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 initial study of Chinese flag culture


Author: Zhao Xinfeng  Beijing, May28th, 2013


Abstract: China is a country with the longest history of banner culture, and flag originated in the eleventh century BC in ancient China. Banner only has one meaning today, while in ancient China, banner had two different meanings and interpretations. There were strict regulations and design requirements for National Flags, Administrative Region flag, Deputy Prime Minister Flag, the Duke Flag, General Flag, Governor Flag, County Governor Flag etc. Furthermore, flag was also widely used in religious and commercial activities. With the development of ritual and the need of identification, streamer appeared and was used for the written text or graphics. It was the supplement and development of banner. Ancient cultures of banner has been inherited and developed in today's China.


1. About the “Flag”

Flag, in oracle, means a pictograph. looks like a ribbon flying over the tree trunks,The original meaning of the character is: the strikingly colored ribbon tied on the tree trunk for marking territory or noticing military.

is the deformation of  in Zhuanwen(a calligraphy style). To combine the trunk and the ribbon  we get  and  When  was used as a single word and was added with the phonetic, we got the word “flag”.


1.1Regulations and Design Requirements for National Flags

In ancient China, there are strict regulations and design requirements for national flags, special administrative region flag, deputy prime minister flag, the Duke flag, general flag, governor flag, county governor flag and so on.


Currently, the earliest written records I have seen on the flag were from the Rites of Zhou. Rites of Zhou was written by the King of Zhou Kingdom, a man lived in about the eleventh century BC. The level, pattern, usage were clearly stated in this book: We generally can understand the quoted message like this: the flag of the emperor is called “Dachang” in Chinese, in which it is painted with sun and moon graphics. The flag Vassal kings (Special Administrative Region Executives) use is called qi in Chinese, in which it is painted with cross dragons. Big red flag without decorations is called zhan in Chinese, and it also has a distinct feature: The flagpole is a crank. This kind of flag can be only used by guqing  in Chinese (equivalent to deputy prime minister level). The flag with variegated colors and surrounded by decorative objects is called wu  in Chinese, and it is used by those who have a high title such as dafu、shi in Chinese. The flag created for generals has bears and tigers painted on it, which is used to symbolize the mighty army. The flag that has other birds painted is called yu , representing state flag. The flag that has turtles and snakes painted on it is called zhao in Chinese, created for the county. This kind of flag has long streamers, called liu in Chinese. The flagpole of leading car is tied with complete, gorgeous feathers, called sui in Chinese. The flagpole decorated with variegated feathers and oxtail is called jing in Chinese, used in the chariot to motivate his soldiers to fight.


Through the nine levels and different patterns painted on flags, we can also see the application of the flag in the ancient Chinese totem worship. The supreme sun and moon flag is used exclusively for the emperor, highlighting the mighty power. The dragon, flying in the day, having anything it wants, deciding farming harvest, is used by the vassal states. The most important thing of a combat is the morale, so there are bears and tigers painted on the flag to showcase their country's military strength.

1.2 The Function of Ancient Chinese Military Flags as Orders

In Guan Zhong(BC 723 - BC 645)’sArt of War, it said,  the flag can make the soldiers lift their spirits and make great achievements, and that the flag order and motivation are conducive to the win of the troops in the war, and that the flag can also scare the enemy to roll up banner and stop drumming and retreat.

Jia Yi (200 BC-168 BC) mentioned the Chen Sheng and Wu Guang-led peasant uprising in Qin History Record (the conclusion of the gains and losses of Qin dynasty) and he said “Chop wood as weapons, and rise sticks as flags”, which means they chop wood down to use them as weapons and raised bamboo poles with decorations hanging up as a flag, and finally they two lead the long oppressed peasants together to revolt against the Qin leadership.

XuShen (about 58 years - about 147 years), a person from the Eastern Han Ru'nanShaoling (now Henan Luohe City Shaoling district), compiled the first dictionary of China in 100 AD. XuShen's "Dictionary" explains “the flag with bear pattern as well as five pieces of ribbons symbolizes reward and punishment and when soldiers saw the flag, they know it's time to gather troops”.


History of Three Territories " Wrote: " the emperor Sun Quan made a flag with yellow dragon painted on it, and usually the flag was in the middle of the army. During combats, whether soldiers move forward or backward totally depends on the guideline of the flag”.


Flags also has a guidance role in the war. In the Chinese Song Dynasty, Cheng Dachang mentioned, “during the war, we need to produce flags with five different colors. To use the blue, red, white, black, yellow flag to correspond to the east, south, west, north, center position. Which color flag is waved means which direction the attack will go”.


1.3The important Role in the Ancient Ritual and Pray Activities

In the book of Rites of Zhou, it states ” those who are worship participants should establish flag, sand those who attend meetings, receive guests must establish flags, too” .


In ancient times, before the war started, in order to boost morale and make clear the military rules, the army needs the flag ceremony. In the book called Mo Zi, it said "there are eight people who are over eighties and they worshipped the green flag", which means eight elderly people of eighty are responsible for worshiping the dragon flag. In Chinese Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, flag ceremony before going to the march also was needed to boost morale. In " The history of Ming Dynasty", it also wrote” on the frost descent day of the last solar day, soldiers are assembled to hold a ceremony in military training field to sacrifice coach banner” .


There is a special veneration of ancient Chinese flags in ancient Chinese. According to records, the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Xi'an City, there are three temples to worship the flag god.

