Prayer Flags

by Barbara Cohen, Feb 1, 1995 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Visitors to Vietnam are often attracted by the colorful flags that hang in front of the temples at various times of the year. In Hanoi, these flags also decorate the shop fronts along Hang Quat -- the street that makes and sells these vibrant flags and other religious objects. But flags provide more than vivid decoration. Since early times, colorful banners have been used to communicate information to the masses.

Although born from military use, gaily colored flags enhance the festive air of ceremonial occasions. Vietnam uses them in a manner similar to the West's predilection for balloons and crepe paper. However, the Vietnamese festival banners also have spiritual content. At festivals and funerals, flags are flown as messages that have meaning for everyone, even the illiterate. Funeral flags in Vietnam carry prayers for the dead and are kept by the family's ancestor altar during one hundred days of mourning. When a village temple is celebrating its yearly festival, a large square flag is hung by the road side. The flags have a solid square in the center and three or four colored stripes around the perimeter.

In traditional Vietnamese ceremonies, positioning of the flags is based on the symbolic meaning of their respective colors. One flag usually occupies each corner of the temple's courtyard where the ceremony or festival is being performed and one flag sits in the center. The yellow or golden flag always occupies this central location and represents the elements of fire and the sun. Blue or green flags wave in the east, representing the element wood and the sky. The moon and metal are represented by a white flag in the west. Black or indigo sits in the northern corner, representing the element water.

The positioning was initially described in the ancient Chinese Book of Ceremonies regarding military maneuvers: "On the march the banner with the red bird (Phoenix) should be in front; that with the dark warrior (tortoise) behind; that with the blue dragon on the left and the white tiger on the right; that with the pointer of the eagle should be housed in the center -- all to excite and direct the fury of the troops."

Each animal has its own personality, virtue and responsibility. The Phoenix is the Emperor of the sky and the symbol for fire and sun. The sun is the active yang principle of the universe. The tortoise follows behind the Phoenix as a stabilizing counterpart to its fiery leader by representing water and winter. The blue dragon marches on the right and the white lion-dog to the left to complete the quartet.

Although the original military connotations no longer apply, the traditional location and meaning of flags persevere in a colorful tradition.