Four Little Stars

chinese flagHappy National Day!
guóqìng kuàilè!

In an attempt to stay topical and current in my English classes leading up to China’s liùshí zhōunián guóqìng 六十周年国庆 (and I’m talking zhōusuì 周岁, by the way), I’ve let the students discuss various related subjects in our class such as what will happen this year to celebrate the founding of the country and what changes the country has gone through in the past 60 years.

(As a side note, I was stumped, again, when a student said that part of the celebration will be yuèbīng 阅兵 and didn’t know how to say it in English. Knowing full well that Zhōngqiūjié 中秋节 will be right in the middle of this year’s Guóqìngjié 国庆节 I proudly announced that the most common translation is “moon cakes.” Never before has the class been so active. “Not yuèbǐng 月饼, we’re talking about yuèbīng 阅兵!” they shouted as I suppressed every instinct I had to launch into a rant about the tones and listening comprehension. Breathe. Yes. It’s OK.)

One of the discussion questions was:

“What do the stars on the guóqí 国旗 stand for?”

I really wanted to know. It’s my fifth year enjoying the not-really-a-whole-week-of-vacation-because-we-have-to-make-up-classes-on-the-weekends, so it’s high time I learned that little factoid.

The big star is certainly the Communist Party (Gòngchǎndǎng 共产党). But surprisingly, the students (in every class) couldn’t agree on what the four small stars stand for. So out came the shǒujī-s 手机 with their mobile internet browsers and that’s when the debate finally got rolling.

One student was adamant that the four yellow stars stand for:

1. nóngmín 农民 = farmers
2. gōngrén 工人 = workers
3. lǎoshī 老师 = teachers
4. xuésheng 学生 = students

The other students approved farmers and workers but vehemently shot down teachers and students.

That lead the first student to go online and immediately prove herself wrong by reporting that she is now equally sure that they are:

1. nóngmín 农民 = farmers
2. gōngrén 工人 = workers
3. xiǎo chǎn jiē = petty bourgeois
4. mínzú chǎn jiē民族 = national bourgeois?? ethnic bourgeois??

She probably found this baidu page, which is a sort of Yahoo-Answers-style forum in which people vote for the answer that seems the best. The above currently has 134 thumbs up (and also seems to agree with the site I borrowed that flag picture from).

I’m not super clear on what those English terms mean, but that site claims they are four social classes. Um, well, I don’t know quite how to say this but, isn’t the idea of different classes um, well, different from the whole idea of the big star? I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying I don’t understand. [insert hands-up, palms-forward emoticon here]

Later, a student staring at his phone proudly announced that he’d found the answer:

1. nóngmín 农民 = farmers
2. gōngrén 工人 = workers
3. shìbīng 士兵 = soldiers
4. zhīshí fènzi
知识分子 = intellectuals
5. qīngnián 青年 = youth

I came home and did a Google search to find where he got his info. Result number one took me to this baidu site , which has the same list.

My suspicions were immediately aroused when I saw a) there are actually five groups, and b) the “Vietnamese Communist party” made an appearance or two. Upon closer reading, I found that despite the the phrase “Chinese flag” in the header of the article, that little biadu post is actually about what each of the five points of the star on the Vietnamese (and maybe Chinese) flag stands for. Apparently my student didn’t realize that and just reported the first list he found that started with farmers and workers.

Everyone agrees on farmers and workers, but the other two stars are still up for grabs. So, I’m going to have a little contest.

The first person to explain what the 4 little stars stand for (and give an authoritative source) wins the prize.

The prize: I’ll cancel that box of moon cakes I’m planning to send you.

Friendly reminder: This is strictly a language-focused, non-political blog. Please avoid comments that will get me banned in China. Thanks!


  1. I checked the PRC Constitution, and the flag law and while they describe the flag, neither say what it symbolizes, beyond the red and yellow and the big star. Purposefully ambiguous perhaps?

  2. The current ‘blockbuster’ movie about the 1946-49 struggle with the KMT screens a series of scenes on the choice of a flag, highlighting the input from different social groupings.

    According to this move, a flag with a Yellow River motif had been tentatively selected at an official session of the governing group, over the four-star motif, but Mao in a conversation with a group of pretty girls (I’d have been persuaded, too) was told that the four stars were a metaphor for the unity of China, and the four stars represented the:
    1)working class
    2) peasantry
    3) urban petty bourgeoisie
    4) the ‘patriotic’, or ‘national’, ie non-KMT traditional bourgeoisie, as personified in the movie by Soong Ching Ling and Zheng Lan.

    This, according to the movie, from a band of pretty girls like the ones who cluster around us foreign teachers all the time! But then, from the mouth of Mao himself.

  3. So it seems like the closest to an official answer is what Mark Richey said (not necessarily because of the source, but because a blockbuster would probably portray the official story).

    That’s some thorough sleuthing from you! Can I ask do you have web links for those two documents or are they paper copies that you just happen to have sitting around?

  4. The answer I was given by a Chinese friend, who is a Chinese citizen from birth, who has always lived in China, and who answered this question while I was there visiting her in China was: “The centre star represents the guidance of the Communist party and the four smaller stars are groups of workers.”

    And I LIKE moon cakes, thank you very much. Why do people always rag on moon cakes?

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