life in society - ceremony - flag - the National flag of Korea
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Taegeukgi, the Korean national flag, features the taegeuk (yin and yang symbol) and sagwe (four groups of bars). The four sagwe each have a specific meaning: starting from the top left, moving clockwise, the geon bars symbolize air/south/summer; the gam bars symbolize water/west/autumn; the gon bars symbolize Earth/north/winter; and the ri bars symbolize fire/east/spring. Throughout Northeast Asia, including Korea, these symbols were regarded as the universe’s basic principles; they represent the perpetual cycle of creation, change, and development. Furthermore, these emblems symbolize vitality, auspiciousness, and fortune, and were believed to repel evil. There is a very interesting story behind this particular flag, which is believed to be the oldest extant taegukgi. It is named after Owen N. Denny (1838-1900), who served as a diplomatic advisor to King Gojong (r. 1863-1907) beginning in 1886. While serving as advisor, Denny wrote a book called Qing-Korea Theory, which used early modern international law theory to refute the claim that Joseon belonged to Qing, criticized Qing for intervening in Joseon’s politics, and asserted that Joseon was an independent nation. Denny’s views angered the Qing, so in 1890, he was dismissed from his advisory position, and he returned to the U.S., taking this early taegeukgi with him. Denny died in 1900, and since he had no children, his relatives inherited the taegeukgi. They eventually donated it to Mr. William C. Ralston, who returned it to South Korea on June 23, 1981. Interestingly, the cord for attaching this taegeukgi to a flagpole is on the right side, rather than the left, which suggests that the flag was meant to be raised from its right side, which is the reverse of modern flags. This may be related to the traditional custom of writing from right to left, and suggests that this taegeukgi, unlike other taegeukgi, was stitched from the inside.