Q: South Korea has a pretty uncomplicated flag, especially compared with the good old Stars and Stripes. You’ve got your swirly thing in the middle, and then some black lines in the corners. Are those words? Do the symbols mean anything? What’s up with that?

A: It’s true that when teachers assign kids to make flags out of construction paper, South Korean students have it a lot easier than their American counterparts. (I always made my stripes too wide and only had room for 12. Sorry, Delaware!)

But if those kids also have to write a report about what their flag means, the Americans have the easier task. Everything about the South Korean flag, called the Taegeukgi, is heavy on the symbolism, and it runs a bit deeper than states and colonies.

Let’s start with the colors. The white background stands for light and purity. The “swirly thing” has two parts: the red “yang,” (2) which represents the positive forces in the universe, and the blue “yin,” (3) repping for the negative forces. The yin and yang are in perfect balance, indicating harmony in the universe. And you’ll sound smarter if you call it a taegeuk circle.

Next vocabulary word: trigrams. That’s the name for the four sets of black bars that surround the taegeuk circle. Moving clockwise from upper left, the trigrams and their meanings are:

(4) Geon (heaven, justice)

(5) Gam (water, life)

(6) Gon (earth, fertility)

(7) [ITALICS]I (fire, wisdom)

You can read a lot of meaning into the placement of the trigrams: how they tell the story of the universe, from heaven to hell and back around, in an infinite cycle. If that gets too deep, you can always go back to making paper flags. Hey! No running with scissors! And stop eating the paste!

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