The Explainer: Sun and stars and other symbols

That was a scene from “The Messenger,” where Joan of Arc leads her troops to victory. Since the earliest times, flags have been the rallying symbols of peoples in both war and peace.

One of the first thing a child learns in school is to respect the flag. Every day. children are made to line up, sing the national anthem, and recite the oath of allegiance. In the classroom they are taught the meaning of the sun and three stars, the white triangle, and the red and blue stripes that make up our flag.

People pledge allegiance to it, people die for it, and historians passionately debate it. Our flag, and the symbols derived from it, is our Independence Day topic.


I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. The sun and stars


This page is reproduced from the book “Pavillons Nationaux et Marques Distinctives”, published by the French Navy’s Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service. Here’s the book. It’s the sort of bible for all students of flags, but the Philippine page is inaccurate in some respects.

But this book has a very good graphical rendering of our flag. Isn’t it beautiful?

Like all of you watching tonight, I love our flag. And I love the study of flags, which is called vexillology, from the Latin word for flag, or vexillum. So perhaps I love our flag for reasons both similar to you, and different from you.

I love how very few countries in the world have flags similar to ours. There are:


[credit Flags of the World for next three]

Djibouti, in Africa

The Czech Republic in Europe

And East Timor in our part of the world.


And I love the fact that our flag is older than these flags; and I love how our flag represents a particular period of time: the revolt of the last colonies of Spain.

Because of this, our flag belongs to a specific flag family. It’s a small but proud one. That family includes the flags of:


[credit: Mello Luchtenberg, ]



[credit: Mello Luchtenberg, ]


and of Puerto Rico:


Now in a while, I’m going to go into a little more detail about how Cuba’s and Puerto Rico’s flags have a shared history with ours. But let’s return to our own flag, the sun and stars.


The earliest description of our flag is in our proclamation of independence.

Let’s look at our proclamation of independence, read at Kawit on June 12, 1898. This is Sulpicio Guevara’s translation. Explainee, would you like to read the portion about our flag?

And, lastly, it was resolved unanimously that this Nation, already free and independent as of this day, must use the same flag which up to now is being used, whose design and colors are found described in the attached drawing, the white triangle signifying the distinctive emblem of the famous Society of the Katipunan, which by means of its blood-compact inspired the masses to rise in revolution; the three stars, signifying the three principal islands of this Archipelago -Luzon, Mindanao and Panay where this revolutionary movement started; the sun representing the gigantic steps made by the sons of the country along the path of Progress and Civilization; the eight rays, signifying the eight provinces -Manila, Cavite, Bulacan, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, Bataan, Laguna and Batangas- which declared themselves in a state of war as soon as the first revolt was initiated; and the colors of Blue, Red and White, commemorating the flag of the United States of North America, as a manifestation of our profound gratitude towards this Great Nation for its disinterested protection which it lent us and continues lending us.

And holding up this flag of ours, I present it to the gentlemen here assembled…

Who solemnly swear to recognize and defend it unto the last drop of their blood.

And here’s a rendering, by graphic designer Eric Agoncillo Ambata, of our flag in 1898:

Now we may be embarrassed by our flag paying homage to the United States, but the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags did, too. In fact the Cuban flag was modeled after the state flag of Texas. Take a look. This is Texas:

[credit: Mello Luchtenberg, ]


And again, here’s Cuba:

But look too, at the other elements of our flag, besides the red, white, and blue.

Take the triangle in our flag, Cuba’s, and Puerto Rico. They all hark back to an influential organization in the independence movements of the time. That organization was Masonry, and one of its mystical symbols was the triangle. The triangle symbolized liberty, equality, and fraternity. Ideals dating back to the French Revolution.

But there’s another reason we have a flag with the triangle. What do Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines have in common? We’re island nations. And during the last part of the Spanish era, Spanish administrative flags for their overseas colonies were distinguished by being swallow-tailed.

For example, the the Spanish governor-general’s flag was swallow-tailed:

Now Spain, too, had maritime districts.

Here’s the maritime flag for the Philippines 1845-1886, and which became that of Manila, from 1886 to 1898:

In 1886, the Spaniards established a separate Iloilo Maritime Province, and this was its flag from 1886 to 1898:

These flags, and their shape, would have been as intimately familiar to Filipinos as the Spanish national flag. Every time you took a ship, it flew one of these two flags. It would have become identified in the minds of our revolutionaries, with Luzon and the Visayas –the red, and the blue. It made perfect sense to combine them, and to fill the triangle with the symbol of our new nationhood.


Which brings us to another element in our flag: the sun.

