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Early Chinese flags

Last modified: 2014-11-22 by zoltán horváth
Keywords: china | banner: china (1500 bc) | ribbon |
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1500 BC flag reconstruction

[1500 BC Chinese flag reconstruction]
by Phil Nelson

This is a reconstruction of a Chinese flag, circa 1500 BC shown in Znamierowski's World Encyclopedia of Flags. Znamierowski notes that the number of stripes indicated rank, ranging from 12 red ribbons for the Emperor to one for a low level functionary. The flag was attached to a bamboo staff topped with a metal trident. The red swallowtail ribbon was used to indicate a battle signal. It is interesting that the representation shows the yellow border being wider towards the fly than in the hoist.
Phil Nelson, 18 February 2000

Mencius (the Latinized form of Meng-Tseu) was a Chinese philosopher (375?-290 B.C.) who propagated the Confucius' (Khoung-Tseu) ideology. His book, also named Mencius (Meng-Tseu), is the fourth part of the Sse-Chou (The Four Books of Chinese moral and political Philosophy), considered as the basis of Confucianism. In chapter IV of the second part (Hia-Meng) of Mencius, we read:

Wen-Tchang said: "May I venture to ask you a question: Which kind of thing should be used to call the keepers of the royal reserves?" Meng-Tseu said: "A burskin should be used; to call ordinary men, a plain red silk standard should be used; to call scholars, a standard on which two dragons are shown should be used; for the main administrators (ta-fou), a standard ornate with feathers of five colours hanging from the top of the lance should be used."

The context of this discussion is the following (also from Meng-Tseu's text):

"King, koung (prince) of Thsi, who wanted to go hunting, called the keepers of the royal reserves with their standard. Since they did not answer him, he decided to make them die. [...] Why did Khoung-Tseu (Confucius) defend them? He defended them because the keepers did not answer the call since they had not been called with their specific signal. [Here is the discussion reported above]. Since the signal for the main administrators had been used to call the keepers, those, even facing their own death (which would have been the consequence of their lack of answer) did not dare to answer the call. If the signal for the scholars had been used to call the ordinary men, would the ordinary men have dare to answer? Neither would have answered a wise man if the signal for an unwise man had been used!"

One important part of the Confucianism philosophy is the strict respect of several complicated rituals, usually associated to the different levels of the social scale. It seems that standards as signals of rallying were important things in these rituals.
Ivan Sache, 15 May 2000

Ming Dynasty

On her blog "Céline en Chine", Céline Monthéard shows the photograph of a "flag bearing the name of the Ming dynasty". The flag is a yellow right-angled triangle, with a thin black border and Chinese "wavy teeth" on the upper edge. The name of the dynasty is made of two black sinographs placed on a white disk bordered in black.
As can be seen on the next photograph shown on the blog, there is a row of such "Ming flags" hoisted over the Zhonghua Gate in Nanjing. The flag are clearly of modern manufacture but I don't know if they are replica of historical flag or modern "Ming flags" designed de novo.
The companion text says that a peasants' uprising led by Zhu Yuangzhang overthrew the Yuan Mongol dynasty in 1356, seized Nanjing and, twelve years later, Beijing. Crowned as Emperor Hongwu, Zhu founded the Ming dynasty. He set up his capital in Nanjing, where he built a huge palace and thick city walls. In 1420, Yongle, the third Ming Emperor, moved the capital to Beijing.
Direct link to the image of the flag
Direct link to the image of the Zhonghua Gate

According to Wikipedia, the sinograph means "light, brightness". The tradition says that Hongwu adopted the Ming name to be supported by the Manichean movement Mingjiao ("Ther School of the Light"), which had contributed to the fall of the Mongol dynasty. However, Hongwu repressed the Manicheans.
Ivan Sache, 16 November 2008

Such flags also appear in TV programs dedicated to events which took place during the Ming period, most notably the expeditions of Zheng He. The programs, which have been broadcasted on channels like Discovery or Viasat History during previous several years, show such flags in the reconstructed scenes from the imperial palace. The flag field may be yellow, green, red or black, with white disc charged with black character U+660E and a white serrated border all round (no border along the hoist edge); in these examples, if the field is other than black, there is no black border  around the disc, not the black fimbriation between the field and white border either. The fifth variant of the flag is all white, except the black character. Flags in five colors were always shown together, clearly standing for five cardinal directions and symbolizing Emperor's sovereignty over the whole world. While this does not give the answer to the question of these flags' authenticity, there are examples of joint use of five flags, each in one of these five colors, in Chinese paintings from earlier periods of Chinese history.
Tomislav Todorović, 09 November 2014

Early Chinese flags in 12-15th century paintings

Lady Wenji's return to China.

