Language, perception and the Chinese colour “qÄ«ng”

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 青 (qÄ«ng), aka blue, green, black, blackish-green, and the color of nature. The coworker I just asked says qÄ«ng is “a little bit greener than green” (“比绿色绿一点”)。 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 qÄ«ng, mentioned the other day (without prompting from us) that qÄ«ng 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 蓝,green 绿, and black 黑。 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 qÄ«ng 青。 But qÄ«ng isn’t rare; our city is QÄ«ngdÇŽo (青岛: “QÄ«ng Island”), our street is QÄ«ngshān Rd. (青山路: “QÄ«ng Mountain Rd.”), and there’s a province called QÄ«nghÇŽi (青海: “QÄ«ng Sea”). In these place names, islands, mountains, and oceans can all be qÄ«ng, but aside from that I’ve never heard someone refer to an object as qÄ«ng. Apparently the 1800-year-old dictionary 释名 defines qÄ«ng as “birth, like the color of things born” (生也,象物生时色也)。

Interestingly enough, a Google image search for “青” (“qÄ«ng“) 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 qÄ«ng“) yields more similar results:

It’s almost like Chinese qÄ«ng 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 qÄ«ng 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 qÄ«ng eyeball is here.

For more about qīng:

For more language and perception:

4 thoughts on “Language, perception and the Chinese colour “qÄ«ng””

  1. Excellent!!! And you didn’t even address the question “what is the Chinese word for ‘brown’?”. Maybe you can tackle that in another post.

  2. WOW! this is a really brilliant well thought article about 青.
    I love the photo of the iris at the top.
    This is really clear to me now – 青 is used in abstract, not for concrete objects. is that a fair comment from what you have said above? Fascinating.
    I’m glad I stumbled into your blog today!

  3. Our 5.5-year-old came back from preschool the other day, and was telling Jessica about I forget what, but I overheard, “…it’s the colour qing, that’s in rainbows, it’s like green but really really pretty…”

  4. I am using this in my foreign language classes to teach about cultural perspective. I absolutely love this post!

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