Brush Strokes

The ‘rice’ character flag

Why do so many products feature Union Jacks in China?


I have lived in Hong Kong all my life and travelled to mainland China many times (in fact I’m spending this school year boarding in Hangzhou). I notice that among all the national flags in the world, there is one that is more prevalent than any other in this part of the world. It is on T-shirts, mugs, suitcases, backpacks, iPhone cases, motorbikes and even refrigerators. It is not the flag of China or Hong Kong, but rather the flag of the United Kingdom, more commonly known as the Union Jack.

Though the Chinese are renowned for their nationalistic sentiment, when it comes to using a national flag as a decorative design, they seem to prefer the Union Jack above all others. To put this to the test, I once played a game with a classmate on a school trip to Yangshuo in southwestern China. We counted the number of motorcycles with the American flag versus those with a Union Jack, in order to see which flag was more popular: the Union Jack won by a large margin.

Certainly the British flag is iconic with its blue background and red and white crosses, but why is it so popular here, on the other side of the globe? At first I thought it might just be because of its symmetric design and striking colours that made it visually appealing. But recently an interesting fact was pointed out to me: the crosses on the Union Jack actually resembles the Chinese character “米”, meaning “rice”. This is a basic character that I learned at a very young age, but I’d never linked it with the Union Jack. As soon as I realised it, I could not unsee it, and finally things began to make sense. Though the Chinese call the flag “英国国旗” (UK National Flag) and “联合杰克” (literally Union Jack), it is most commonly called “米字旗”, which means “the ‘rice’ character flag”.

Is this why the flag is so ubiquitous in mainland China and Hong Kong? Who can say for sure? What can be said is that rice is a huge part of Chinese cuisine and culture. It is the main staple for most meals in its plain steamed form, but is also commonly served as rice congee and even features in many Chinese desserts. To put it simply, eating rice is essential to the Chinese lifestyle, which makes it safe to say that this may have some influence over the Chinese when buying, for instance, a Union Jack patterned tea-towel.

The author is Heather Skye Irvine, a 14 year-old student

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