In a sense, the sun in our flag also places us within the flag family of Latin American countries that revolted against Spain earlier in the 19th century.


[credit: Mello Luchtenberg ]

Argentina, in particular,


[credit: Mello Luchtenberg ]

or say, Uruguay:


You see, these flags and symbols of these nations would have been familiar to our revolutionary generation, because their coinage circulated in our country.

But of course, the sun is a home-grown symbol, too, and dates to what was adopted as our first flag in 1897. During the Tejeros convention, there was a showdown between those who wanted the government of the country to be the Katipunan, and those who wanted to have a formal government replace the Katipunan. The product of that convention was this flag. Well, this is a modern reproduction, but you get the idea.

Like the suns of liberty in the flags of the Latin American republics, ours, too had a face.

Here are a couple of pictures that shows us that mythical sun in detail.

Now the Americans had banned our flag from 1907 to 1919. When the Philippine legislature finally revoked the American sedition laws, two Filipinos went to Malacanang to present the American governor-general, F.B. Harrison, with a flag. Here they are: Senator Rafael Palma and businessmen Vicente Madrigal.

Take a look at the flag; here’s a detail.

Here’s another photo, this time of President Aguinaldo in retirement in the 1920s. You can see the old design of our flag.

But around that time, the mythical face had come to be too complicated and our flag started to be simplified. Here’s a stampita from the late 20s or early 30s, which showed our flag in transition. It still had the proportions of the First Republic, but its elements had begun to take on their modern design and specifications.

These specifications include the colors, and the elements of the flag. The elements were laid down with finality in 1936, and here’s an illustration from Executive Order 23, March 25, 1936. While superseded by a later, vaguer, Marcos EO, the design continues to be the one specified officially.

Our laws state some basic rules of thumb. The top edge, that’s the long part of a flag, is two times the length of the hoist, that’s the short part attached to the flagpole. So our flag’s ratio is 1:2. The triangle is an equilateral triangle, one with all three sides of the same length, and each side of the triangle is the length of the hoist.

You’ll notice that in recent years, some flag makers have been careless with the elements. A particularly scandalous example are the flags displayed outside the Shoe Mart malls. The size of the sun, the angles of the triangle, are all wrong.

And sometimes, the colors are weird, too. And this brings us back to a raging debate, and the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags.

Red white and blue have been the colors of liberty since the French revolution; and the flags of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines all have red, white, and blue to honor the American revolution. But there’s a huge debate about the shade of the color blue.

Basically, most of us grew up with our flag having the shades of red, white, and blue, used in the US flag:

[credit: Mello Luchtenberg, ]


But historians in the 1950s started arguing that the shade of blue should be different. They argued that in letters from the time, our revolutionary generation never said our Philippine blue was the American navy blue: or did they? It got complicated because a daughter of Mercela Agoncillo, one of the ladies who sewed our first flag, said the blue was navy blue. And all our flags that survived from the era, are navy blue.


Take a look at two examples.


In Fort Bennings, Georgia, there’s a captured flag. This photo was sent me by Deveraux Cannon, an American. This was the flag of General Alejandrino, captured by US forces. Dark blue.

In San Francisco, California: Rudy Asercion, circulated online a photo of a flag presented to US President Theodore Roosevelt by Commodore George Dewey, the victor of Manila Bay, himself. Dark blue.

But maybe the official flag was different from what our embattled army could scrounge together at the time? Maybe. The journalist and historian Carmen Guerrero Nakpil says our flag’s blue was Cuban blue. Which makes sense.

Compare Cuban blue, with American blue.

Here’s Cuba-


And this is the American flag. It would have made sense for our revolutionary generation, which looked to Cuba, to adopt the colors of the Cuban flag.

In 1985, President Ferdinand Marcos ordered the colors restored to the original Cuban blue and red. However the historians involved say that the flag factories at the time only had a pale sky blue available in quantity, and so this became the de facto official color. The public hated it, and resented it, after Marcos had already decreed a new national motto in 1978 and caused a storm of protest by commissioning a “We are the World” style music video of the national anthem a couple of years earlier. No one liked the flag, no one adopted it, everyone rejected it, so that, after Edsa, we all happily went back to the more familiar navy blue.

But if at first you don’t succeed… pass a law. In 1998, Congress passed Republic Act 8491, and the colors of our flag were officially changed. Our blue, since then, has officially been royal blue.


But which blue is that?

Here’s a chart graphic designer Eric Agoncillo Ambata prepared, with the new colors mandated by law since 1998. Are they the colors you see in our flags? Sometimes. Not all the time –I’d even argue, hardly ever. And this, to me, is a clear demonstration that a well-meaning law simply causes more problems than it tried to resolve.

Another problem was caused by the same law, in the case of another national symbol. More on that, when we return.


II. The eagle and the lion


You’ll remember that scene from “Back to Bataan,” from our episode on the resistance movement during World War II. The eras of our nationhood have affected the evolution of our flag and the symbols for our government.

Which brings us to heraldry, which is the art and science of coats of arms.

In ancient times, the state was the same as the monarch, and the symbols of the king were on his shield: it’s interesting that this art developed independently in Europe, where monarchs had coats of arms, and Japan, where each clan or powerful family had a mon.

The moon of the Emperor of Japan, for example, is the symbol of Japan’s government:


Just as the coat-of-arms of the monarch of the United Kingdom, whose flag is shown here,


is the symbol of the British government:


And so, the symbolic representation of our government is our national coat of arms. It’s had its evolution, too.

Under our First Republic, the symbol of our government wasn’t a coat of arms per se. A triangle with the sun and three stars, was adopted from our flag.

These stamps from our first republic show what the symbol looked like. Notice, again, the sun with a mythical face.

The destruction of our first republic led to the institution of a new government, for what came to be known during the American period, as the Philippine Islands.

Here it is, in color. This represented the government from 1903 until 1935.

In 1935, we became a Commonwealth, which meant we were self-governing except for foreign affairs and currency. Incidentally, the flag at the Commonwealth inauguration was a gift from Gen. Artemio Ricarte, the revolutionary hero who never took the oath of allegiance to the United States, to symbolize the united purpose of all Filipinos who sought independence by whatever means.

The Commonwealth adopted a more Philippinized symbol, using the colors of our flag. But it retained the coat-of-arms of Manila and the American eagle representing the continuing sovereignty of the USA. Here’s what the Commonweath coat-of-arms looked like:

On December 15, 1938, A Special Committee of the Coat-of-Arms of the Philippines, under the Chairmanship of Dr. Teodoro M. Kalaw, was created by President Quezon. In 1940, the Committee submitted in its report on certain modifications needed in the coat-of-arms of the Commonwealth. The Committee recommended replacing the coat of arms of Manila, and its replacement by the eight rayed Philippine sun.


Here’s what that design looked like.

The  new Coat-of-Arms of the Commonwealth of the Philippines was revised upon the enactment of Commonwealth Act No. 602 on August 19, 1940.

However, six months after the law was passed, the National Assembly, in March, 1941, voted to repeal CA 602, which resulted in the retention of the Commonwealth coat of arms in use since 1935, which remained in use until July 4, 1946.

On July 3, 1946, the last Congress of the Commonwealth passed Commonwealth Act. No. 731, mandating the new coat of arms for the independent Philippines. It was designed by Galo Ocampo, the famous artist (the guy on right in this photo)

-and harked back to the 1940 coat of arms. Except, being independent, the American eagle was removed –but it was placed in the blue part, while our history under Spain was commemorated with a Spanish lion in the red part.


Here it is.

This design remained unchanged until June 19, 1978, when President Ferdinand Marcos decreed a new national motto for our country: “Isang Bansa Isang Diwa.” So our national coat of arms looked like this:

But all the changes President Marcos had made, whether to the flag or the coat or arms, were unpopular. And so after Edsa, President Corazon C. Aquino issued Memorandum Order No, 34, dated September 10, 1986, setting aside the Marcos changes to the national coat of arms. And we returned to this:

So why is it, in most representations, both the eagle and the lion are shown as being yellow? Like this image, which incidentally, also shows us the shade of blue adopted during the late Marcos era:

Should the eagle and lion really both be gold? The answer is, only under certain circumstances.

Let’s look at a black-and white-representation of our national coat of arms to see why.

Look at this image. If you only have black and white, you don’t have the chance to really be nuanced about the images. And also, when you’re representing our national coat of arms in metal, you can only portray the eagle and lion in gold. Our old embassy in Washington, D.C., which was our temporary capital from 1942-44, shows this:

So there’s the answer. In black and white or when dealing with actual metal, you have no choice but to simplify. But the real rendering has to have the eagle in its proper, or real colors, and only the lion in gold.

Now this is both a pain in the butt and you have to ask why we need a little American eagle and Spanish lion in our country’s coat of arms.

So in 1998, Congress removed the lion and the eagle. According to Republic Act 8491, the new coat of arms of our country would look like this:

Which in many ways is a return to the arms adopted in 1940. Remember this?

But Congress forgot something. Our Constitution.


You see, when Congress said our national coat of arms should be changed, they forgot this provision in our constitution. Would you like to read what our Constitution says?

