A Colour of Many Connotations: Red

‘You can’t be a revolutionary if you don’t eat chilies.’

 -Chairman Mao

Spice, fire, blood, wine. For westerners, red is an antagonist: igniting lips, tempers—people’s and bulls’—and longings. Nectar plumps out a fruit’s delicate skin, ready to spill at the first puncture like blood. Exactly like blood it flows; beads of ruby collecting in a steady stream until the fruit or body runs dry. Red is difficult to contain once freed of its thin boundary, like pouring lust or rage back into one’s veins. Or, it’s a penalty. A scarlet letter denotes bad morals or—on a paper—bad grammar. 

This doesn’t hold true in China, where a woman in red isn’t hoping to exude or attract sexual fervour. In a crimson qipao, a Chinese lady may be en route to her wedding day. She would match dancing lanterns and coin envelopes widespread at the Lunar New Year. It’s dragon red, bright and biting: a cerise sunset dancing sharply off of jagged waves. Of the five elements in Chinese culture—water, fire, wood, metal, earth—red represents the one that you would expect, but its passion is celebrated rather than condemned. 

Traditional Chinese wedding dress

Unlike the Chinese emperor’s regal yellow, red is a colour of the people, denoting good fortune for all. Unsurprising then, that it was borrowed from European socialism and employed as the People’s colour of revolution. It was the perfect shade to paint armies, flags and manifestos. 

The people’s flag is deepest red,

It shrouded oft our martyr’d dead

And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,

Their hearts’ blood dyed its ev’ry fold.

-The Red Flag, Jim Connell

Soviet red coloured the west’s Cold War era nightmares. Better dead than red. Red Scare, Red Menace, Red Peril. (This following the turn of the century’s Yellow Peril, a xenophobic fear of Asian peoples. Ironic, since Chinese wouldn’t presume to dress in the royal hue.) The Soviet banner was replaced in 1991, but swap its hammer and sickle with a cluster of stars, and you get China’s current communist standard. The East is Red, the people sang, appropriating the shade’s traditional connotations of prosperity for revolutionary purposes. Unlike the fallen Soviet Nation that Russia’s Red Army won, Chinese communism lives on, paired with its palette of good fortune. 

The East is Red, the people sang, appropriating the shade’s traditional connotations of prosperity for revolutionary purposes.

How westerners fear the red flag, forgetting that it runs blatant through our own banners. The Union Jack holds on to St. Patrick’s cross despite Ireland’s violent wars of resistance. ‘Every red stripe in that flag represents the black man’s blood that has been shed,’ says Fannie Lou Hamer of the United States’ red, white and blue. 

We temper red; the Chinese revel in it unselfconsciously. Stepping out of the third person for a moment, I’ll identify as one of the western ‘we.’ My mother once gave me a book with a title to the effect of ‘How to Be a Lady.’ Alongside such advice as, don’t sit in comfortable chairs that can make you look undignified to get out of, the books advised that only tramps wear red underwear. I would be ostracised, maybe even exorcised, for daring to wear the colour on my wedding day.  

Red’s connotations are hardly inherent. Even its association with blood breaks down across species lines. (A horseshoe crab rebellion would march under a baby blue flag.) Nor is red the catch-all paint for dictators. Mao had a Little Red Book. Muammar Gaddafi’s political philosophy is titled and wrapped in a dark grass colour. 

Fire and chilies can also burn in orange, yellow and green. Roses are just as often pink. Wine can flow white. 

Communist, prosperous, licentious. It’s the colour of spice, fire, blood, wine or revolution—but only sometimes. 

Like immorality, blazing red on a woman’s chest, red is little more than what we make of it in our own prudishness or paranoia. Shhh, don’t tell my mother. Or Mao.

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