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My dictionary tells 青 can mean black.

My questions are:

  • Is 青 generally used to mean black? In other words, is it always ambiguous to some extent whether it means blue or black?
  • When it means black, is it always replaceable by 黑? Or are there any specific contexts where one is preferred to the other?
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  1. 青 does not mean black in modern Chinese (likely due to semantic transition). It can mean black in classical Chinese, but that does not mean its meaning is ambiguous either, given the context is understood. Consider the following:

    君不見高堂明鏡悲白髮,朝如青絲暮成雪。——李白《將進酒》

    This verse by the Tang poet Li Bai laments how one's hair becomes white overnight. We see 青絲 as a metaphor for young, black hair, and it makes no sense to interpret 青 here as dark blue. (Or actually, dark blue and black are not that different; saying it means black is merely a problem of translation.)

  2. Replacing 青 with 黑 does not work in modern Chinese. Replacing 青 with 黑 in classical Chinese, however, is not impossible, although very unorthodox. Here's why:

    • Usually 青絲, 青鬢 are fixed expressions. It would sound odd if we say 黑絲, 黑鬢 instead. 黑絲 in particular sounds like stockings (黑絲襪).

    • I think it is unwise to think Chinese (classical Chinese in particular) has a one-to-one correspondence to every nameable colour. For example we say 赤子之心 (the heart of a child), never *紅子之心 despite the fact that both 赤 and 紅 mean red. (Note: 赤子 is a metaphoric expression for newborns with healthy, red faces). We ought to respect etymology and collocation of words whenever possible. So I think it is rather wrong to consider 青 as absolutely equivalent to 黑 just because they can mean black.

    • In the case of 青, it has been postulated that (based on its etymology) it is a colour of youth or vitality, rather than a fixed colour of black, or green, or blue. This is of course contentious, but not an unreasonable explanation.

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  • I do agree with this answer. However, would it be "age" related when we say "青絲變華髮" as both 青 and 華 represents a time/period in a person's life? Just curious.
    – r13
    Oct 10 at 17:01
  • @r13 Of course it is age related. This is what a metaphor does (refer to answer). But in this expression "青絲變華髮" the meaning of 青 is still "black"; and the meaning of 華 is still "streaked". The changed colour of the hair is used as a metaphor for aging. Same as in Li Bai' poem. The poet isn't lamenting the changing colour of his hair; he is lamenting his growing old too fast.
    – monalisa
    Oct 10 at 19:18
  • These two citations confirm that 青絲 was used to describe the black hair of a (young) person. 1) 李白.〈將進酒〉:「君不見,高堂明鏡悲白髮,朝如青絲暮成雪。」2) 《紅樓夢.第二十一回》:「平兒收拾賈璉在外的衣服鋪蓋,不承望枕套中抖出一綹青絲 來。」Note this is a descriptive word use to indicate the change of ages, not really means 青 = 黑, though 藏青 means "蓝而近黑". There are two explanations for 華髮 - 1) 花白頭髮。 2) 指年老;老年人。Anyway, I voted +1 for this answer.
    – r13
    Oct 10 at 19:50
  • L Parker's second point is excellent, worth giving another +1, but my allowance for vote is running out :)
    – r13
    Oct 10 at 20:01
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    @sundowner I mean the latter. 青絲 is a fixed expression in classical Chinese. However, 青睞 is a fixed expression still used in modern Chinese where 青 also means black (the black part of an eye, to be precise). So it really depends on the word. But still we never say *黑睞.
    – L Parker
    Oct 11 at 23:47
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Well if you recall - blue is somewhat a new color to us and wasn't actually seen until modern times. So this makes sense for why the same word that had meant "black" became also the word for "blue". (I say in this order as, clearly as consideration of this information shows, the odds of it having been first "blue" and then lafter interpreted as "black" is unlikely since we did not see the color blue until recently.)

https://www.businessinsider.com.au/what-is-blue-and-how-do-we-see-color-2015-2

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    I believe the information in the article you cited is incorrect. The character 藍 appears in 荀子《勸學》篇:「青取之於藍而勝於藍。」藍 also appears in 說文解字。It even appears in 詩經:「終朝采藍、不盈一襜。」Here, 藍 refers to the plant 蓼藍。It can be used to dye clothes into blue color.
    – joehua
    Oct 11 at 12:34
  • I guess there may be some truth in it, but after all, there are all those different characters and it is natural to think they were intended for different colors even if 青 in classical Chinese is not the blue I'm seeing (putting the philosophical impossibility of identifying colors aside :))
    – sundowner
    Oct 14 at 1:56

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