Post 248

Ominous or Empty or Both:
Reflections on the Flags of Asia


Um, crosses anyone? No? Alright. Moving along . . .


The flag of Indonesia is basically identical to that of Monaco. There’s an almost imperceptible difference in terms of ratios. Monaco has had its flag since 1881, whereas Indonesia’s official adoption date was in 1945, so I think its Monaco’s by right.

The flag of Singapore is very similar to Indonesia’s, but Singapore’s features a moon and five stars in the upper left canton. It’s the only non-Muslim nation to have a crescent moon, but the moon has a more natural and relaxed shape. The five stars stand upright.


It was common to see the ‘fess’ flag (three horizontal bands) without further ornamentation in the European flags (I counted ten), but the Asian countries are more prone to adding emblems. I find only four countries without emblems on a fess flag. The flag of Yemen is red on top, white in the middle and black on the bottom. The flag of Armenia is red on top, blue in the middle and orange on the bottom. The United Arab Emirate flag has green white and black running horizontally, but it is also red on the hoist side. The flag of Thailand has a thick blue band in the middle with white and red bands on the top and the bottom.

When you count the fess flags with emblems, then it’s time to whip out the abacus. There’s Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Oman, and Syria. There’s also Lebanon, Israel, India, North Korea, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

Iraq’s red, white and black flag has big green writing in the middle of it. It’s the Arabic phrase, “God is the greatest” in Kufic script. Like any flag with writing, the flag has a ‘wrong’ side and cannot be reversed. These Islamic symbols are usually red or green.

The Iranian flag’s colours are green, white and red. The white is in the middle and appears to have an indistinct edge because white Kufic script runs onto the green and the red. It’s the phrase,“Allah is the greatest,” but this is repeated eleven times, which makes it look decorative when you don’t know the language, but strangely repetitive if you do. The red emblem in the centre is a combination of several Islamic symbols. One peculiarity about this flag is that there are conflicting ideas about the aspect ratio (the height to width ratio). If you build it according to the official rules, you are supposed to aim for a really weird (irrational number weird, where you can never, ever get it exactly right) ratio. So they’ve come up with another method, where you are to aim for a ratio of 4:7. The most common ratio for flags is 2:3 and the second most common ratio is 1:2. Canada’s flag is of the 1:2 style, which means that it’s quite long.

The flag of Azerbaijan is similar. It’s a fess flag and it has a crescent moon with an eight-pointed star. There’s disagreement as to why the star has eight points.

The flag of Uzbekistan has a moderately shaped crescent with twelve stars organized in an unappealing way.

The flag of Tajikistan has white in the middle with red above and green below. I don’t mind the emblem. It’s a golden crown with twelve stars.

The flag of Oman is also Islamic but instead of the crescent and star or text, it’s weapon happy. It’s got a curved dagger on top of a pair of crossed swords. There’s a horsebit in there too. From a distance, it looks like a bug.

Things are currently very unsettled in Syria. One group wanting power uses a red white and black flag with two green stars in the middle and the other group wanting power uses a green white and black flag with three red stars in the middle. Which is better? Which is worse?

The population of Lebanon is religiously diverse. It’s flag is distinct and recognizable, featuring a completely green cedar of Lebanon, touching both the top red band and the bottom red band. It’s a pleasant concept that could have been executed a little better. The current flag’s version of this tree isn’t entirely appealing, and I prefer some of the draft versions of the flag.

The flag of Israel is nice. It’s got the star of David in blue along with two blue horizontal lines on a white background. It’s hard to go wrong with blue and white, and this prayer-shawl inspired flag works. In 2007, an Israeli flag broke the world record for largest flag. It was 660 meters long. The Mexicans remind us that the largest flag flown on a flagpole was Mexican, and some other country wants to talk about who flew their flag the highest and someone else wants to talk about who put their flag on the highest mountain and someone else wants to talk about putting their flag on the moon. Ah, the human race! God have mercy.

The flag of India is a fess flag. It has orange on the top, white in the middle and green on the bottom. In the middle is a blue circle. Gandhi proposed a traditional spinning wheel but then it was changed to the “Ashoka Chakra,” a 24-spoke wheel. It represents “the eternal wheel of law.” It’s not that great.

The flag of North Korea has a red background (“field”) symbolizing Communism or whatever else the speaker says it currently symbolizes, and white and blue horizontal stripes. There is a large red star inside a white disc. The problem with these blue white and red flags is that it can be difficult to remember what colour goes where. A blue star on red? A red star on white? A red circle? White and blue stripes? I had to keep checking just to be able to describe it. The North Korean flag looks precise, rigid, clever and cold, if not hostile.

