Language, perception and the Chinese colour “qīng”

So there’s this thing going around about how supposedly no one could see the color blue until modern times. I’m not sure I buy that; it’s interesting, but sounds like all the other pseudo-science and “history” sloshing around my social media feeds. And I don’t have the time to investigate it well enough to form an opinion. The Chinese have a colour that we don’t. Does that mean we can’t see it? Are we missing out?

The relationship between language and culture (or language and perception) is fascinating. I suspect that if I could somehow perceive the world from a born-and-bred Mainland Chinese perspective, my mind would short-circuit within the first few minutes.

Anyway, that article reminded me of the Chinese colour (qīng), aka blue, green, black, blackish-green, and the color of nature. The coworker I just asked says qīng is “a little bit greener than green” (“绿色绿一点”)。 Our almost-6-year-old daughter, who’s spent the last three years in an all-Chinese preschool and with whom we’ve never discussed qīng, mentioned the other day (without prompting from us) that qīng is “in rainbows, it’s really pretty green.”

qing bubbles

One of the fun things about Anthropology 101 is discovering that there are different ways cultures categorize the world, including the color spectrum. Look at these less-than-helpful dictionary entries for the Chinese colour qīng:

In Chinese other words are usually used for blue ,green 绿, and black 。 If I ask my Chinese kindergarten students the colour of the sky or grass or coal, they’ll probably use one of those three, not qīng 青。 But qīng isn’t rare; our city is Qīngdǎo (青岛: “Qīng Island”), our street is Qīngshān Rd. (青山路: “Qīng Mountain Rd.”), and there’s a province called Qīnghǎi (青海: “Qīng Sea”). In these place names, islands, mountains, and oceans can all be qīng, but aside from that I’ve never heard someone refer to an object as qīng. Apparently the 1800-year-old dictionary 释名 defines qīng as “birth, like the color of things born” (物生)。

Interestingly enough, a Google image search for “青” (“qīng“) turned up entries for the colour, and shows mostly blue, while a Baidu image search (the Chinese Google equivalent) turned up entries for words that contain the 青 character, and shows mostly green.

qing image search screenshot

But searching for “青色” (“the colour qīng“) yields more similar results:


It’s almost like Chinese qīng belongs in Dr. Seuss:

He has something called qīng.
qīng is so hard to get,
You never saw anything
Like it, I bet.
[…]
Then the qīng
It went qīng!
And, oh boy! What a qīng!
Now, don’t ask me what qīng is.
I never will know.
But, boy! Let me tell you
It DOES clean up snow!

IMO, our differences between cultures are much more profound than we tend to realize, and they don’t get the respect they deserve. But even deeper than that runs what we have in common, and that transcends biological and cultural differences.

P.S. — All these images, aside from the dictionary and Baidu screenshots, came from a Google image search for 青。 Click the images for their source page. The giant qīng eyeball is here.

For more about qīng:

For more language and perception:

Unintentionally terrifying Chinese democracy poster

To find out what “democracy is a belief” is maybe intended to mean, and how Chinese communists have the gall to promote “rule of law” and “democracy”, see Joann Pittman’s In Democracy We Trust. (She blogs faster than me, and beat me to the punch with the Princess Bride video.)

Democracy is a Belief
What the heil?
It’s only February, but here’s my submission for Chinglish of the Year — Shangdong Art Institute Media College students’ “I Speak for Socialist Core Values” posters. Click each Chinese word to view its poster, mouseover for pronunciation:

富强 (prosperity)
民主 (democracy)
文明 (civility)
和谐 (harmony)
自由 (freedom)
平等 (equality)
公正 (justice)
法治 (rule of/by law)
爱国 (patriotism)
敬业 (dedication to one’s work)
诚信 (integrity)
友善 (friendship)

I hope it’s abundantly clear that in Chinese Communist Party-land, these words — freedom, democracy, rule of law — don’t mean the same thing that they do in the West. It has nothing to do with Chinglish or mistranslation; they’re using different definitions.

Below are two current propaganda posters from our neighbourhood bulletin boards. Mouseover the Chinese for translation and pronunciation:


社会主义核心价值观
社会主义核心价值观当代中国价值追求精神
Socialism Core Values
Socialism Core Values are the guiding principle of the spirit that contemporary Chinese values are seeking.


社会主义核心价值观富强民主文明和谐自由平等公正法治爱国敬业诚信友善.
Socialism Core Values: prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, rule of/by law, patriotism, dedication to one’s work, integrity, friendship.

