What colour is ‘green’ 青?

06 June 2023 | Inspiration
Joanne Dyson
Member: West Yorkshire
The colour 青 – pronounced as qing – is the corresponding colour to the season spring. This was first mentioned in the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Cannon Chapter 4, 金匱真言論. In English, the character 青 qing is often translated as ‘green’. But what is the colour ‘green’ 青 in Chinese medicine and art?

Read on for a light-hearted discussion of what colour – or colours – the character really represents through the lens of traditional Chinese artefacts with the colour 青 qing in their names. Believe it or not, even amongst Chinese speaking people there is no clear answer…

The most prominent categories of 青 qing artefacts are 青銅 qing tong – ‘green’ bronze – and 青瓷 qing ci – ‘green’ porcelain.

Bronze ware

In China, the most beautiful bronze artefacts were produced during the Bronze Era 青銅時代, dating back beyond 3000 BCE to around the beginning of the first millennium.

The Bronze Era marked the first three dynasties of China – 夏商周 Xia, Shang, Zhou. They produced the most decorated types of bronze cups, urns, plates and ornaments for all kinds of ceremonies. Some of these bronze artefacts were engraved with characters of early Chinese written language.

These two videos give a good impression of just how beautiful and intricate these bronze artefacts are. Bear in mind that most of them were made more than 3,000 years ago.

The first video shows the treasures of the National Palace Museum: Bronze ware:

This second video shows the Ancient Bronzes of China:


青瓷 qing ci – ‘green’ porcelain – is equivalent to celadon in the west. Celadon is a term used in pottery for wares glazed in the jade green colour. However, in China, the term 青瓷 qing ci specifically referred to the exquisite wares that were produced during the dynasties of 宋 Song, 金 Jin and 元 Yuan, ranging from around 900–1400.

Here you can see one of the most beautiful pieces of 青瓷 ‘green’ porcelain that was produced during that period. This bowl is part of a very large collection held in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. The Museum has the most extensive and exquisite collection of Chinese artefacts in the world.

In the 1940s the collection was shipped from the Forbidden City to Taiwan by the Nationalists on the brink of losing the civil war against the Communists. Serendipitously, these delicate artefacts were preserved safely, away from possible damage and destruction during the Cultural Revolution and other social movements in China over the decades that followed.

By the way, if you happen to have one of these vessels lying around in the attic, please keep it very safe if you wish to enjoy it yourself. Or take it to an auction house and you will have more than enough abundance for many, many and many generations!

Later style porcelain

So far, 青 qing has been used to describe the blue-grey-green colour of 青銅 qing tong – ‘green’ bronze – and 青瓷 qing ci – ‘green’ porcelain. Later in Chinese history, from around 1400 in the Ming and Qing 明、清 Dynasties, a new style of porcelain came into fashion, categorised under the name 青花瓷 qing hua ci, meaning ‘green’ flower porcelain.

The names 青花瓷 qing hua ci and the older style青瓷 qing ci have only one character different between them. But this new style of porcelain is the blue and white chinaware, often considered by the western world as the ‘typical’ Chinese style porcelain. In this context of 青花瓷 qing hua ci, the character 青 qing describes blue.

In colloquial Chinese, a clear sky is called 青天 qing tian so using 青 qing for blue is not uncommon.

More fun facts

青 Qing is sometimes used to describe the colour black – like 青絲 qing si, meaning black hair, or 青眼 qing yan, meaning the black of the eyes.

The use of 青 qing to describe hair can be found in a passage from a very famous poem, 將進酒 Jiang Jin Jiu – meaning ‘just about to drink the wine’! – written by Li Bo 李白 in the Tang Dynasty 唐, around 600-900.

The poem says:

朝如青絲暮成雪 looking into the mirror, in the morning, it [one’s hair] looks like black silk 青絲, in the evening it turns into snow 雪

Li Bo 李白 was referring to the impermanence of life, by describing an accelerated process of aging as when gazing into the mirror one sees black hair turn to grey in a day.

In fact, the use of 青絲 qing si to describe black hair is very common in everyday language. When a shampoo advertisement uses the word 青絲 qing si, no one would misunderstand that the shampoo is turning the hair green or blue!

When 青 qing is used to describe the eyes 眼 yan, it refers to the iris of eye, which is very dark or black in Chinese people. So when someone is looking at you with their ‘black of the eyes’ 青眼 qing yan, it means they really appreciate and favour you.  You definitely don’t want to get the white eyes 白眼 bai yan, which show their distaste by rolling their eyes and you see only the sclera.

Energetics of the spring season

Overall, 青 qing as a character generally describes growth, youth and positivity, which complies with the energetics in the season of spring and the element of wood.

The ‘green’ 青 qing for the wood element is likely to be a darker, bluish green rather than a fresher yellower green. Considering the water element – colour black – is mother element to the wood, it is natural that the colour of the wood element 青 qing inherits some aspects of its mother element.

Just one other thought. If we can agree that the ‘green’ for the wood element is more bluish, then the five element corresponding colours would consist of black/water and white/metal, along with three primary colours of blue/wood, red/fire and yellow/earth.

Enjoy what’s left of the springtime!

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