My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school.This conversation took place in a hotel one evening. The informant and I were alone. In this account, she explains why Chinese people never write their names in red. I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why. Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription).
“Chinese people never use the color red to write people’s names because historically, in China, when people’s names are written in red, it means that they are criminals that have been sentenced to death/ are dead. This doesn’t go to say that the color red is unlucky; in fact, the color red usually brings in good luck and is meant to express excitement and happiness. For example, during Chinese New Year, everything is decorated with red things. During a wedding, people wear red to celebrate and bring good luck to the newly wedded couple.
In this case, red is bad luck because it’s being written. Usually, only people with authority can write in red. This isn’t just the people that decide which criminal to put on death row; we even see this school systems. Generally, a teacher is expected to use red pen to correct their students exams and papers; when a students sees a red marking, this means that they know they made a mistake and that they need to correct something. When the color is used in written form, it serves as a warning. So when someone’s name is written in red, and the name that they’ve written down is of someone that is still alive, Chinese people will panic or freak out because that means that they’ve ultimately just been sentenced to death by someone of higher authority (AKA, the person holding the red pen).
So traditionally, we never write people’s name in red ink because that means you want them to die.”
I’ve known of this taboo my entire life—I remember when I was about 5 years old and I wrote my name in a bright pink pen, and my mom yelled at me and whited out my name. When I asked her why, she told me that pink was too close to the color red, and that I should never write my name in red or red-like colored ink. After that, until I was 14, my mom didn’t let me use pens that were a color other than black, blue, or green. A few years back, I again encountered something similar: I was working at a tutoring center, and my boss had written a girl’s name in red ink at the top of her worksheets that she had to take home. The mother of the girl, who was Chinese, screamed in front of the entire classroom, yelled at my boss, and then actually ended up having her daughter quit the tutoring center.
Clearly, this taboo is taken very seriously in Chinese culture; I ended up looking up why people couldn’t right their names in red after this conversation with my informant, simply because I had never heard of writing the names of criminals in blood as a practice. Sure enough, she was correct. In an article by a Vision Times: “All Eyes on China,” an online newspaper about China’s history, influence, and China in today’s context, Yi Ming writes: “In ancient times, a death row criminal’s name was written in chicken blood, and later this evolved to being written in red ink. Thus, in all official records, the names of death sentence criminals were written in red ink.” However, Ming gives even more reason for why the color red (in the context of writing names) is unlucky. She states that “Yán Wáng Yé, the King of Hell, also marked people about to come down to hell in red ink,” and that deceased death row criminals had their names written in red ink on their tombstones.
This folklore suggests that this taboo is an example of sympathetic magic, where “like produces like.” If you write your name in red, then you’re essentially writing a death sentence to yourself because it resembles the death sentence of a criminal or the red ink on a criminal’s gravestone. These taboos exist to protect ourselves socially; we would never want our own names written in red because we don’t want to die, and we would never want our relatives or friends names to be written in red because we don’t want them to disappear from our lives nor have anything tragic happen to them. We are surrounded by this fear of the reality that we can’t control the bad things that happened to our loved ones, so we attach this fear to rituals; these rituals give us autonomy over processes like this, perhaps psychology providing us comfort and making us feel like we are doing everything in our power to protect one another.
To read more on this, this is the citation for Yi Ming’s article on Vision Times:
Ming, Yi. “A Chinese Taboo: Never Write Other People’s Names Using Red Ink.” Vision Times, 2