by Abellio

Beijing, 14 October 2012

Those of you who have read my posts will surely have realized by now that I live cheek by jowl with many of the embassies in Beijing. One of the things that you always see when you walk by embassies is the national flags which they all proudly fly at their gates. After a while, seeing so many flags got me to look at them more closely. Flags drip with history and meaning. Their colours are not chosen by chance, nor are the shapes (the crosses, the stripes, the triangles); these all have historical roots. As for the symbols that litter many flags, they all have some deep national meaning. But that is not what interested me. What I was asking myself was, are they aesthetically appealing? Would I fly them at my gate simply because they looked good fluttering in the breeze?

So I started studying the 203 national flags (there are hundreds if not thousands of other flags, but I decided to stay with my ambassadorial starting point). And I have concluded that there are at maximum five flags which I would find beautiful enough to fly on my front lawn.  I consider the most beautiful to be the Japanese flag.

It is very simple, two colours and one shape. And the colour combination – small circle of red on a large white background – works beautifully. Yes, we know that the circle represents the rising sun and so exemplifies Japan’s name for itself: Nippon, or the Land of the Rising Sun. But who cares? It’s just a beautiful design. Bangladesh has a very similar design, except that the red circle is on a green background. I read that the green symbolizes the greenery of Bangladesh with its vitality and youthfulness, while the red circle represents the rising sun and the blood that the Bangladeshis have shed in order to gain independence. But sorry, that red and green combination doesn’t work for me. Nor does the combination on South Korea’s flag; it too is basically a circle on a white background, but the circle is fussy (it is the yin and yang symbol in blue and red) and it is surrounded by four black symbols which I discovered are trigrams representing fire, water, earth, wood, and metal. All very interesting but it simply makes for a cluttered design.

I feel moved here to write in passing about the imperial standard of Japan, another example of simple but beautiful design. My wife and I came across this standard on a visit to Windsor Castle. There, in Saint George’s chapel, hang the standards of all the member of the Knights of the Garter. The Emperor of Japan’s standard is a simple design of a golden chrysanthemum on a light red background.

It stands in stark contrast to the fussy heraldic standards hanging all around it.

But I digress. Returning to the topic in hand, after Japan I place Qatar.

The colour combination of this flag – maroon, covering two-thirds of the flag’s area, and white covering the rest – is really very handsome. But I also like it because it is only one of two national flags where the colours meet at a serrated rather than a straight edge. This adds a certain vivacity to the design. I read that the white portion of the flag symbolizes peace and the maroon represents the Kharijite Muslims of Qatar and the bloodshed in Qatar’s many wars (in case any reader is wondering if Qataris have different blood from us all, the flag’s colour was formerly red). As for the serrated edge, it represents Qatar as the ninth member of the ‘reconciled Emirates’ of the Arabian Gulf at the conclusion of the Qatari-British treaty in 1916. So what? It’s just a beautiful design. And thank God they changed the red to maroon. Bahrain has a very similar flag, but it has red rather than maroon. With red, it doesn’t work.

Next on my list is Finland’s flag.

Again, just two colours, a blue cross on a white background. The colour combination works well because, as in the case of Japan, there is only a small amount of blue so the chromatic balance remains good. I read that the blue represents the myriad lakes in Finland and the white the country’s snow. That may be so, but personally I think the flag would be more beautiful if the blue were of a paler hue, although it still works well as it is. Luckily, the cross is also somewhat off-centre. If it the cross had been fully centred (like it is, for instance, in the Swiss flag) the design would have been much more boring. But having an off-centred cross doesn’t necessarily make this design work. The Swedish flag has the same off-centre cross, but in that case – yellow cross on blue background – the overall design doesn’t convince.

Fourth place on my list goes to the flag of the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

Here again we have two main colors! What is refreshing in this case is that the flag’s field is divided diagonally between the two colours. There is only one other national flag that is so divided, that of Papua New Guinea. The colour combination – saffron yellow and orange – works very nicely (regardless of the fact that they are meant to represent, respectively, the country’s temporal and spiritual powers). Normally, I don’t like symbols on flags, but in this case I rather like the white dragon flying along the flag’s diagonal (by the way, the country’s name in the local dialect means Land of the Dragon). I’m rather fond of dragons anyway, but in this particular case the dragon breaks up what might otherwise be a rather blocky design, and the dragon’s whiteness lightens up the colour scheme (in the earliest version of the flag the dragon was bottle green and was crossing the flag’s field horizontally; the overall effect is awful).

The final flag on my list is Estonia’s.

Normally, I would reject out of hand any three-striped flag. Such flags thickly litter the landscape of national flags.  An astonishing 84 national flags are composed of three stripes, either vertical or horizontal. That’s more than two-thirds of all national flags! Some have a triangular wedge on the left, while others have various symbols sprinkled on them. These variations break up the monotony somewhat, but you really have to ask yourself about flag designers. Couldn’t they dream up something different? I suppose that’s what you get when bureaucrats or politicians become designers.

In any case, the Estonian flag, even if three-striped, works because of the colour combination: equal bars of blue, black and white. Black and white always go well together, and the blue adds a splash of difference. Botswana has the same three colours, but the blue – and a light blue at that – is much more dominant. The flag is OK but no more than that.

The recent flurry of news about a Rothko painting defaced in the Tate Modern leads me to a final thought. Why don’t governments get modern artists to design their flags? They would make wonderful flags. Here is a Rothko, Mondrian and Pollock “flag”. I think they would look gorgeous.

pix, in order of appearance: