier explanation for the seemingly arbitrary distribution. But, like you said, maybe I’m just using my English interference here.

  • Javier Altayó

    In my experience, looking for a universal equivalent is useless. Always learn the collocations: green pepper 青椒, blue sky 青天 (careful not to mix it with clear/sunny day 晴天), dark hair (青絲), most excellent (as in “freshest” or “greenest”) products 最青的貨 and so on. That list you made already is an excellent start!

    The most fascinating explanation to the wide range of meanings for qing 青 I have heard is this one: On his essay “On Learning” 勸學篇, Xunzi 荀子 first mentioned a certain lancao 藍草grass. Apparently, if you stained your cotton cloth with a drop of the juices of this plant you would see a growing circle whose center would be dark green, almost black. Outer rings would get clearer and clearer, showing growingly clear shades of green and even blue. Cool, right?

  • Greg

    In the west, our colours of the rainbow are ROYGBIV. What I found was interesting (I can’t find the link right now) that the Chinese have a different list – the main difference of which is the addition of 青!  And my memory is it lies between green & blue (I think) so that doesn’t help you define it.

    Maybe it helps to think of this – white paper is white. White skin is … actually somewhere between pink & light brown, depending on the person. White rice is a little grey. White teeth are luminous (if they’re been treated :-), and white chocolate is a little creamy. So don’t worry if you don’t get 青.

  • Herman Schaaf 罗成

    I have to agree with you here. I think it’s just the English part of us that finds “both blue and green” to be very vague. In fact, the one other non-Germanic language I know (Zulu) also has only one word to describe both blue and green (luhlaza), and to be more specific you need to say “blue like the sky” or “green like grass”.

    That’s only one example, but I’m sure other languages lump the two together as well. In Chinese, at least, there are definitely other words for both green and blue, and 青 seems to be a case where it used to mean blue in classical times and now means green.

  • NielDLR

    Wow, that explanation by Xunzi is kind of what I was looking for. I know it’s more poetic, but I like that. Very cool!

  • Chinesetolearn

    The discussion is very interesting here.  On my website, I have an one Chinese sentence a day post about “While there’s life, there’s hope” or “Where there’s life, there’s hope” in Chinese: 留得青山在,不怕没柴烧。Liu2 de2 qing1 shan1 zai4, bu2 pa4 mei2 chai2 shao1. I had some thinking about what color this 青 means. It goes like this:
    Some people might say 青山 qing1 shan1 means green mountain, however, I would like to say it is blue mountain. Mountains are green in spring in summer, but, when autumn or winter come, and when you see the mountains from far away, they can be a deep shade of blue or a bit of black and gray. When I was in school, in my middle school years, my Chinese teacher told me that 青 qing1 is the color between green and blue. There is a Chinese phrase called 青山绿水 qing1 shan1 lu4 shui3 (blue mountain green water), but neither those are the exact color though. Next time when you go out to the nature, pay attention to the hues, the colors of mountains and rivers, and tell me what color they are:) Those answers might differ depend on what season you go or what time of the day too.”
    Welcome to my website to see the full post and wish the classic Chinese song : 青山依旧在,几度夕阳红. You will love it:)
    Happy birthday !!!! Have fun learning Chinese, and have a wonderful New Year too.
    Sorry, I forgot the link:

  • Caitlin Schultz

    This radio program explains the likely history of how the rods and cones in our eyes evolved over time. I think this is the answer you are looking for.

  • Gus Mueller

    Have you given any thought to the possibility that the bottom part is cinnabar and not well? See for the breakdown.