Explainee, would you like to read the relevant provisions from our charter?


Article XVI General Provisions

Section 2. The Congress may, by law, adopt a new name for the country, a national anthem, or a national seal, which shall all be truly reflective and symbolic of the ideals, history and traditions of the people. Such a law shall take effect only upon its ratification by the people in a national referendum.


Explainee, I have here two documents. One is an opinion from the Solicitor-General, Alfredo Benipayo, dated July 9, 2003; and this other one, an opinion from the Secretary of Justice, Simeon Datumanong, Opinion 63, series of 2003. What happens, I asked, if the law says one thing, and the constitution, another.

The Secretary of Justice said he couldn’t comment on the legality of acts of Congress, but helpfully pointed to the Journal of the Constitutional Commission, which wrote it. The Solicitor-General, was bolder, saying the ConCom and the Constitution are clear. Both pointed to statements in the record, made by Hilario Davide.  Explainee, would you like to read what then Commissioner Davide said?

For instance, why should we not allow the people later, through their chosen representatives, to change the national seal and eliminate therefrom any trace of colonialism? Perhaps our children will decide later to remove from the seal the great symbol of American colonialism, the eagle. Or perhaps they, too, will decide to remove the great symbol of Spanish rule, the lion. Why should we now prohibit them or prevent them?


That was Davide’s proposal. But it seems Davide was challenged by other commissioners, worried over the example of President Marcos, who kept tinkering with our national symbols. So Davide said he was open to making any changes dependent on a national vote and not just Congress. Explainee, would you like to read what Davide said?

…If there is any fear by the proponents that a tyrant later may change the name, we can introduce an amendment to the effect that any law changing the name, changing the anthem, changing the seal must only be effective upon the ratification by the people in a plebiscite or a referendum called for the purpose.


And this is what’s happened. So that’s why our Constitution says what it does, and why Congress, in passing RA 8491, is stuck in a kind of limbo. You see, the changes, at least to our coat of arms and maybe even the flag, haven’t been approved by you and me, that is, we the people, in a plebiscite.

Now I personally have no problem with Congress’ intentions in changing our coat of arms. But I wonder if they realized what they were doing.

For one thing, a national coat of arms is no minor matter. If we implement the law –after a national referendum- you’ll have to change every single representation in our embassies and consulates, and every single government form, local and national. We’re talking about an expense in the billions of pesos.

So perhaps Congress should reassess its centennial madness and restore what’s served us perfectly well since 1946.

Now here’s another symbol, explainee, which you see all the time.

That’s the presidential seal.  Let me explain it to you.

The presidential seal was adopted by President Manuel Roxas in 1947. The design was by the artist Galo Ocampo, who also designed the coat of arms of the Republic.

Actually, the presidential seal is composed of the coat of arms of the President of the Philippines, surrounded by the legend “Seal of the President of the Philippines” (”Sagisag ng Pangulo ng Pilipinas”). The blue circle is the shield; on the shield is a red triangle (representing liberty, equality, and fraternity, the ideals of the French and Philippine revolutions and our republic), on which is a sealion and three stars.

The sealion is a lion with a sea creature’s tail. It was adopted as part of the coat of arms of the city of Manila during the reign of Philip II. Manila’s coat of arms was an adaptation of the arms of the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Leon. To show we were ultramar, or a new settlement overseas, the Lion of Leon became a sealion.

The sealion became the symbol both of Manila and of the governors-general; therefore, a symbol of the supreme authority in the islands. Combined with the red triangle representing valor and the three stars representing Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, the triangle then represents the President of the Philippines as supreme authority and successor of past rulers. It’s an ancient symbol; in contrast, the other Asean country that’s tried to adopt the sealion is Singapore: but theirs became a Singaporean symbol only in 1968, as part of a tourism campaign.

The triangle is on the Philippine sun, as adopted for our flag, with the eight rays representing the provinces placed under martial law at the onset of the revolution against Spain.

During the administration of President Elpidio Quirino, the American presidential seal, after which our own was patterned, was modified to include a ring of stars representing the states of the union. Quirino modified the presidential seal to include a ring of stars, representing the provinces of the Philippines, then 52.

Because of poor terminology in the official document specifying the seal, and ignorance of heraldry on the part of officials, the stars were represented as white stars, although the Executive Order specified they would be gold. This was because people were more familiar with the American design.

During President Estrada’s term, the presidential seal was further modified to reflect the great increase in the number of provinces since 1952. Now, we have 79. To correct the errors that are possible due to sloppy terminology, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed Executive Order 310 recently, correcting the lapses in terminology and representations that have crept in over the years.


