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Here is what the dictionary says about 青:

 1. 深绿色或浅蓝色:~草。~苔。 Dark Blue or light green.

 2. 靛蓝色:靛~。~紫。 Indigo blue.

 3. 黑色:~布。~衣。 Black.

Similar case is 苍:

 1. 深青色,深绿色:~翠。~天。 Dark blue or green.

 2. 灰白色:~白。 Pale

It looks like you have to get into the writer's head to know what he means. Are there any rules for these words?

For example, if I see a word 青鸟, how do I know if it's blue or black?

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    I think it is natural for a language with such a long history like Chinese to have a rich vocabulary for colors and the color concepts vary very much over the history of languages. As for 青 I think it depends on the context and the nature of the object attributed with 青, e.g. 青草 can only be green, etc. Some objects are of course ambiguous. I do not know much about the background of 青,苍 and may 碧 goes also with this group, but in other languages you can also find similarly confusing usage of colors. See if this gives you any clue: confucius2000.com/confucian/rujiao/ctqtylt.htm – Drunken Master Nov 19 '14 at 8:47
  • This is completely my personal interpretation, but instead of concrete color(s), I always see 青 and 苍 as the blueish 'tone' that you can sense in many colors from aquamarine green to dark metal gray. Also my personal belief (without any proof) is that 青草 actually refers to the cyan grass as opposed to the yellow-green ones, and 青衣 is dark blue-black instead of pure black. – NS.X. Nov 19 '14 at 10:10
  • @NS.X. I think the 'black clothes' translation of 青衣 must be entirely historical, since it can really refer to any shade of blue in modern usage: google.com/… – Drunken Master Nov 19 '14 at 10:15
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    @DrunkenMaster I am not even sure if it really used to mean 'black clothes' at all... I've seen conflicting references and because this question is such a common myth, it's hard to tell which source is credible. – NS.X. Nov 19 '14 at 10:23
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    @DrunkenMaster The link helps a lot. So even experts are in debate... – Wang Dingwei Nov 20 '14 at 1:28
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As a native Chinese speaker, I can tell the color of the word with 青 almost at once.

As 青 is a word of a certain color name between green and blue, most of the word with 青 is described as this color.

For the word like 青草 or 青苔, it's often means the plant as 草 and 苔. The color of these plant can be determined by last character.

In terms of other words like 青 for black in 青布 and 青衣, they are the old usage of word maybe just used in poems. At least in the daily life of mine, I don't used it in that way.

For 青鳥 in your example, it mostly used like the color of 青 itself. As the ref of 青鳥, you can take a look at this link http://baike.baidu.com/subview/5674/5502935.htm . And I think the hummingbird is just a kind of 青鳥.

  • Thanks. It could be better if you could provide some reference in the case of 青鸟. – Wang Dingwei Nov 20 '14 at 1:31
  • Interesting, so 青鸟 do mean blue bird in some cases. Still I'm not sure about the mythical 青鸟, the pet birds of 西王母. One of the reference says that they resemble crows or ravens. – Wang Dingwei Nov 21 '14 at 8:20
  • If you are looking for the 三青鳥 of 西王母, I'm also not really sure about its colour as it is a mythical bird after all. However, I don't think the the 青鳥 is black or dark grey, as its also means bad luck in traditional Chinese culture. – biubiubiu Nov 24 '14 at 1:58
  • Crows were in fact the birds of luck before 宋 dynasty. It was only after then did people start to favor magpies. – Wang Dingwei Nov 24 '14 at 2:39
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1.苍 is not a usual color word. It is often used in idioms or literary texts when it imply colors. I don't read many books,I only know two phrases using 苍 for color:

1). 苍天

e.g. 苍天啊,大地啊,是哪位天使大姐替我出的这口气啊. from a comedy dialog

2).皓首匹夫,苍髯老贼....from "Romance of the Three Kingdoms"

Both 皓 苍 mean pale here.

2.青

青 has two meanings,in nowaday life,青 is cyan.It is not blue or black ,it is cyan,sometimes 青 is greener than cyan.Just google cyan,and you will know it,but don't google 青,those 青 pictures should be 蓝. You can baidu 青 , the results is almost identical to google's.

In ancient or old days ,青 may refer to dark blue mixing dark green. And the result for those color-insensitive people seems like black.

So when you see 青鸟,青草,青whatever, It maybe cyan,dark green,dark blue, But it won't be black.Because 青 has nothing to do with black.

  • Thanks, but the question is about classical Chinese.. – Wang Dingwei Nov 20 '14 at 1:30
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In modern Chinese, 青 stands for cyan, except few legacy words through the ages.

In classical Chinese, 青 can mean light blue, dark green, indigo, extremely dark green (almost black). The meaning depends on the context. If it is used with 衣 or 布, it means extremely dark green (almost black). If it is used with 紫, it means indigo. If it is used with 草, it means dark green. The meaning is only depends on context and and convention, judging the meaning by experience. The only way for you to understand is to read it again again and again until you feel the meaning is native enough for you.

苍 is the same, depending on context and and convention, judging the meaning by experience.

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