Plain green flag:
[Chinese flag in 12-15th centuries]
image by Tomislav Todorović, 09 November 2014

Plain red flag:
[Chinese flag in 12-15th centuries]
image by Tomislav Todorović, 09 November 2014

Plain white flag:
[Chinese flag in 12-15th centuries]
image by Tomislav Todorović, 09 November 2014

Plain black flag:
[Chinese flag in 12-15th centuries]
image by Tomislav Todorović, 09 November 2014

Plain yellow flag:
[Chinese flag in 12-15th centuries]
image by Tomislav Todorović, 09 November 2014

After the contribution about joint use of five plain flags attributed to Ming dynasty, here follows the description of such flags' attribution to Han dynasty, which is seen in the paintings dating from Song to Ming dynasties:
A number of Chinese paintings by various authors are depicting the story of Cai Wenji [1], a Chinese lady who lived in the late Eastern Han period (exact dates of birth and death unknown): she was captured in 194 or 195 AD by the Xiongnu nomads and lived in present-day Mongolia until 207 AD, when she was ransomed and returned to China, leaving her family behind (during her stay with the Xiongnu, she was married to a high chieftain and had two sons with him). She expressed the mixed feelings she had about her returning in a number of poems, the best known being a cycle named "Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute", which inspired several series of paintings depicting her story, usually counting as many as the poems in the cycle, each painting being accompanied to one of them.
In many of depicted scenes, five plain flags are shown, each in one of the cardinal directions' colors - green, red, white, black and yellow, corresponding to east, south, west, north and center, respectively [2]. The flags' width is much greater than the length and they have three long, narrow, pointed tongues at the fly; they are also accompanied with a tassel in field color, attached to the bottom of the finial. There is sometimes also a sixth flag, similarly shaped, the main body being yellow, with white borders extending into the tongues, with a red serrated border for both the main body and the tongues.
Such flags are shown in several paintings from the album named "Lady Wenji's Return to China", which was created in 12th century (Song dynasty) and is kept in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan [3, 4]. The five plain flags are first seen in the scene titled "Being captured" [4], flying from the staffs stuck into the ground. They are next seen in scenes titled "Looking at the Stars", "Evening Thoughts" and "Giving Birth" [4], completely furled around their staffs, which are tied together and crossed so that they support each other while standing, as if put aside. The flags are then seen in the scene "Sending Off" [4], carried by the horsemen at the end of the procession which is led by the people carrying the sixth flag. Five flags and their carriers are also shown in the scene titled "After the Departure", while the sixth flag alone is shown in the scenes "On the Way Back" and "The Return Home" [4].
The paintings depicting the same story form parts of a scroll named "Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute: The Story of Lady Wenji", which was created in 15 century (MIng dynasty), after a model from the  Song period, and is kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City [5, 6]. Here, the five flags appear in the scene #1, which is strikingly similar to the first scene of the Taipei album [4], but also in the scene #2, where they are carried by a group of horsemen [6]. Then they appear as if put aside, as in the latter scenes of the Taipei album [4], in the scenes #5, #6, #7 and #8, hoisted in scene #9 and put aside again in scene #10 [6]. In scene #13, they are held by the horsemen, who are standing by their horses, with the sixth flag shown in the same manner nearby, all behind the procession preparing for the departure [6]. In the scene #14, the procession is on its way, led by the multi-colored flag and ending with the five plain flags, while the scene #15 shows only the end of the procession with the five flags; both scenes have their counterparts in the Taipei album [4, 6]. Scenes #16 and #17 show only the leading flag, while the scene #18, corresponding to the final scene of the Taipei album, shows no flags [4, 6]. The five plain flags are depicted in the same way in both sources, while the multi-colored flag differs only in the tassel attached to the finial, which is red in the Taipei album and green in the New York scroll [4, 6].
