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The Foreign Gospel (the meaning of colors)

September 29, 2010

In America when you hear someone talk about the “red, white and blue” we all know it is a patriotic reference to the American flag.  Purple speaks of royalty and majesty.  But what happens when a culture doesn’t view the meanings of colors in the same way?  The meaning of the message is altered! Below is a partial description of how various words, forms and ideas are understood in the Khmer culture.  Today we will consider how Cambodian view colors and their meanings.


Yellow is the color of royalty and rule (authority).  All government owned buildings are painted the color yellow including schools, government ministries and the Kings palace. Purple is the color of a sweet root that is used in deserts. Obviously the purple robe given to Jesus has little of the intended meaning in Khmer. Red is a color of prosperity and wealth. White is the color of mourning while black is associated with communists.  Light green signifies resurrection and life, while blue is the color of nature and the environment. Blue and green are often considered the same color. (For example, the green flora and fauna is referred to as “beautiful blue scenery.”)  While “scarlet” is used at the color of religious clergy in America, “saffron” is its equivalent color in Cambodia!  “Scarlet” identifies with wealth and prosperity, not religion, nor the blood of Christ.

In Cambodia, most colors are not referred to by common people using their technical color name, but rather given as a description of colors or identification. Yellow is called “urine, red is called “pig’s blood” while green is called “horse manure” and blue is “ink pen”Pink is called “lotus flower” and brown is “palm tree.” Black is the called “shadow, dark and even blind” for its identification. Most colors are given identifying characteristics which are standard in the Cambodian language.

Even descriptive words have different meanings:  A hot tempered person in America would be considered calm and quiet in Cambodia.  Where a cold hearted person would be understood to be loving to Cambodian.  This is because in Cambodia (a very hot climate) “hot” or “warm” is not good, but in a cold country like America and even Israel “hot” would be good if you were freezing to death.  “Cold” is the ideal and people dream about being cold in the tropical climate, therefore to be “cold” expresses love, understanding and comfort.  You can see these two meanings are completely opposite in the two cultures!

In the west, the wordless book has regularly been taught and shared with others around the world.  Its usefulness and intended meaning is, at best, heavily distorted in cultures outside America.  If the wordless book is ever implemented in Cambodia, its colors and meanings should line up with Khmer cultural understandings of color.  It should be altered to reflect Cambodian meanings of colors. The way it is presented in the America does not have the same meaning as in Cambodia.

Even things like the meanings behind colors have a significant effect on communication and what is understood.  This is another issue which cross-cultural communicators must consider.

Note: This blog is part of a series of posts dealing with cross-cultural communication.  You can find the first blog here.  Other blogs are under the category <cross-cultural communication>.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Bryan Furr permalink
    September 30, 2010 7:00 am

    I don’t think the color bead witness bracelets would work very well in Cambodia huh? Lost in translation?

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