The flag of China, or Chinese flag is now something you see a lot! With the the rise of Socialist China we now see the Chinese flag waved proudly from sporting events to military parades. But what is the story with the China flag? And What does it represent? YPT went all out on a China flags marathon!
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chinese flag now remains the most obviously and iconic 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.
To read about the flag of Russia click here.
What was the Original Flag of China?
The China flag 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 as it were and this is represented in the original kinda flag of China.
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 China 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.”. Quite amazing that the Peoples Republic of China actually let the people pick the China flag.
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?
What does teh current China 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.
What do the stars mean on the China flag?
The large yellow star of the China flag represents the Chinese Communist Party, the great unifier which rules and dominates the Chinese polity. The four smaller stars which flank it actually represent the different ‘revolutionary classes’ . These 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, and this was to represented on the China flag.
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. The flag of China therefore is linked to the liberation of the country, rather than the socialist revolution of China (to an extent).
These 4 revolutionary classes on the China flag represent 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.
Are there other flags of China?
This is where it gets very interesting as the very definition “what is China” and “what is a county” come into play. In this respects China as in the People’s Republic of China has a one China policy. This policy means that Macao and Hong Kong are simultaneously part of China, whilst also for all intents an purposes also being largely independent states. Therefore the Hong Kong SAR and the Macau SAR are both represented on the international stage and indeed have their own flags, usually flown alongside that of the “mainland”.
Are Hong Kong and Macao countries? This is a funny one to answer as in many cases they are, but in some they are not. They do though count as we are concerned, even if the flag of China is flown on their territory.
What about the flag of Taiwan?
Again this where it gets even more interesting, and one we will deal with properly in another article, but for all intents and purposes there is no “Taiwan”, there is the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China, both of which claim to be the rightful rulers of China. Taiwan therefore uses the old Republic of China flag, or at times a compromise “Chinese Taipei” flag.
Therefore when we talk about the flag of China, technically at least there are two China flags and indeed two China’s, both of which – again officially at least adhere to a One China Policy. Whether Taiwan is a country itself is another question entirely, which you can read about here.
Yet while both sides claim to be China and both have their own flag of China it is essentially illegal to fly either in each place. In many respects that relationship is somewhat similar to that of North Korea and South Korea, both of whom again have their own flags, which can’t be flown in the other “country”.
Interestingly as well due to pressure from China, Taiwan are known international events as Chinese Taipei, with them not allowed to display the Republic of China flag, obviously they do not want to show the flag of China, so instead use a compromise flag – which is essentially a “Chinese Taipei Olympic Flag”. Do not underestimate how angry the PRC become when the wrong flag of China is flown.
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 the China flag!