The Meaning of White – the Beginning and the End of Colour

Sep 07 2012

White on white by Malevich

“White resonates, like a silence that can suddenly be understood.” – Wassily Kandinsky

White is the combination of all colours, and the indicator of light and brightness, with powerful meanings linked to all human rites of passage. White is associated with life and death, love and life, old and new, young and old.  We wear white robes for baptism, and white shrouds for funerals, white dresses for weddings and white clothes at Catholic festivals. The colour white is strongly associated with the basics of life, including rice, bread, salt and sugar (especially in Asian cultures).

For many across the world, white symbolises purity, innocence and holiness.It is also associated with cleanliness, spirituality, bliss, greed, opportunism, cowardice, defeat and (of course) light. White pearls indicate innocence, purity, beauty and new beginnings and the white dove is now a standard symbol of peace.

In Britain and many of the countries influenced by Britain, a white feather symbolises cowardice, because fighting cocks with white feathers were said to be poor fighters. In more recent times the white feather has been adopted by many organisations as a symbol of peace. The use of a white flag as a sign of surrender dates back as far as the first century CE in China, and is now written into the Geneva Convention (it’s misuse constitutes a war crime).

White represents holiness or sanctity in many cultures, which is why Celtic druids wear white robes, sacrificial animals are often white, and white is the festival colour of the Catholic church in many parts of the world. The Christian churches also associate white with the purified soul, joy, virgin, innocence, transcendental perfection, resurrection, sacraments, simplicity, illumination, chastity, holiness, redemption, spiritual authority and with saints (those who are not martyrs).

In the Western world (and increasingly elsewhere), brides wear white as a symbol of innocence and purity, as do those being baptised or taking communion. The white lily is associated with the Virgin Mary and symbolises purity.

In alchemy, white lilies were associated with the feminine principle as well as quicksilver (and silver itself). For American Indians, white symbolises the spirit and in Sufism it is associated with wisdom. For the Aztecs, white represented the dying sun and for Hebrews white is associated with joy and cleanliness. For Hindus, white is the colour of pure consciousness, self illumination and light. White is also associated with the moon, Monday and the astrological sign Cancer.

In many Asian cultures, including China, India and Japan, white is linked to death and mourning (as it once was in Europe). For Buddhists, white is associated with the lotus flower which symbolises light and purity as well as knowledge or “illumination” (including the Buddha’s hand gesture). In Buddhism, white represents self mastery and redemption and the figure of the White Tārā is known for compassion, long life, healing and serenity.

In Japan, white is also a sacred and pure colour, the colour of angels and gods, and more recently the colour of doctors and nurses and the health profession in general (Japanese refer to nurses as “angels in white”. White is also the colour of cleanliness (important in Japan), and can also represent reverence, purity, simplicity, peach, humility, youth, winter, snow, good, cold, clinical and sterile. Japanese associate white carnations with mourning.

In Chinese astronomy, the white tiger represents the West and Autumn. White can also mean age, misfortune, purity, neutrality, cunning or treachery. Qing bai (pure white) means virginity, and for Chinese it is considered unlucky to have white in one’s hair.

For Indian’s white is associated with unhappiness, death, rebirth, creation, light, serenity and reincarnation. White is the colour of the Brahman (the highest caste). In Singapore and Malaysia, white is especially associated with respect and is the colour of pilgrimage.

In summary, the main meanings of white are peace, innocence, purity, holiness, cowardice and surrender. Above all, white is associated with all the important events in our lives, from when we enter the world to when we leave it, and from when we enter marriage to when we bring children into the world. White is really about life itself.

The Beginning and the End by Sherwin James

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