Bangkok, 9 December 2014
We have just finished celebrating H.M. the King’s birthday here in Bangkok. Truth to tell, “celebrating” may be a little of an overstatement. My wife and I found it quite a muted affair. For instance, the fireworks in the evening were really quite brief and modest, while a drive-by of high officials, which we just happened to find ourselves witnesses to, was greeted with silence by the folk lining the road side. What was out in full force, though, were the yellow shirts. They had already been popping up with greater and greater insistence in the days running up to the great day. But on the birthday itself the pavements were a sea of yellow.
Many were wearing yellow T-shirts made specifically for the purpose, but many others (who didn’t get included in the official photos) gave the impression of having grabbed the first yellow, or near-yellow, shirt or blouse they could find in their wardrobe. So the palette of yellows went all the way from pastel yellow through to citrine. Given the recent history of Thailand, one began to wonder if the choice of hue was a political statement of some sort. That man with the orange shirt, for instance, was it just the closest thing he had to yellow in his drawer, or was it actually the closest he dared get to the dreaded colour red? Or that woman over there with the pastel yellow blouse, had she simply been caught short without anything really yellow in her closet, or was she actually signalling her lack of enthusiasm for the whole exercise? Or what about the few people without yellow shirts? What, if anything, was their message? That student, for example, with the green shirt, what was he trying to tell us?
Thus are the seeds of paranoia sown ….
(By the way, for those of you who may be interested, the King’s colour is yellow because he was born on a Monday. Based on Hindu mythology, Thai (and Khmer) tradition assigns different colours to each day. For those of you who may be fascinated by this arcane point, I recommend you visit the following site on Wikipedia)
Colours have been recruited to support political quarrels since time immemorial. When I was young, red was the colour of Marxism in all its forms (Social-Democratic, Socialist, Marxist-Leninist, Maoist, Vietminh, Khmer Rouge, …). We have the French Jacobins
to thank for this association of red with the left of the political spectrum. For reasons which are too complicated to explain here, the Jacobins adopted the red flag as their own during the French Revolution, and the tradition continued in the European Left thereafter. I suppose we are all aware of the red symbols of the Left: the flags, the official art, the scarves, the buttons. But my preferred symbol of redness are the Garibaldini, those 1,000 or so red-shirted volunteers who, led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, sailed away in 1860 from Genoa to Sicily and in a few short months of fighting completed the unification of Italy.
I have to add here a painting of the Great Man himself, whose statue graces at least one square, and whose name graces at least one street, in every village, town, and city of Italy.
I like Garibaldi, I’ve liked him ever since as a teenager I studied the unification of Italy for my O level History. By way of introduction to Garibaldi, our teacher told us about his earlier exploits in South America. The only thing that sticks in my mind about these worthy endeavors is our teacher’s description of how Garibaldi met his wife. He was on a boat on the Río de la Plata, where he was inspecting something or other through a telescope. He noticed his future wife on the bank, washing clothes or some such. After one look at her, he said (and here the teacher put on a thick Italian accent and struck an operatic pose), “Brring me to herr!”
But back to colours and politics. In the interwar years the red of the Socialists and Communists was violently opposed by various other colours. It was the black-shirted Fascists in Italy, seen here in the March on Rome in 1922
and the black-shirted Fascists in Spain, seen here jubilating at the fall of Irun during the Spanish Civil War.
In Germany, it was the brown-shirted Nazis.
From here my memory leaves coloured shirts and vaults back some 500 years or so to the gardens at the Inner Temple in London, where – at least, according to Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part I – the Lords of Court chose which side to be on in the upcoming War of the Roses, by plucking either a white rose (the Yorkists) or a red rose (the Lancastrians) from rose bushes growing in the garden. Colours again, defining which side you would be taking in the looming political struggle. The scene is caught in this much romanticized painting from the 1870s.
The Lancastrian Red Roses and the Yorkist White Roses fought it out for 30 years until Richard III was unhorsed and killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and Henry VII was crowned in his place. As a symbol of a once-more unified country, Henry devised a new badge for his dynasty, a mixed red-and-white rose now called the Tudor Rose.
A very clever piece of political manipulation through colour …
Talking of using colours for political purposes, we can fast-forward 300 years to the French Revolution and watch the storming of the Bastille.
The Paris militia played a prominent role in the attack. To distinguish themselves from other groups taking part, they wore a blue and red cockade in their hats, Paris’s traditional colours.
The people of Paris were elated by this victory. But the more moderate – more aristocratic – elements of the revolutionary camp were alarmed by what they saw as rampaging – and armed – mobs. It was decided to create a National Guard out of the Paris militia under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette, a moderate revolutionary with military experience (gained during the American Revolution) and with the trust of King Louis XVI. Lafayette proposed to add white to the militia’s blue and red cockade. His argument was that this would turn what was mainly a Parisian militia into a national force: white was then the national colour.
But in a political system where all things national were the King’s, this was also a way of saying “revolutionaries yes, but still loyal to the King”. Well, things didn’t quite work out that way, but thus was born the red, white, and blue cockade, which even King Louis gracefully accepted to wear – at least for a little while.
The cockade morphed into the flag, which became a symbol of hope for some
Rampaging mobs makes my mind spin back more than a thousand years to Constantinople and to its hippodrome, home of the city’s chariot races. Chariot racing was to the Romans and the Byzantines what soccer is today to many people the world over, a mania, a fixation. All over the Roman world, there were four factions, the Greens, the Blues, the Whites, and the Reds, and all chariots in a race belonged to one of these four factions. The charioteers, as well as the fans, wore the colours of their faction, like in this mosaic in Lyon.
