With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chinese flag now remains the most obviously socialist flag in the world. True, the Vietnamese flag uses the red background with a prominent yellow star in the middle, and Cuba and North Korea are arguably ‘more socialist’ than China, but the design of the flag of China harks back to the Soviet flag, red with a yellow hammer and sickle in the top left corner.
China’s flag is also red, with one large star flanked by four smaller stars in the top left corner.
What was the Original Chinese Flag?
China came relatively late to the world of vexillography. China had long been an empire which could manage the overthrow of emperors and dynasties, and even foreign invasion (by the Mongols who established the Yuan dynasty and the Manchus who established the Qing) without much disruption. They were used to being the centre of the world, with the emperor as the representative of ‘the heavens’ on earth, the most important man in the universe.
True, they had all sorts of emblems and flags, but no national flag, because there was no ‘nation’ as a defined entity relative to other nations. China was an entire civilisation. A way of life.
By the late 19th century however the Qing dynasty power had been broken through the Opium Wars and the carving up of China by imperial powers, most notably Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Russia and of course Japan. The late Qing dynasty adopted a flag which was an azure dragon on a yellow background, yellow being the traditional colour of imperial China. And China was being brought into our modern Westphalian world.
The Qing dynasty was overthrown in 1912 and Pu Yi, the last Emperor, just a child at the time, lost his throne. The new Republic, led by Sun Yat-sen, albeit briefly before his death, used a flag of five horizontal stripes, red, yellow, blue, white and black, representing the ‘five races’ of the Chinese people.
In 1928, under the leadership of the Nationalist Party and Chiang Kai-shek a new flag was adopted. Red with a blue corner in the top left, a white sun sitting in the blue rectangle. You may recognise this as the flag of Taiwan, the island where the Nationalists fled to after losing to the Communists on the mainland, and which is claimed by China but which has been self-governing until today.
When did China change their flag?
In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party was victorious in the Chinese Civil War and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan. China had undergone 14 years of Japanese occupation and 4 more of civil war.
There was a competition to design the new flag, and the winning pattern is what we still see today, and which was raised on the flagpole in Tian’anmen Square on the 1st of October 1949 as Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed that “the Chinese people have stood up.”
There were numerous designs of a similar pattern entered into the competition, and the Communists had had their own flag for decades of course, all involving red in some way and yellow stars or the hammer and sickle emblem.
What does the Chinese Flag mean?
The red background represents the blood of the martyrs on the road to China’s liberation. But red is also an auspicious colour amongst the Chinese people, and can frequently be seen at weddings and Chinese New Year.
The yellow stars nominally represent the unity of the Chinese people, but the story is more technical than that.
In fact, if you ask a Chinese person what the stars on their flag represent it is quite likely they do not know.
The large yellow star represents the Chinese Communist Party, the great unifier which rules dominates the Chinese polity. The four smaller stars which flank it actually represent the different ‘revolutionary classes’ that would unite together to defeat the Japanese during World War Two and then the Nationalists in the civil war.
To understand this, we need to understand a bit about Chinese communism. Whereas Marx and Engels had expected revolution to happen in the developed, industrial western countries of England, France and Germany, it happened in the more economically backward Russia. Then It happened in China, which not only was economically backward but hardly had an industrial proletariat, i.e. workers, to talk of. Nearly everyone was a peasant who worked on the land.
Mao Zedong theorised, in his work ‘On New Democracy’, a work he wrote while in Yan’an (Yenan), that China would not have a socialist revolution, led by the proletariat, but a ‘liberation’ from imperialism and feudalism, led by a union of revolutionary classes. And indeed, 1949 is still seen today in China as a liberation, not a revolution.
These 4 revolutionary classes were the proletariat, the peasantry, the national-capitalists and the petit-bourgeoisie. According to Mao, these latter two classes, although reactionary by nature, were anti-imperialist and anti-feudal and would help build a modern socialist China. They would unite to defeat the imperialists (Japan etc), the feudalists and the bureaucratic capitalists (both represented by the Nationalist Party who were slaves of landlords at home and global capital worldwide), all of whom wanted to extract resources and capital in China for their own private gain.
So there you have it, next time you meet a Chinese person you can chat with them about the fact that the petit-bourgeoisie is directly represented on their flag!