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Window on the World:  The Flags of Korea

Our Latest Post: 8 December 2018
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South Korean Flag

South Korea's modern flag displays two sets of symbols that interlace the nation's cultural heritage and transcendental traditions. South Korean Flag The red, blue, black, and white modern flag of South Korea displays two graphic forms, the taeguk in the center and a tri-gram in each of the four corners of the flag. For example, the background color of the flag is white. The color white was the predominant color of Korean Hanbok Traditional Korean garb for men is represented by pastel colors, but predominantly white, and topped by a black hat. Female garb is usually characterized by vivid colors or combinations of pastel colors. Photo by RBKOR tra­ditional dress for both men and women, although very colorful clothing was, and still is, worn at holiday celebrations and formal ceremonies, such as marriages and official events. A popular tourist attraction is the daily, noontime parade of the colorfully dressed palace guard at Gyung-Bok Gung (gyuhng-boke palace) in the Gwang-hwa-mun (gwahng-hwah-moon) ward in Seoul.

These symbols have roots in ancient Chinese culture and are related to each other. All tri-grams are composed of masculine and feminine elements that can also express yes and no in different contexts. The Yin–Yang (taegeuk) in the center of the flag symbolizes the harmony of opposites.

Tri-grams and Yin-Yang An interesting feature of the Yin–Yang is the placement of small dots within the larger fields. These dots portray the idea that nothing is perfect: a little truth exists in the deception and a little deception lerks in the truth. The figure on the left displays the four tri-grams that appear on the modern South Korean flag. In ancient Chinese culture, one interpretation, among many interpretations of the tri-grams, represented different members of a family, i.e. "youngest daughter", "oldest son", "mother", and "father". Numerous other meanings can be inferred from the tri-grams.
The symbol in the middle of the figure above left is an earlier representation of the balance, or harmony, of opposites from ancient Taoist teachings in China. The interplay of colors, black and white, indicates opposites. The curved black-and-white boundary suggests harmony, rather than confrontation.

Choseon Flag The Choseon flag that waved in the early 19th century displayed eight tri-grams based on the eight possible permutations of the masculine–feminine "binary" symbols. (Source of graphic: Wikipedia) Before the year 1910, there were eight tri-grams on the Korean flag. The tri-grams are from an ancient Chinese book called the “Yi Jing”, which in English is known as the Book of Changes; we might also say, the King's (Yi) Book of Changes. Although the Yi Jing first appeared in the year 282 CE, the earliest version available today is dated 1601 CE.

Flag of North Corea

Flag of North Korea The red stripe represents revolutionary tradition; the white bands stand for purity, strength, and dignity;
  the two blue stripes represent sovereignty, peace, and friendship;
  a prominent red star on a white field, represents Socialism. (Source: US CIA flags)

Looking at the flag of North Korea immediately reveals a drastic difference in symbols between the flags of the North and of the South. The South’s flag is replete with cultural symbols having ancient Chinese origins, while the North’s flag displays symbols that are more general in their meaning:  

Is that Corea or Korea?

According to some sources, Portuguese sailors referred to Korea as "Couray" and by the Italians as "Cauli", since the late 16th century. In the mid 17th century, Dutch traders recorded the name "Corea".
The leap from C to K could have occurred because the sound of Hangeul (Korean writing) letter Hangeul-kiyok (kee-yuhk), is somewhere between English G and K; however, when Hangeul-kiyok is the first letter of a Korean word, the sound often resembles English K; thus, confusion emerges in the use of different spellings of the same sound value. Another consideration reveals that the sound of kee-yuhk Does not exist in English. Corea may be a preferred spelling for Latin languages, i.e. Portuguese or Italian, while Korea may be a preferred spelling for Germanic languages, i.e. English and Dutch.

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