Cambodia’s flag has a red and blue background and in the middle is an image of a building, Angkor Wat. I don’t agree with buildings on flags; they’re too transient. Do you really want your country to be symbolized by a building, which can be bombed to smithereens in a moment?

On the other hand, a building is way better than a big white circle of nothingness. That’s what Laos has. The Laos flag is red and blue and in the middle is a big white disc. It looks like a hole. Someone bombed the flag.

Similarly, the flag of Myanamar looks like it has a star-shaped chunk of its flag missing, instead of a white star superimposed on a tri-colour background. We tend to see a large area of white as a background, so that’s the problem with the flags of Laos and Myanamar.


The flag of East Timor has overlapping chevrons. The flag has red, black and yellow and a tipsy white star. According to the official description, the yellow triangle represents “the traces of colonialism in East Timor’s history” and the black triangle represents “the obscurantism that needs to be overcome.” Don’t you find that odd? Why include, on your flag, anything that you’re against? It’s not a recipe for success.

The flag of the Philippines, on the other hand, is a very good chevron flag. It’s blue and red with a white chevron. On the white chevron are golden-yellow symbols: three stars and a sun with eight main rays. It’s a flag where the symbolism is more settled than in a lot of places, and here’s something interesting: a lot of flags have rules about display, and one of the Philippine rules about their flag is that if you display it with the red band on top (the normal method is with the blue band on top), then it means that the country is in a state of war.

If I were giving a flag quiz, I’d see if students could remember the differences between the flag of Palestine and the flag of Jordan. Both are black, white and green with a red chevron. One of them has a white star and a pointier chevron. Do you know? Don’t worry if you don’t; this is an open-book test.

I’m going to put the flag of Kuwait in here with the chevron flags. It doesn’t have a proper chevron because the point got lopped off somewhere along the way. The result is a flag that looks like one of those optical illusion images. You’ll have to take a look to see what I mean, maybe while you’re looking up the flags of Palestine and Jordan.

Shall I put the flag of Qatar here? Hmm. No, I don’t think so.


In Europe, only three countries have two colours side by side: Malta (which I listed in the list of flags with crosses), Vatican City and Portugal. In Asia, it’s uncommon as well, and the two of the three countries that did it (Qatar and Bahrain) separated the two colours with a serrated line. Although it’s an unusual design, the two countries did it in almost exactly the same way as each other. That’s ironic.

Pakistan’s flag has a narrow vertical strip of white and the balance is dark green. There’s a white crescent and a white star on the green, but you probably saw it coming.


Afghanistan currently has the pale style of flag, but stay tuned because Afghanistan is the world leader in replacing its flag. At one point, the Taliban had – no joke – a plain white flag! Afghanistan’s current flag has a mosque on it, but unlike Cambodia, it’s not tied to an exact building and location. It has black adjacent to red followed by green, so it’s quite a gloomy flag.

Mongolia also has a central vertical strip. The blue middle section is flanked by red, and the gold emblem is on the hoist side. What is that emblem? Let’s see. Okay. So there was a guy named Zanabazar who was deemed to be, at the age of 4, someone very important, and was later declared to be the reincarnation of someone else who was, I suppose, important. Mr. Zanabazar invented the Soyombu alphabet and one of the ‘special’ characters of that alphabet is this character, composed of no less than ten parts. They are: fire, sun, moon, two triangles, two horizontal rectangles, the Taiji (yin and yang) and two vertical rectangles. In other words, it’s a character that just keeps on giving.



Turkmenistan has the most ornate flag in the world. It has a vertical column featuring five intricate rug designs. Does it work? No.

Bangladesh goes to the other extreme. Its only feature is a red disc, which sits on a green background. Grim.

Saudi Arabia’s flag is arguably one of the worst. In large letters, it says, “There is no god but God: Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” Beneath this is a sword, symbolizing strictness in applying justice. The flag is unique in that it is meant to be hoisted to the ‘sinister’ side, meaning it is meant to be hoisted with the flag to the left of the flagpole. ‘Sinister’ means ‘left’ in Latin.


Krygyzstan has a yellow something or other on a bright red background. Ah, I see. It’s a yurt in a sun. Enough said.