Like soccer players today, charioteers could and did change faction, but like soccer fans today the fans never did. If you chose to follow the Greens, you were a Green for life. Like soccer today, the enthusiasm of the fans inside the hippodrome often turned into hooliganism and gang warfare outside it. Like soccer today in some parts of the world where there is no recognized outlet for political and social frustrations, factional fighting became a way to vent political anger and score political points.
So it was in Constantinople in 532 AD, when Justinian I was Emperor. By now, there were only really two chariot factions that counted, the Blues and the Greens. Justinian supported the Blues so his enemies at court naturally supported the Greens. Justinian was in the midst of negotiating a badly-needed peace settlement with the Persians, and he had to have peace on the home front. But the people of Constantinople were angry: taxes were crushingly high. There had been politically motivated rioting after some earlier chariot races and a number of rioters had been hanged. But this did not calm excited spirits. For some strange reason, Justinian thought another day of chariot races would pour oil over troubled waters. The races started alright, with Blues and Greens vociferously supporting their teams, even though they also hurled insults at the Emperor, sitting – no doubt a bit nervously – in the imperial box. By the end, though, the two factions united in a common roar of “Nika! Conquer!” With that, the spectators burst out of the hippodrome and assaulted the palace, which conveniently abutted the hippodrome. For the next five days, they laid siege to it, demanding reductions in taxes and the dismissal of the prefect responsible for collecting the taxes and the quaestor responsible for rewriting the tax code. For good measure, they declared Justinian deposed and raised a new Emperor in his place. In the resulting mayhem, fires broke out which eventually burned down half the city.
Initially, Justinian panicked and was looking to scarper. But his wife Theodora was made of sterner stuff and stiffened his spine. Once his funk had passed, Justinian reverted to a true-and-tried method: gold. He got his eunuch Narses to go into the hippodrome, where the Greens and Blues were about to crown the new Emperor, with a large bag of gold. Narses quietly joined the heads of the Blue faction. He reminded them that Justinian was a Blue and that he had always supported them, he pointed out that the new Emperor was a Green and they could surely imagine what would happen to them under him, and then he distributed the gold. The faction leaders held a quiet conference, then spread the word among their followers. In the middle of the coronation, the Blues suddenly all stormed out of the hippodrome, leaving the Greens sitting stunned in their seats. At which point, imperial troops under trusted generals burst into the hippodrome and massacred all and sundry. It is reported that thirty thousand people died that day.
All in the name of colours …
Colours have been hitched to the wagon of many other political causes. Green has morphed from the colour of Byzantine charioteering factions to the colour of modern environmental factions, and we now hear of Deep Green and Light Green factions, each trading barbed – and not so barbed – insults about the depth of their commitment to the cause. We have Hindu fanatics cladding themselves in the colour saffron, a colour with deep religious connotations in Hinduism, and going on rampages against non-Hindus. And on and on … Readers who are interested in the topic can do no worse than go to this Wikipedia site.
But, misquoting Elton John, all I want to say is “Don’t shoot me, I’m only a colour”.
Yellow-shirts celebrating the King’s birthday: http://www.bangkokpost.com/multimedia/photo/447447/king-birthday
Meeting of a Jacobin club: http://www.larousse.fr/encyclopedie/data/images/1004994-Club_des_Jacobins.jpg (in http://www.larousse.fr/encyclopedie/divers/club_des_Jacobins/125450)
Garibaldini fighting: http://www.ondadelsud.it/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Marsala-1860-Sbarco-dei-Mille.jpg (in http://www.ondadelsud.it/?p=4664)
Garibaldi: http://www.museotorino.it/images/86/94/ce/b0/8694ceb03de848108691d55482fd1c40-1.jpg?VSCL=100 (in http://www.museotorino.it/view/s/238dcc0376d444d2b6decf0378c13e6c)
The March on Rome: http://www.history.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/mussolini-march-on-rome.jpg (in http://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-mussolini)
Spanish fascists in Irun: http://pix.avaxnews.com/avaxnews/6a/1d/00001d6a_medium.jpeg (in http://avaxnews.net/educative/Spanish_Civil_War_2.html)
Brown shirts marching: http://img2.blog.zdn.vn/37516513.jpg (in http://me.zing.vn/zb/dt/toyotasolara/17039283?from=my)
Scene in the Temple Garden: http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/images/paintings/warg/large/nml_warg_wag_2712_large.jpg (in http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/scene-in-the-temple-garden-98909)
Henry VII and Tudor rose: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Admin/BkFill/Default_image_group/2012/3/1/1330616510280/Henry-VII-001.jpg (in http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/mar/02/tudors-henry-vii-wars-roses)
Storming of the Bastille: http://media-1.web.britannica.com/eb-media/98/90498-004-CEB880DC.jpg (in http://global.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/55622/Bastille)
Arms of Paris: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/ca/Blason_paris_75.svg/931px-Blason_paris_75.svg.png ( in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Blason_paris_75.svg)
Royal standard of France: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Standard_of_France#/image/File:Pavillon_royal_de_France.svg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Standard_of_France#Middle_Ages)
Louis XVI: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/74/Louis_le_dernier.jpg (in http://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Louis_le_dernier.jpg)
Liberty guiding the People: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/cc/Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple-2.jpg/967px-Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple-2.jpg (in http://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple-2.jpg)
Revolution as ogre: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/cruikshank14.jpg (in http://pixgood.com/french-revolution-political-cartoon.html)
Mosaic of chariot race: http://travellingman.jalbum.net/Lyon%202011/slides/P1120092.JPG (in http://travellingman.jalbum.net/Lyon%202011/slides/P1120092.html)