With each new Chinese “president” (read: Chairman, as in “Chairman Mao”) we get a whole new raft of propaganda. 2015, aka the Year of the Goat, is shaping up to be China’s most ideological year since Mao (and the NYT and the China Daily aren’t wasting any time). Under Chairman Xi the emphasis moves further away from Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents, Hu Jintao’s Scientific Development, Harmonious Society, and Stability Maintenance to the Chinese Dream, the New Normal, and Socialist Core Values.

P.S. – Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself. It’s a heil of a good pun…

Have yourself an even Chinesier little Christmas…

To read the Christmas story in Chinese, click here. But to listen to it dramatized in Chinese, download the mp3s below! (Hint: mouseover the dotted underlined names.)

1. 预言耶稣降生 Jesus’ Birth Foretold
The kids gather for family story time with Grandpa Xīmiàn, who tells them about Yǐsàiyà‘s promised Mísàiyà who could arrive any time. The kids think “Yǐmǎnèilì” is a weird-sounding name.

2. 马利亚订婚天使报信 Mary’s Engagement & the Angel’s Announcement
Xīmiàn awakes in the night from a dream, which he thinks was more than just a dream. Meanwhile Mǎlìyà‘s parents arrange her marriage to Yuēsè. And then the angel Jiābǎiliè surprises Mǎlìyà with some surprising news.

3. 起名耶稣 Name Him Jesus
Old geezers Sājiālìyà and Yīlìshābái wheeze their way through some expository dialogue. Sājiālìyà gets the shock of his (long) life when an angel appears to him in the temple and tells him some news. He just can’t believe it, but it comes true regardless. Meanwhile Yuēsè finds out Mǎlìyà is pregnant (and not by him!). He’s not buying all this pregnant virgin Holy Spirit business and makes up his mind to divorce her (though quietly, to help her save face). But before he can act, an angel intervenes.

4. 耶稣降生 Jesus’ Birth
Yuēsè and Mǎlìyà find out they must travel over 100 miles to Bólìhéng because of the mandated census. When they finally get there, Yuēsè has a heck of a time finding somewhere for them to stay. They finally find a place, and the sweet baby Yēsū is born!

5. 牧羊人 Shepherds Hear the Joyous News
Some lowly shepherds chat idly about how it’s actually not that bad to be shepherds; after all, many legendary Hebrew patriarchs were shepherds! They doze off talking about what they expect the long-awaited Mísàiyà to do when he finally arrives. Then they’re awoken by angels, who send them into Bólìhéng to find their infant Mísàiyà.

6. 西面祝福婴孩耶稣 Simeon Blesses Baby Jesus
Yuēsè and Mǎlìyà can’t understand why God sent the Mísàiyà to them, of all people, in a stable, of all places, and only told some stinking shepherds about it, rather than making it a huge deal for their entire nation. But when they bring Yēsū to the temple, Xīmiàn and the prophetess Yàná are there, and they each have some special things to say. Yuēsè and Mǎlìyà don’t understand it all, though, especially the parts about how the Mísàiyà is not just for the Israelites alone.

7. 博士来访 The Wisemen Visit
Scribes in the temple discuss the rumours of a newborn Jewish Mísàiyà, but the High Priest is having none of it. As they’re speaking scholars from the East arrive, claiming their study of the stars led them to Yēlùsālěng to seek the newborn Mísàiyà. But they’re told there is no such Mísàiyà and sent away. Meanwhile King Xīlǜ hears the rumours of a newborn king and begins plotting to preserve his reign. He sends the scholars from the East to find him in Bólìhéng, the Mísàiyà’s birthplace as indicated by their scriptures.

8. 逃亡埃及 Flee to Egypt
King Xīlǜ is ticked that the scholars from the East somehow were warned not to report back to him the Mísàiyà’s location. He orders the execution of all the infants in Bólìhéng. Yuēsè and Mǎlìyà sneak off during night to Āijí.

The download links are from the Chinese site 基督徒的家园, where they have the entire Bible dramatized and available for free download, one story at a time. Or you can download the entire OT or NT at one go from John at Sinosplice, Bible Stories in Chinese:

…they injected a healthy dose of Chinese culture. Just listen to the way Mary talks to baby Jesus, or the way the Israelites argue with Aaron over creating the golden calf. And then of course, there’s the fun of hearing the voice of God in Chinese, or Abraham sounding like an old Chinese man.

If the above download links down work try this: ChineseChristmasStorymp3s.zip

P.S. — We also have Chinese Christmas art and Chinese Christmas carols.

P.P.S. — Your Christmas still not Chinesey enough yet?