In the well-known "The Romance of Three Kingdoms" in China, there are descriptions about Kong Ming’s using of wind to use a variety of flags: Kong Ming used four-color and the lunar mansions flag to represent the four corners of the world in the ritual. The yellow flag represents sixty four hexagrams, which is very typical of Chinese ritual culture. Detailed descriptions of the lunar mansions and hexagrams will be provided in the future.


1.4The Wide Use of Flags in the Ancient Commercial Activities

In addition to the liquor banner, the tea shop, restaurant, pharmacy, silk store also use particular banners. The role of these flags in the ancient is equivalent to the current brand advertising, usually on which the name and the goods are written, hanged above the shop or in front of the house roof to achieve the purpose of attracting customers.


2. Compared with banner, flag has more outstanding identification function.

zhi, The original meaning of the character is: a flag made of the silk with certain color and pattern as a special logo or symbol. 

Mo Zi(BC 468 - BC 376), a person of Lu State in late Spring and Autumn Warring State Han Feizi (about 281 years ago-before 233 years), the monarch's son, is a famous ancient Chinese philosopher, thinker, political commentator and essayist, later called "Han Feizi". He is the representative of the famous ancient Chinese Legalism. In "Han Feizi", it wrote ” if the people of Song offer liquor, they hang a flag to notice people about it” . It is said that this is the earliest record of using flag as a sign of liquor store. Since the Tang Dynasty, liquor banner has gradually developed into a very common phenomenon of the city, and it was of great variety and color. Du Mu (AD 803 - about 852 years), a famous poet of Tang Dynasty, wrote in his poem "The Spring of Jiangnan, “there are green trees and gorgeous flowers throughout Jiangnan and that there are all kinds of banners flying in the towns and villages, and that the people at that time established numerous magnificent temples, with the misty rain adding more mystery feeling to the whole landscape” . As can be seen from the poem, there were liquor banners flying in the towns and villages as early as Tang Dynasty.


In Zhanguo Period (now Shandong Tengzhou), Mozi is a famous thinker, educator, scientist, military strategist. He was the founder of his own school, and later his followers collected his sayings and compiled and handed down the book MoZi. In MoZi, the definition of the flag is a banner12 meters long and 6 meters wide is called a flag converted into today's metric calculation.


In XuShen's "Dictionary", the explanation of flag ” the banner is a kind of flag”. In the first dictionary in easy Chinese written by the late Eastern Han Fu Qian', wrote that flag comes with a user's personal identity and symbols.


From the annotations of banners and flags, we can infer that flag originated much earlier than the banner, and that flag is more formal than the banner, and that the flag is more widely used than the banner. Since the banner is the subordination and development of the flag and often occur simultaneously with the flag, the terms with both meanings come out.

3. With the development of the rituals and the need of identification, fan come out as the supplement of flag.

The explanation of fan   is: a rectangular banner hanged straightly upon a bamboo pole.


Fan  was mainly used in ceremonial, military command, religious and ritual events.


In the ancient times, there were certain patterns and the generals’ surnames on the banner. In order to express their official position, administrative officials would set up their banners when they handle official businesses or are on business trips. On the banner, there has their official position, title, so that the public can know what they are at a glance of the banner. There is a Chinese term called that during the major celebrations and among the ceremonial teams, flags, streamers would be used simultaneously presenting a magnificent scene.


With the development of the society, streamers are also widely used in religious rituals and folklore rituals. The design of the streamer is drooping, which is the distinct difference from the banner. In religious activities, there generally are image streamers and text streamers. The images are generally the image of Buddha (Figure: a Buddha streamer from an under-the-earth tomb in Dunhuang, China, existing now in Tokyo National Museum), and there are honorifics or scripture on the streamer. Not only Buddhism but also Chinese Taoism ceremony emphasizes the usage of streamers (Figure: the banner display in Taoist activities recently in Shanghai).

In the folklore activities, there are usually blessing words of peace, prosperity and good weather written on the streamers. From the pictures shown here, you can see different banners in today's culture of north and south China, for example, the sacrificial rites of Yandi. There is still folk performance of big streamer in today’s Quyang County, Baoding, Hebei Han village, and so far it has one thousand years of history. The activity of shaking big streamers originated in the Tang Dynasty. It’s a form of performance to worship the god, rain and other major events. In Jian'ou, Fujian, the hometown of bamboo in China, there are also the famous folk unique skills-shaking streamers. The banner rod is very strong made of two straight bamboos tied together, with a length of about 10 meters, weighing up to 20.5 kg. During the performance, the performer could use the hands, feet, elbows, shoulders, head, teeth to shake the streamer, presenting a brilliant scene. In the western part of Beijing's Mentougou Village, there is streamer festival on the fifteenth day of the first month every year. This event started since the Ming Dynasty in the village and it has continued for hundreds of years. Each year, there will be a grand festival in the village. The villagers give a warm welcome to the streamer teams, presenting a mighty scene throughout all the streets, even ifit is snowing.

Through these few historical records, you can see the banner civilization is an important part of the five thousand years of Chinese culture, colorful and brilliant in the long history. However, my research on Chinese flag culture is still in preliminary stage, and I hope, over time, I am able to find more historical data and texts to enrich the knowledge of banners and thus I can inherit and develop the culture of Chinese flags, as well as make contributions to the world flag culture development.



Acknowledgments:  With many thanks to Mr. Dong LIN for his kind support and good suggestions.

The main references: Rites of ZhouRomance of Three Kingdoms, ShuowenJiezi ,Tang Poetry, xinhuanet.com

About the Author: Zhao Xinfeng(1970-),Beijing,the founder of the Centerfor Flag Cultural Communication and the Chinese Flag Network.

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