How to Describe Color in Chinese

While learning colors may seem a bit trivial, we actually use colors to describe things in our daily speech more than you might realize. In fact, one of the most basic ways that we describe things and people around us is through color. If you go shopping, you might need to ask for a piece of clothing in a certain color. Or when you’re describing someone’s appearance, you might want to say what color hair or eyes they have. That’s why learning how to describe color in Chinese is so important!

Beyond your basic colors, you’ll also want to learn ways to modify these in Chinese, like how to describe colors as “light” or “dark,” or how to say more specific shades of colors in Chinese, like “magenta” or “sky blue.”

Let’s start by looking at some basic colors.

Basic Chinese Color Vocabulary

Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Pinyin
English
颜色 顔色 yánsè color
hóng red
chéng orange
huáng yellow
绿 green
lán blue
purple
粉红 粉紅 fěnhóng pink
zōng brown
hēi black
bái white
huī grey

These color words can be used alone, but they are often paired with the character “色” (sè). This character is part of the word “color” (颜色) listed above, and alone also means “color.”  To use this word, simply place it after the color word. So for example, red (红) becomes “红色.”

Here are a few example sentences:

Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Pinyin
English
你最喜欢什么颜色? 你最喜歡什麼顏色? Nǐ zuì xǐhuan shénme yánsè? What’s your favorite color?
我最喜欢黄色。 我最喜歡黃色。 Wǒ zuì xǐhuan huángsè. I like yellow the most.
这个包包有三种颜色。 這個包包有三種顏色。 hège bāo bāo yǒu sān zhǒng yánsè. This bag comes in three colors.
今天的天空好蓝。 今天的天空好藍。 Jīntiān de tiānkōng hǎo lán. The sky is so blue today.

Using Basic Chinese Color Words

There are two main ways to use the colors in the list above:

1- Color name + N.

Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Pinyin
English
蓝眼睛 藍眼睛 lán yǎnjing blue eyes
黃衣服 黃衣服 huáng yīfu yellow clothes

2- Color name + 色 + 的 + N.

Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Pinyin
English
蓝色的眼睛 藍色的眼睛 lánsè de yǎnjing blue eyes
黃色的衣服 黃色的衣服 huángsè de yīfu yellow clothes
白色的猫头鹰 白色的貓頭鷹 bái sè de māo tóu yīng white owl

Here’s how you might use these patterns in full sentences:

Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Pinyin
English
他有红头发。 他有紅頭髮。 Tā yǒu hóng tóufa. He has red hair.
他有红色的头发。 他有紅色的頭髮。 Tā yǒu hóngsè de tóufa. He has red hair.
他的头发是红色的。 他的頭髮是紅色的。 Tā de tóufa shì hóngsè de. His hair is red.

Describing Colors in More Detail in Chinese

Just like in English, there are several ways to modify the basic colors in Chinese to describe colors more precisely, as well as many more specific shades of colors. Below are a few ways that you can describe what color something is in more detail.

1- Light vs Dark

The easiest way to describe any color is to differentiate whether it is light or dark, just like how in English we might say “dark blue” or “light blue.” Below are a few examples of how to use these descriptors.

Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Pinyin
English
qiǎn light
shēn dark
淺绿色 淺綠色 qiǎn lǜsè light green
深绿色 深綠色 shēn lǜsè dark green

2- Combining Colors

Just like in English, it’s possible to describe a color as being a mix of two colors in Chinese. Below are a few examples of common pairings.

Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Pinyin
English
蓝绿色 藍綠色 lánlǜsè blueish green
粉紫色 粉紫色 fěnzǐsè pinkish purple
橙红色 橙紅色 chénghóngsè orangish red

3- More Specific Color Shades

Beyond the basic colors, there are many shades of colors in Chinese. Here are some Chinese color shades.

Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Pinyin
English
枣红 棗紅 zǎo hóng maroon
珊瑚红 珊瑚紅 shān hú hóng coral
绯红 緋紅 fēi hóng scarlet
橘黄 橘黃 jú huáng tangerine
杏黄 杏黃 xìng huáng apricot
橄榄绿 橄欖綠 gǎn lǎn lǜ olive green
森林绿 森林綠 sēn lín lǜ forest green
天蓝 天藍 tiān lán sky blue
蔚蓝 蔚藍 wèi lán azure
紫罗兰 紫羅蘭 zǐ lúo lán violet
象牙白 象牙白 xiàng yá bái ivory
碳黑 碳黑 tàn hēi soot black

4- Using Objects to Describe Colors

You can also talk about colors in terms of common objects that are associated with that color, just like how in English we might say something is “cream colored.” Many of the terms that we use in English, like “cream colored,” are also used in Chinese (奶油色 nǎi yóu sè). However, some terms do differ, often due to cultural differences. Below are a few examples of item-based color shades in Chinese.

Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Pinyin
English
金色 金色 jīnsè gold color
銀色 銀色 yínsè silver color
咖啡色 咖啡色 kāfēisè coffee color
肤色 膚色 fūsè skin color / nude
豆沙色 豆沙色 dòushāsè red bean color

As mentioned, adding “light” or “dark” in front of a color is one way to be more specific when talking about colors, but you can also use other descriptive words to explain the color of something. Here are a few other color-related words that you might want to add to your Chinese vocabulary.

Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Pinyin
English
鲜艳 鮮豔 xiānyàn bright
暗淡 暗淡 àndàn dull
暖色 暖色 nuǎn sè warm color
冷色 冷色 lěng sè cool color
中性色 中性色 zhōng xìng sè neutral color
熒光 螢光 yíng guāng neon
彩虹 彩虹 cǎi hóng rainbow

The color words and related sentences above will definitely help add more color to your speech in Chinese! Whether you need to describe what someone looks like or explain what color item you want to a storekeeper, color vocabulary is sure to come in handy. You can try starting with some basic colors and then add other descriptive words, like “light” and “dark,” and then learn some more specific shades of colors. You’ll be describing colors in Chinese like a pro in no time!


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