These flags are also shown in two paintings, of four total, which make the 12th-century album "Lady Wenji's return to China", kept in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston [6, 7, 8]. This album is though to be the remnant of a larger series of paintings, originally covering all the scenes shown in the New York scroll, only four of which have remained [6]. In scene "Encampment by a stream" which is the counterpart of the scene #5 from the New York scroll, the five flags are put aside [6, 7], while in the scene "Parting from nomad husband and children", which is the counterpart of the scene #13 from the New York scroll, they are held by the unmounted horsemen, accompanying the multi-colored flag [6, 8]. The plain flags are generally depicted in the same way as in the other sources, although green color seems to be greatly changed by age; the multi-colored flag also seems to be the same, although its tassel is not clearly visible (could be red, but it is almost impossible to tell) [7, 8].
From the composition of the series of paintings, it seems that the five plain flags were actually captured by the Xiongnu in the same raid in which Cai Wenji was captured, for they are present in the scenes preceding the arrival of the imperial envoys (as the war trophies), and that their returning to China was part of the same arrangement as Cai Wenji's ransom. They certainly were not created by the Xiongnu, for their shape, as well as the symbolism, is clearly Chinese: together, they symbolize imperial sovereignty over the whole world. The multi-colored flag is a more specific symbol, perhaps related to the rank of the envoy, for it was brought with him to the scene.
It is difficult to tell how authentic these flags were, especially their attribution to the Han dynasty. Certainly, the whole system of classification of natural phenomena, which included the colors and cardinal directions, was completed sometime during the Han period [9], but the joint use of five plain flags might have not been introduced as early as then. They may have actually been used during the Song dynasty, when most of these paintings were created, and even during the Ming dynasty, which might have copied the earlier models. The multi-colored flag is even more dubious as a Han flag and more likely to actually be a Song flag dated backwards. On the other hand, the possibility of such an early use may not be entirely excluded, bearing of mind the continuity of Chinese civilization. A better insight in contemporary Chinese histories might help; until then, everything remains on the level of speculations.
[1] Wikipedia page about Cai Wenji
[2] Wikipedia - Chinese traditional colors of cardinal directions
[3] National Palace Museum website - album "Lady Wenji's Return to China" - introduction
[4] National Palace Museum website - album "Lady Wenji's Return to China" - individual paintings
[5] Metropolitan Museum of Art website - scroll "Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute: The Story of Lady Wenji"
[6] University of Chicago, Center for the Art of East Asia, Digital Scrolling Paintings Project - scroll "Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute: The Story of Lady Wenji" from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
[7] Website of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston - painting "Lady Wenji's return to China: encampment by a stream"
[8] Website of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston - painting "Lady Wenji's return to China: parting from nomad husband and children"
[9] Vilets, Vilijam: Umetnost Kine Belgrade: Narodna knjiga, 1974 Original title: William Willets: The Foundations of Chinese Art (c) Penguin Books Ltd and Thames and Hudson Ltd
[no publishing date of the original work; finished in 1965, according to the author's introductory note]
Tomislav Todorović, 09 November 2014

Chinese Empire flag in 1705 Flagbook

[Pre 1876 Chinese flag]
image located by Vanja Poposki, 20 August 2012

Flag of Chinese Empire as it was presented in the book "Niewe Hollandse Scheeps Bouw" by Carel Allard, issued in 1705, and edited and re-issued in Sankt-Peterburg in Russian with comments in 1911.
Vanja Poposki posted in I Love Flags, 20 August 2012

Pre-1876 flag

[Pre 1876 Chinese flag] by Jaume Ollé

An old Japanese plate posted by Nozomi Kariyasu shows a flag captioned "China." The plate is date 1876 but flag must be older because the Chinese flag of 1876 is well known.
Jaume Ollé, 30 June 2001