Kafka and the Yellow Cover: The Uses and Abuses of Colours

The very first Chinese translations of works by Franz Kafka in the early 1960s, shortly before the Cultural Revolution was launched, were wrapped in a yellow cover. They were part of Mao Zedong’s strategy of “knowing your enemy” and, as negative examples of Western decadent literature and a warning sign of the rotten capitalism, these so-called “yellow-cover books” (huangpi shu) were only disseminated among a small circle of selected readers, including high-ranking party officials and members of the Chinese Writers’ Association. Their cover was yellow in order to visually mark them as “hypocritical and treacherous spiritual poison”.

The uses and abuses of colours, like in this case, are the subject of a set of articles recently published in MALMOE – the socio-critical creative Austrian bimonthly newspaper run by the Verein zur Förderung medialer Vielfalt und Qualität (an association for the promotion of diversity and quality of media) in Vienna. After brown and pink the third part of its series Farbenlehre (colour theory) is dedicated to the colour yellow, featuring articles on a variety of topics including the “yellow badge”, the “yellow pages” and the “yellow card” as well as my article HUANG. Gelb und/in China, which can now be read online.

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