The Vietnamese flag is one of those symbols that has such a complicated and rich history and sociopolitical ramifications. Most people should be aware that there are two flags: one of the current government of Vietnam, and the other of the former South Vietnam, but which is still part of the overseas Vietnamese public consciousness. But today, as a graphic designer, I’d like to delve into the politics of color. If the flags are described as red and yellow, who gets to decide which shade of red and yellow it would be?
Flag of Vietnam as officiated by the Vietnamese Communist Party. For many overseas Vietnamese communities (especially those who lived through the Vietnam War), this flag is a troll, or more aptly put, the equivalent of Hitler to the Jewish community.
Vietnamese Heritage & Freedom Flag, as supported by many overseas Vietnamese communities. This flag is banned in Vietnam. If you bring this flag to Vietnam without prior permission from Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture & Information, the police will likely arrest and deport you.
A 1969 Berkeley study by Berlin and Kay entitled Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution found that different cultures had their own scheme to decide which word is associated for certain colors. A later 2002 UC San Diego study by Jameson and Alvarado, Differences in Color Naming and Color Salience in Vietnamese and English, also explores this cultural difference in color naming. Our linguistic upbringing (whether you are monolingual or bilingual) and your social environment affect your ability to describe and communicate a particular color using certain terminology. What might be hồng đẫm to a speaker in Hanoi, Vietnam might be đỏ to a speaker in Little Saigon, California. So if we already have differences on deciding the lexicon of colors, can you now imagine the inconsistencies of trying to pick a certain shade of color?
The history of the Vietnamese flags, described in much detail by Nguyễn Đình Sài in his treatise, Quốc Kỳ Việt Nam: Nguồn Gốc và Lẽ Chính Thống, or The National Flag of Viet Nam: Its Origin and Legitimacy, tells a story of the many changes of political regimes and the flag associated with that change. Yellow seems to have lost its meaning as a symbol of the king of Vietnam and changed to a symbol of the ethnic Viet (though he offers no source on where this idea came from), whereas red has different meanings over time, at first to signify the South (of China), and then has had associations with the Communist party. It also has connotations of the people’s blood. There is a cultural history of color being associated with cardinal directions according to Chinese civilization.
But what Sài’s treatise doesn’t describe is the manufacturing process of the flags. Who made the flags? Where did they get the color pigments from? I’m sure if you look at flags made today, they are using artificial processes that has more to say about the changes in technology and little to do with the relationship between the Vietnamese person and nature. Without this understanding, we have to re-explain and justify ourselves over and over again whenever we have to decide on a particular shade of yellow or red. I’m not satisfied with “because it just looks right” as an answer.
But another thing to think about is that in today’s technology of color reproduction, we can now describe certain shades through a process that is replicable, much in the same way that we can go to a hardware store and choose a particular color of paint by giving them the ratio proportion of colors to mix.
When someone sews a flag together, they are making a choice on the fabric and color to use, perhaps generally what is available in the fabric shop. The fabric store owner makes a choice on their fabric suppliers. The fabric manufacturer makes a choice on what shade to use based on existing materials. So whoever gets to decide the shade of red or yellow is part of a system of choices. But as a graphic designer working on print design, I have millions of colors at my disposal. My choices are not based on the limitations of available materials. But I have to make choices along other lines: one based on community values.
It’s quite possible that the yellow flags I see waving about were made in China. I don’t quite honestly know, and perhaps exploring this manufacturing process of the flag may be a future project I could do, because if people culturally produce the meaning and symbol of the flag, what does it say about them when they physically and literally produce the flag? Are they ecologically conscious by utilizing materials that are not harmful to the environment? Are they preserving a tradition of color reproduction that is in line with certain values or valued objects, e.g. a color associated with a flower.
Right now all I can share with everyone is the colors I have decided upon, at least until I have the ability to embark on a journey to find the history of the production of the flag. The colors are:
- aureolin (a.k.a cobalt yellow), or lemon is RGB(253,238,13)(#FDEE0D) or CMYK(4,0,95,0)
- alizarin crimson is RGB(233,33,33)(#E92121) or CMYK(2,98,100,0)
The aureolin/lemon is chosen from the flower of the Vietnamese mickey-mouse plant, which in Vietnamese is called hoa mai (Ochna integerrima), a flower customarily associated with Tết, or Vietnamese New Years.
The alizarin crimson color is chosen from the dyeing processes of the fabrics which you find among the tribes of Vietnam, such as the Hmong, using lac, which is the resin produced by an insect called cánh kiến, a kind of scale insect (Kerria lacca).
I chose these particular representations of yellow and red because it tells us about the relationship between the people and its culture; the mickey-mouse flower for its association with a very important holiday in the Vietnamese tradition, and the lac-dyeing process for being associated with actual animals in Vietnam, made naturally by people in Vietnam. The process is environmentally sustainable, and to me, ecological preservation is important because Vietnam has such beautiful landscapes that we ought to preserve.
But whether my peers would agree to my choice of the colors, well, I challenge them to justify their choice of shade. I am not an autocrat who says the colors have to be a certain way by virtue of divine providence or whatever. I believe in democratic approach to color communication. We all have opinions, and only by communicating with one another, we can arrive at a solution that most people can enjoy. But understand this: Color and color production has history and culture. I think it’s about time we share that with one another.
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