The result is a superior rendering of the presidential coat of arms and seal.

The presidential seal includes the presidential coat of arms, encircled by two golden rings, containing the legend “Sagisang ng Pangulo ng Pilipinas” and three gold stars. Note how the circle of stars in gold is much more aesthetically pleasing, and more Filipino-looking, than the white stars sloppily used over the years. This is the official illustration incorporated in EO 310, and it was made by Eric Agoncillo Ambata.

The Vice-Presidential seal includes the vice-presidential coat of arms (on the traditional, and distinct, white field), encircled by a solid blue ring with the legend, “Sagisag ng Pangalawang Pangulo ng Pilipinas.” This is also the official illustration as incorporated in EO 310, and was rendered by Eric Agoncillo Ambata.

The order punishes unauthorized use by officials other than the president and vice-president. All those cars with stickers of the presidential seal should therefore be stopped on the road and their drivers fined.

And this is the vice-presidential seal. You’ll notice that both are easy to distinguish from each other, which is what all official symbols are supposed to be: clear, and easy to recognize.

When we return, our guests will help show us how to properly display and honor the flag.

III. Honor the flag


Today we have with us, some boy scouts, who are going to help us demonstrate proper ways to honor and display our flag.

Students who become boy- and girl-scouts, and those who are eventually subjected to military training, are all taught how to handle the flag. The flag has to be hoisted in a certain manner, and brought down in a certain manner, too: even handling the flag is subject to certain conventions, as is folding it for safekeeping.

Scouts, can we ask you to show our audience the proper way to fold our flag?

Thank you.

There are many, many rules concerning our flag, but I often get certain questions so let’s try to answer those.

The place of honor for our flag is on the right. How do you determine the right? Face the audience, and your right is the place of honor, oddly enough, it will be the audience’s left. On a stage, the flag’s on the right.

On the wall, the blue stripe, is on the right. Hanging at an angle, the blue stripe’s on top. Of course in times of war, our flag’s unique in the world: we reverse it.

Our flag should be hoisted during a solemn flag ceremony.

Our flag deserves a flagpole and should not be nailed to posts, stapled on to sticks, or used as articles of clothing. And you can’t print things or superimpose them on the flag, whether it’s your face, as Mayor Lito Atienza did in Manila, or logos, or slogans. And you can’t use the flag as drapery or to unveil say, a painting or statue.

It should fly from the flagpole with no other flag above it.

The flag may not be flown when it is raining.

The flag should  be taken down at sunset (unless, as provided for by the president or Congress, special permission is granted for its display at night, such as is the case with the Rizal monument).

And, when the flag is taken down, it should be handled respectfully and folded in a particular way, as these scouts demonstrated.

Unless justified by historical or sentimental reasons, flags should always be in good condition, and old flags must be destroyed by carefully burning them.

The flag itself must conform with government specifications. These specifications include the colors, and the elements of the flag.

When we return, your questions and my view.


IV. My view


Our flag has been nailed on to light poles, stapled on pieces of wood, affixed to god-knows-what so long as it sticks up. It is on display day in and day out, in heat and rain, and, when the flags finally fall to pieces because of the way they are just left to hang there, one wonders how they are disposed of.

Our flag shouldn’t be treated like this. If we are going to display the flag, let it be done so with respect. The mania that has developed since the Marcos years, of viewing the flag as something to be displayed in superabundance, merely for effect, reminds me of an old adage: familiarity breeds contempt.

We should have fewer, but better-made, flags. Ever since President Marcos began tinkering around with the flag, and Congress in 1998 went berserk with the Flag and Heraldry Code of 1998, no national symbol has been safe. Congress changed our fine, generations-old oath of allegiance: which meant Raul Roco, when he was campaigning, for one was out of touch with students as he referred to an oath of allegiance they didn’t know. Because Roco had rewritten the Panatang Makabayan.

They  crafted perhaps the most long-winded and so politically-correct as to be juvenile national motto ever (do you know what it is? It’s absurd because it’s kilometric: “Maka-Diyos, Maka-tao, Makakalikasan at Makabansa”). They changed the national coat of arms (heedless of the cost required and of the constitution). And they changed the color of the flag, without regard to the practicality of doing so, which means hardly any flag flying today is in the right colors.

And for what? For the novelty of it. But a faddish attitude towards things that should remain familiar, has meant that those who came of age before 1998 are now completely separated from those going into school since. And you have to wonder, at least in superstitious moments, that the wholesale massacre of our symbols since 1998 must be related to the unfortunate state of our country since then.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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