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In my dictionary it defines

黃 (Huáng)
- yellow
- pornographic
- to fall through
- surname Huang or Hwang

Imperial China and the robes of the emperor are commonly associated with the colour yellow.

We also have

黃河 - Huánghé   - the yellow river
黃山 - Huángshān - the yellow mountain
黃帝 - Huángdì   - the legendary Yellow Emperor

So how did the colour yellow come to be associated with pornography?

黃色電影 - Huángsè diànyǐng - pornographic movie
黃色書刊 - Huángsè shūkān   - pornographic book
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1  
I know 黃色電影, 黃色書刊/黃書 is a common usage in Hong Kong. However I am not sure if the usage is originated from HK or elsewhere. –  John Siu Jan 8 '13 at 17:21
    
Thanks John. I first learned this from mainland friends, but my taiwanese friends also use this term. So I guess it has a longer history. –  Matthew Rudy 马泰 Jan 8 '13 at 18:06
    
How did blue come to represent pornography in English...LOL –  phoeagon May 26 at 6:59
    
Just to clarify, Golden Yellow is the ancient China's dedicate color for emperor. Also, 黃帝 is actually a 'name' of a very ancient emperor (as well as most of the emperors) but it actually has nothing to do with the color yellow –  Alex Aug 6 at 22:24
    
why? was the original meaning of 黃 not associated with a color? –  meireikei Nov 23 at 21:56

7 Answers 7

up vote 11 down vote accepted

According to this article, there are four possible explanations as to why yellow colour is associated with pornography. Below is a slightly modified translation of the article based on further references from the internet:

  1. Orpiment (雌黃). Orpiment is a toxic orange-yellow mineral that is used as a pigment by ancient people. Due to poor bleaching technology, paper produced in the olden days was slightly yellow. When words on a paper need to be corrected, orpiment can be used to smear onto the written words, creating a layer of slightly opaque yellow close to the paper's colour, enabling a rewrite. Soon, people describe uttering nonsense as "信口雌黃". Subsequently, the yellow colour of orpiment and its toxicity is later extended to mean poisoning of the mind.

  2. The Yellow Union. In 1887, in a city in France, a factory owner tried to prevent his workers from going on strike by bribing the Yellow Union. The workers discovered the betrayal and angrily smashed the windows of the union clubhouse. The union then used yellow paper backings as a replacement for the windows. Since then, the workers labelled these union people as "见不得人的黃色工会”, meaning a union that cannot face the public, similar to pornography.

  3. The Yellow Book. In 1894, a British magazine named "The Yellow Book", gathered in a group of conservative collection of authors to produce quarterly literary periodicals that are thought to be scurrilous in content. Later, a prestigious Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde, was arrested on homosexuality charges. At the time of his arrest, Oscar was seen holding a yellow book (which turns out to be a French novel). People misidentified the material to be The Yellow Book and associated it with his personality. The next day people demonstrated in front of the publisher, and a furry of media reports soon cemented an association between yellow paperbacks and homosexual content.

  4. The Yellow Kid. The end of the 19th century New York, New York World and New York Journal competed for readers intensely, posting vulgar comics content to which "The Yellow Kid" is one of them and is the origin for the term "yellow journalism". Since then, the colour yellow is associated with erotic and vulgar things.

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I thought I was going to find some detail info from wiktionary, but ... –  John Siu Jan 8 '13 at 18:41
    
This is something the OECD would be good at, were it an english use of the word. Normally they'd find notable example of its use with this meaning. –  Matthew Rudy 马泰 Jan 8 '13 at 19:10
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Actually I am quite surprise that this colour association with pornography is adopted in China and not elsewhere (correct me if I am wrong) when only one out of the four explanations originates from China. –  杨以轩 Jan 9 '13 at 2:42
2  
@QuestionOverflow English blue, Japanese pink, you can try finding more –  Mike Manilone Jan 12 '13 at 5:28
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3. and 4. seem reasonable. Yellow implying pornography in China didn't appear before the 20th century. I've never seen this usage in ancient Chinese writings. –  Stan May 26 '13 at 7:47

In Hong Kong, the signage of brothels are traditionally yellow. Like this:

http://www.ziteng.org.hk/newsletter/img/m12789da6.jpg

Other colours are also being used in recent years.

Nonetheless, I'm not sure when was 黃色 being associated with pornography. The brothels might deliberately choose yellow for reasons explained by 杨以轩, or the use of such signage might have led this association.

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Traditionally, yellow is a respectful color in China. It represents nobility and wealthiness. It is the color of the skin of Chinese, the color of the mother river of China. 1934, yellow was decided as the city color of Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province.

The negative meaning was brought in from the Commies. They are against Chinese culture. The "People's Republic of China" was originated from "Soviet Republic of China".

More details in Chinese:

http://duping.net/XHC/show.php?bbs=11&post=1195031

http://www.21ccom.net/articles/sxwh/shsc/article_2011111949053.html

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The second article is a thesis full of detailed traces and references. It states many reasons, Commies are only part to blame. Your statements look biased to me. –  Wang Dingwei Nov 24 at 9:50

In Hong Kong, brothel and organised prostitute are illegal. It is not allowed to advertise any trade in sex. Brothels and prostitutes hoisted some large yellow light boxes with some red implicit text on it nearby. These boxes were finally taken down by police, and they use a pink light instead nowadays.

In this way, Hong Kong people associates yellow with prostitutes. So do pornography.

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I remember hearing this explanation in a video so this may be a possible explanation. Do you have supporting materials? –  Alvin Wong Aug 10 at 3:22

I can't find the reference now, but I have read that forbidden books in the early Mao era were put in yellow covers after being seized by the police; according to the source, this included both pornographic and ideologically deviant books. I have also seen contemporary Xinhua and other official sources describing banned religious and political texts as "yellow," so it may be used differently in Danghua. However, it is possible the yellow color was chosen because the color was already associated with deviance.

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The Chinese meaning for "yellow " has nothing to do with Pron. In contrast with the English, it has more of the meaning of sexual thoughts, or expressions of sexual content in mind displayed in conversation, non verbal communication. An individual can look yellow, or have yellow thoughts. or say yellow words. In fact in American slang, we would use the word "Nasty".

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There was a time when the color yellow was associated with prostitution also in Europe. For instance, historian Nils Johan Ringdal reports in his Love For Sale: A World History of Prostitution that prostitutes were told to wear yellow scarves in 15th century Vienna. BTW, the book also has a chapter on Tang-dynasty China, but I don't remember further references to the color yellow in there.

There is also a bit more (condensed) information in the Wikipedia article on prostitution during the Middle Ages (German version only): it cites red, yellow, and green as (then) colors of shame.

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thanks for the extra info –  Matthew Rudy 马泰 Jan 17 '13 at 11:44

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