The Chinese Flag

Have you ever wondered about the origin of flags? Who invented them? What were they used for?

In this article, we’ll give you a bit of history on flags – not just any flag, but the Chinese flag.

What in the world do all the little stars mean?

Additionally, you’ll learn about the two flags of China (depending on your perspective) as well as a little background on Chinese political history.

Flag Origins

Most likely when you hear the word flag, a rectangular shape comes to mind. Flags like these are considered to have originated in China during the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC). It is said that white flags of these shape were carried in front of the emperor of this time.

Additionally, flags were used to mark one’s territory and the fall of a flag signaled defeat. Due to this, the royal flag-carrier was a highly regarded individual.

Birth of the Modern Chinese Flag

In 1949 the People’s Republic of China was founded and in the same year the Communist Party held a flag designing contest with the requirements that the flag must be red, rectangular and should have characteristics of China.

With these parameters, nearly 3,000 flag designs were submitted, such as the ones below.

old Chinese Flag

Unfortunately, neither of the two designs above were chosen. In fact, not even Mao Zedong’s favorite design below was chosen.

new Chinese Flag

In Mao’s favorite version, the designer chose a yellow star to symbolize the Communist Party and a yellow line to represent the Yellow River. It sounds pretty nice right? There was even talk about adding another line to symbolize the Yangtze River.

However, because lines were interpreted as a “divided China” (reminding people of the Chinese civil war), this design was considered inappropriate, and Mao’s preference was overruled.

In the end, favor was given to the design created by Zeng Liansong. …minus one alteration.

Modern Chinese Flag

Do you see what the modification was? It does seem obvious.

Yes, the Communist Party decided to remove the hammer and sickle because it bore too close a resemblance to the Soviet Union flag.

Like the design shown previously, the large star represents the Communist Party while the four smaller stars represent the four occupations or categories of people within China: shì 士, nóng 农, gōng 工, shāng 商 (the working class, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, and the national bourgeoisie).

The red color not only stands for communism, but also the blood of martyrs spilt during the Chinese civil war. The yellow color of the stars is said to symbolize imperial power of the historical dynasties.

Completed by the time of the official founding of the PRC on October 1, 1949, the resulting design was raised over Tiananmen Square.

Two Chinese Flags

Did you know there are actually two Chinese flags? We say this with caution because it can become a complicated and heavily debated topic.

Here’s a little background:

After the fall of the last Chinese dynasty in 1911, the Republic of China was formed in 1912. During the Republic of China era, the flag looked like this:

Two Chinese Flags

Does it look familiar? It should because it is currently the flag of Taiwan.

This flag existed prior to 1912 as part of the anti-imperialist revolution and was later adopted by mainland China starting in 1928.

So, what happened you might ask?

Following defeat in the Chinese civil war with the Communist Party, the Nationalist Party (the losing side) fled to Taiwan and established a government there. Hence, in 1949 a new Chinese flag was needed. Now you know why there was a flag designing competition.

Conflict of the Two Chinas

Internationally and politically, mainland China is recognized as the one true China – in fact, only 15 countries officially recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Therefore, in the international arena, the iconic red flag with yellow stars is displayed.

However, Chinese people living abroad have a different perspective. Because the blue and red flag was flown originally in post-imperial mainland China, some consider it to be the “grandmother” and the red and yellow flag to be the “mother.”

As to which flag truly represents China abroad, there is no consensus.

For this reason, in Chinatowns in the United States for example, you can find the two flags flying next to each other – a sight you would never find in either mainland China or Taiwan.


The simple red and yellow design of the modern day Chinese flag pacts a lot of history, albeit a complicated history. But by getting a glimpse of this, you can be more mindful and considerate when interacting with those who hold these symbols close to their hearts.

Did you know all this about the Chinese flag(s)?

Furthermore, what does your country’s flag look like? What does it symbolize?

Let us know in the comments. We would love to hear from you!

As an American native, Joy translates profficiently marketing content from German and Chinese into English. She is one of our in-house translators.

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