At the heart of symbolism

The flag of the People's Republic of China

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Flag of China

The colours of the flag

The Chinese flag consists of a yellow five-branched star trimmed with four similar and smaller ones on a red background.

Red represents the “highest” visible colour of the rainbow spectrum and corresponds to the top of the temporal power, i.e. the Communist Party nowadays and the Emperor or commanders in chief in the old times.

Medium colour between red and blue, between the Communist Party and the bourgeoisie, yellow is representative of the working population. In old China, it was associated with the Emperor that reigned over the “Middle Empire” as the sun in Heavens. It symbolized the “Middle Path”, the communication channel between Earth and Heaven.

The Earth-Heaven polarity

The Tai Chi, the Great Unity (1) at the origin of everything, firstly manifests its terrestrial and celestial double nature:

  • Earth (yin), manifestation of the world of duality par excellence, is associated with the number 2;
  • Heaven (yang), representation of the unity containing its potential dual manifestation, is related to the number 3 (1+2).

It results that 2 (and even numbers) are yin and 3 (and following odd numbers) are yang. Let us note that the Unity, the One (1) is beyond any distinction, notably between even and odd.

Heaven and Earth representationIt follows that:

  • The two poles of any duality can be represented by the ends of a segment. This is why Earth is usually figured by a square, the sides of which are oriented towards the compass points;
  • Similarly, unity and its potential dual manifestation can be depicted by an angle. While revolving around its vertex, this angle sweeps a circle symbolizing Heaven.

Let us move now from the nature of Earth and Heaven to their measure:

  • The rectilinear aspect of Earth leads us to link it with the number 5 (yang) and the decimal basis (10) to measure the distances;
  • The circular aspect of Heaven brings us to associate it with the number 6 (yin) and the duodecimal basis (12) to measure the angles.

Vertical yin-yang symbolThis passage from nature to measure is accompanied by a passage from yin to yang and vice versa, perfectly illustrated by the famous yin-yang symbol. The black (yin) and white (yang) halves respectively represent Earth and Heaven. When both parts are drawn vertically, the white half is always above the black one just as Heaven is above Earth. For more details, see the Chinese tradition.

The fact that white and black halves respectively contain black and white spots simply reflects the distinction between nature and measure. It shows that yang is always associated with yin and conversely. The interpenetration of yin and yang principles brings the open and deeply dynamic character of the Chinese doctrine to the fore 1.

At last, the yin-yang denomination of the symbol gives the precedence to yin over yang in order to underline that the Chinese tradition stresses the ascending cosmological vision from Earth towards Heaven, from darkness towards light 2.

The five branched stars

The five elements of the Chinese traditionAccording to what has been said, the 5 (1+4) stars on the flag are necessarily related to the terrestrial world, domain of the physical manifestation. Now, in various traditions, the material manifestation is based on five elements. In the Chinese tradition, this fifth element is earth occupying the centre and surrounded by the four others located at the compass points: wood (east) and fire (south) are turned towards light and yang; metal (west) and water (north) are turned towards darkness and yin. They are usually represented on a compass card reflecting the ascending path from obscurity towards clarity, from north towards south.

The generation-destruction processThis raises the following question. Why are the elements associated with five-branched stars ? Indeed, the elements are not matter components as their name could suggest it, but manifestation states of the material world and physical being. It follows, that they can succeed one another in the image of the ordinary matter states. They are in fact part of a dynamic process where the interplay of yin and yang is reflected within the element succession (states) either through generation (circle) or destruction (star). For more details about this, see the flag of Hong Kong. The presence of the five-branched star on the flag seems to put forward the destruction process. However, the layout of the stars, particularly of the largest one associated with Earth, indicates that the generation process is also taken into account.

Nevertheless, there remains a point to clarify. What justifies the occupation of the centre by the element earth rather than any other ? The fundamental polarity of the Great Unity generates Heaven and Earth. The latter symbolizes the manifestation of the physical world as a whole and the earth principle can only take over among the five elements. As a result of its central position, the element earth represents the balancing point between yin and yang and, consequently, between the other elements. This aspect does nothing but corroborate the so often neglected deeply dynamic character of the Chinese traditional doctrine.

Finally, the flag of the People's Republic of China does not only take the physical and material world into consideration, but also stresses its unity. Indeed, achieving the unity of the country has always been the goal of the present and former political power.


  • René Guénon:
  • “The Great Triad”, Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2001.
  • Particularly, chapter 8 devoted to “Celestial and terrestrial numbers”.
  • Marcel Granet:
  • “The Chinese Thought”, Albin Michel Publisher, 1988.
  • In particular, chapter 3 on “Numbers”.

1 back Following in Leibniz's footsteps, a number of Westerners have only seen in the yin-yang symbol (and the related trigrams and hexagrams) a representation of the binary system. Now, unlike the yin and yang principles of the Chinese tradition, the 1 and 0 modes of a binary couple are mutually exclusive. Moreover, the number 1 is associated with Unity, the undifferentiated Being and the number 0 with the non-Being at the source of everything, the Being included.

2 back USA-China yin-yang symbol“The Economist” published in its 2009 October 20th magazine a report on China and the United States entitled “The odd couple”. It opened onto the opposite drawing. Were the authors really conscious of spreading a representation of the ascending path from the “terrestrial” United States towards the “celestial” China ? Probably not ! Nevertheless, this image reflects well the reality. China is still the possessor of an ancient tradition that not only allows a more complete perception of the being, but of the world as well. It is up to the country citizens to become fully aware of it.