This post will be mainly about what colours symbolize in Chinese opera. We have already covered this in an earlier post, however that was just a basic overview of the in-depth meanings. I would once again encourage anyone who has any knowledge on this subject to post a comment and correct us or add to it.
Colours are used in great quantities in Chinese theatre, they are used to show power and authority and even personal traits of a character. In British theatre, we do not always think that this makes these impressions on the audience in the same way, however it does. If we see a character wearing a gold robe, we automatically assume he is high on the social and economic ladder, if we see a character dressed in black, we see an antagonist and if we see a red robe, we know he is going to be the protagonist. All these ideas are subconsciously going through our mind and help us understand the performance, and the same is happening with a Chinese audience. What makes this hard for us to portray, is that we do not know how the colours interact and whether it can be understood. In British theatre, a robe of black and red shows evil, even though red means the opposite, however we do not know if this is the case in Chinese theatre.
On masks (and, more recently, in makeup), red is usually a sign of courage, loyalty, prosperity, heroism and intelligence, much like it is used in British drama. In costumes, however, it is used as a way of showing people with high authority or characters of virtue; however we will go into more detail about other colours in costumes in a different post.
Gold and silver, in masks, represent a devil or godlike person. It can also be used to symbolise mystery or that the character is a spirit or ghost of some kind.
Black, although showing evil in British theatre, shows neutrality, impartiality and integrity in Chinese theatre, which is almost a complete contrast to the ideas in our normal theatre.
Purple means Justice and sophistication.
Blue, although meaning good in British theatre, shows neutrality, but also fierceness, astuteness and stubbornness; which is a contradiction to the norm in British culture
White (what is used for purity in British theatre) and yellow (usually a neutral colour) mean hypocritical elements, cruelty and evil. yellow also means ambitious or sly.
Green means that the character is violent, impulsive and lacks restraint. This is also odd, as green is usually a colour which is relatively neutral (as in, they can be used as a colour for either the “good” side or the “bad” side)
I hope this analysis of the Chinese colour usage has helped you understand why some characters we are going to portray seem to contradict the stereotypical stock character. Thank you for reading and, as I said at the beginning, feel free to correct everything, as we do not know everything.
picture from http://www.pantherinteriors.co.uk