The flag of the People’s Republic of China features one large star and four smaller stars in the upper left canton. The four smaller stars arranged in an arc represent the four different social classes of Chinese people. The tiny stars are at various angles in relation to the big one, but this makes them look lively. Even though I do not love the red background colour, the Chinese flag is well done. The Chinese government encouraged submissions as part of a contest, and the final result was very respectful of the original design submitted by Zeng Liansong.

And come to think of it, that’s not a bad way to get a good flag. Start with many ideas that are internally coherent, and decide from there. Do you know what I mean? Instead of having a committee of five or twelve or whatever, with each person pitching in an undeveloped thought (let’s have a flower, let’s have a stripe, let’s have some writing, let’s have a rug and let’s have a glowing yurt), invite every willing person to contribute a completed and balanced product that they’re ready to stand behind. Choose the best one from there. It’s about having a vision. Input is fine, but someone needs to have a workable and sensible game plan.

Vietnam’s flag is not nearly as interesting as China’s. It has a big golden-yellow star in the middle of a red background.

The Maldives flag is, well, kind of depressing. They’ve got a white crescent on a green rectangle which is on a red background.


A diagonal stripe is called a “bend” in the world of flags. The ‘normal’ bend is like the back-slash on your keyboard. This guy: \. The other bend, this guy, /, is called ‘a bend sinister,’ so you don’t want that, I guess. On the other hand, when it comes to what is ‘better,’ the diagonal line is not a clear-cut situation, because it moves from one side to the other. How do you keep track? In one case, you begin on the left, and in the other case, you move towards the left. The verdict? Let’s say it doesn’t matter with diagonal lines.

Okay, so let’s see who has what.

Technically, the diagonal lines on the flag of Brunei don’t qualify as a bend because they’re too thick. On top of that, a bend needs to go from corner to corner, but the Brunei flag’s diagonals don’t touch the corners. The Brunei flag is yellow, white and black. I dislike the emblem. It looks, at first glance, rather nautical. Upon closer inspection, you see that it’s a composite of several items, including a parasol, a crescent and a pair of hands coming up from out of nowhere.

Bhutan’s flag is divided diagonally into two colours, yellow and orange, and features Mr. Dragon. The Asian version of dragon actually manages to be more hideous than the western version. The skin is highly textured on the Bhutan flag, for instance. Mind you, on some level this cartoon villain is actually funny. I remember the sketches that boys used to make in junior high school: Dramatic and Fearsome Art.


The flag of Japan is a red disc on a white background, as you know. It is memorable in its starkness, but one hopes that a country could be symbolized by something more than this.

The flag of South Korea has a lot more going on. In the center is the yin and yang symbol representing everything and anything you want it to symbolize – all opposites in the universe, basically. At what point does something which signifies everything become something which signifies nothing? Added to this are four black ‘trigrams’ which symbolize ‘the’ four elements. It goes on and on – four seasons, four virtues, four directions, four family member types. I don’t know what I think of it. It’s visually captivating but you pretty much have to buy into all the religion behind it, and I don’t.

Moving along, the flag of Malaysia looks very much like an Islamic version of the American flag, but it was based on the flag of the East Indian Company, an English (and subsequently British) company.

The flag of Sri Lanka has a bunch of stuff. It’s divided into two uneven sections. The section on the left has two colours, green and orange, which surely symbolize something and then there’s a big lion holding a ‘kastane’ sword. Animals are tricky, you know. How stylized should they be? A flag calls for a compromise between reality and ease of representation. So far, I haven’t found any animal flags that worked. In the case of this lion, his nose (representing intelligence) is upturned, pig-style, and his eyes (representing nothing, as far as I can find) are nothing more than a curled line. Adding to the problem is the fact that the artists want to warp the animal qualities, giving them thumbs to grasp things and/or two heads.

I don’t mind the flag of Kazakhstan, even though it has a bird. The bright yellow sun is set against a bright blue background and the stylized bird is interesting to look at. The vertical design on the far left is also a plus.

For the most part, I’ve skipped the flags belonging to regions, autonomous or not, within other countries. I didn’t look into Hong Kong’s flag, or Taiwan’s flag, for instance.

Nepal has something strange; does it merit the word “flag”? It’s two triangles kind of attached together, which means that it does not have a four-sided shape. This pennant has two suns. One sun is peeking up behind a horizontal crescent of a moon and the other sun is by itself. Both the sun image and the moon image had faces until 1962.

I kid you not.

Up Next: Flags of Africa or a Recipe for March