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A Brief History of the Flags of the World

Fly your favorite flag for an unforgettable memory. Americans buy 150 million American flags every year. That’s just a small proportion of all the flags of the world.

The national flags of the world embody nations and values of peace and democracy. But this wasn’t always the case, as the millennia of flag history suggest.

Which country had the first flags? What did early flags look like, and what were they used for? How did conventions of flags like hanging them at half-mast develop?

Answer these questions, and you can engage in national pride in a whole new way. Here is your quick guide.

China

The history of flags begins in China. Wu-Wang, the founder of the Zhou dynasty, had his servants carry a white flag in front of him as he traveled. Other rulers followed his lead, including princes and local government officials.

Early Chinese flags contained powerful animals like tigers and red birds. Others integrated ceremonial and mythological motifs, such as dragons.

They were placed on top of chariots to signify who they belonged to. When one group captured another group’s city, they would put their flag on its walls to mark the occasion.

The flag itself was treated as an extension of the ruler. Most rulers forbade anyone to touch the flag-bearer as they performed their duties. The fall of the flag signified a defeat.

The Qing dynasty was the last imperial dynasty in the history of China. They had a triangular flag with the image of a blue dragon on it.

After they fell, China went through a series of different flags. The Nationalist movement adopted a red and blue flag with a white sun on it. The People’s Republic of China currently has a red flag with five golden stars on it.

India

Flag history also has some roots in India. Rulers attached different banners onto their chariots and elephants as personal symbols. Both sides tried to destroy the other side’s flag during battles, and destruction always meant defeat.

Most early flags were triangular. They had scarlet and green colors, which were symbolic of wealth. Some had figures on them who were embroidered in gold.

Later armies developed flags for other purposes. For example, they would wave a white flag to suggest their desire to surrender. They also began attaching objects like yaks’ tails to their flags as royal insignia.

During the early 19th century, each princely state had its flag. Indian independence activists began to organize to consolidate different flags together.

No one design gained widespread popularity until 1947. India’s national flag contains saffron, white, and green stripes. A 24-spoke wheel in navy blue sits in the center, signifying the eternal wheel of the law.

Islamic Flags

Muslim immigrants and converts brought flags into Europe and the Middle East. Islam prohibits any idolatrous images, so Islamic flags were more straightforward than their Chinese counterparts. The Prophet Muhammad’s flag was pure black.

The Fatimid dynasty in North Africa elected to use green instead. Their choice was popular amongst Muslims, and green is the color most associated with Islam today.

In 1250, the Ottoman Turks opted to put a crescent moon on their flag. The crescent was a sacred symbol amongst Assyrians in antiquity.

This decision was another popular one, and the crescent moon became the official symbol of Islam. Different flags of the world from Muslim-majority countries have the crescent, including Pakistan.

Ships

Flags spread to Europe during the early centuries CE. By the Middle Ages, flags were accepted symbols of organizations, armies, and guilds.

Flags were used to mark where influential individuals died were during battles, including kings. When the king stayed at a particular castle, a flag was raised there.

But flags became especially prominent on ships. Crusaders attached banners onto their masts to intimidate their opponents. Many flags contained crosses or religious images, indicating their purpose to spread Christianity.

Naval ships began flying white pennants from their masts. A high pennant signified that the captain had assumed command of their vessel.

Pirates began flying black flags, which showed that they were at odds with the navy. Both naval and pirate ships flew yellow flags to indicate that they had sick people on board.

Ships developed many of the codes used to display flags today. The first flags that were flown at half-mast were flown on ships. When a vessel needed help, it would fly its flag upside-down, becoming a universal symbol of distress.

United States

The United States has had a substantial impact on world flags. As a British colony, they first adopted the flags of the United Kingdom.

Their first independent flag contained 13 stripes to represent the Thirteen Colonies. In the upper-left corner, they placed the flag of the Kingdom of Great Britain. The flag was quickly changed to have 13 stars in the corner instead.

As more states were added to the Union, more stars were added to the corner. The position and colors of the stripes have never changed. Organizations like Flagpole Farms do produce flags made of different materials, but their designs are identical.

Several countries have modeled their flag after the United States. For example, the flags of Liberia and Malaysia have red and white stripes similar to America’s.

A History of the Flags of the World

All of the flags of the world have a story to tell. Chinese and Indian rulers flew the first flags to signify their power. The fall of their flag meant their reign was coming to an end.

Chinese and Indian flags influenced Muslim societies, encouraging them to adopt symbols like crescents. Europeans took some time to adopt flags, but they eventually developed codes at sea. For example, naval vessels hung flags upside down or at half-mast to signify distress.

Flags are just one symbol of nations. Find out more by following our coverage.

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