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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
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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 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. –  Question Overflow Jan 9 '13 at 2:42
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@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
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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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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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