A rectangular piece of fabric fluttering in the wind may not seem like much but with the power of a nation behind it, it can become a very significant symbol of a country’s might and self-esteem. Have you ever wondered how a piece of cloth can become such a mighty representation of a nation’s freedom, national pride and history? Let’s find out.
Flags have been used for thousands of years. Their origin is traced to ancient China and India where they were used as long ago as 4000BC. They were a means to identify armies or military formations during battles. When hoisted over hills, ships and other high places, they were also used as methods of signalling and long distance messaging.
During the Middle Ages, flags were used during the battles to help soldiers identify their knights as there were no uniforms to separate enemies from allies. These knights usually had their special coat-of-arms emblazoned on their shields, flags and armour. In the early 17th century, when western countries sailed on their ships to all corners of the world, it became a legal requirement for each ship to carry the flag of its nation as means of identification.
Today flags represent a nation’s patriotism and national unity. Flags are specially designed to symbolise a country’s ideals, its past struggles and its quest for independence. They also represent the nation’s hopes and goals for the future, such as progress, peace and prosperity for its people.
Each sovereign country of the world has its own distinct flag with special colours, designs and emblems. Stars, stripes, bands, crescents, coloured circles or discs, and coat of arms are the most commonly used designs on flags. Today, many organisations, groups, clubs and sports bodies have their own flags.
Meanings and symbolisms
• The scientific study of flags is called vexillology. A vexillologist is the person who designs flags. A vexillographer studies flags and what their shapes, patterns, colours and images represent.
• In spite of its name, there’s nothing jolly about the Jolly Roger banner. This flag usually depicting white skull and crossbones on a black background and indicates a pirate ship. The black banner was considered a death knell for people aboard merchant and passenger ships crossing the oceans, especially during the 18th century when piracy was at its peak.
• A red flag serves as a warning signal. A red flag on a beach indicates that it is unsafe to swim in the water because of strong currents or bad weather.
• In politics, a red flag is a symbol of socialism or communism, a system of politics prevalent in China and Russia. It is also the symbol of ‘fight till death’ intention of the people during a revolution.
• Purple flags on a beach indicate a hazard from dangerous marine life such as sharks or jellyfish.
• Waving a white flag is the international sign for surrender or to ask for a truce. According to international laws, if soldiers raise the white flag, they cannot be fired upon. The white flags are not made up in advance and are usually made out of any material available at the time it is to be used.
• The Olympic flag has five interconnected rings on a white background. The five circles represent the five continents while the rings symbolise the friendship to be gained from these international competitions. The Olympic flag was designed by Pierre de Coubertin in 1914. The blue, yellow, black, green and red colours for the rings were chosen because at least one of them appears on the flag of every country in the world. The Olympic flag was first flown during the 1920 Olympic Games.
• The background of the flag of United Nation is light blue. It depicts a white coloured map of the world within a wreath of olive leaves on it. The world map within the olive branches signifies the everlasting peace and security which this organisation stands for.
• On occasions of national tragedy, like death of a ruler or major catastrophe, flags are flown at half-mast to honour the dead. Flags are also draped over the coffins of national heroes.