The Eight Banners System was officially founded by Nurhachi, the Taizu (founder) of the Qing Dynasty. Initially, there were only four banners that represented the four different military units — the Yellow Banner, the White Banner, the Red Banner, and the Blue Banner.
In 1614, a decision to unite all the factions resulted in the addition of the Border Yellow Banner, the Border White Banner, the Border Red Banner, and the Border Blue Banner. Collectively, these banners were called the Eight Banners and they commanded the Manchurian, Mongolian, and Han armies. There are many touching stories behind the eight banners system.
Legend of the eight dragons
One of the stories is a legend about the Eight Dragons. In the beginning, these Eight Dragons were not united; they often fought with each other to gain superiority and put the others down. After the Jade Emperor of Heaven learned of this, he summoned an angel and said:
“Someone on Earth complained to me; because the sun and the moon are always together, half of the Earth is always bright and the other half is always dark. Not only does this make people feel uncomfortable, it also makes them lose their appetites and interferes with their sleep.
“It also leads to crops withering. Since people are anxious to have them separated, I thus order you to inform the Eight Dragons to solve this problem.”
After receiving the order, each of the Eight Dragons strived to be the one who accomplished the task independently. They competed with each other and moved the sun and moon individually; however, no matter how much effort they devoted to the task at hand, they failed.
After they each tried every means possible to them, the Dragon King asked them: “Why haven’t you accomplished the task the Jade Emperor imposed on you?”
The dragons rushed to say:
“The sun and the moon are too heavy to move. Regardless of how much strength we exert, we are unable to catch up with them. Even if we caught up with them, we could not stop them. We were even smashed to the sides sometimes.”
The Dragon king asked: “How did you approach the task?” The dragons replied: “We each tried one after the other.”
Upon hearing this, the Dragon King was furious and scolded them on the spot:
“You are so ignorant. You are even inferior to the sentient beings on Earth. At least they know how to move Mount Tai through cooperation. You can make it as long as all of you cooperate with one another.
“Each of you can easily break an arrow by yourself, but if eight arrows are tied together, is it possible for one of you to break them so easily? The reason for your failure is that a single hand is too weak.”
After hearing this, the dragons enlightened to it and immediately expressed that they would unite. They returned to Heaven and started to cooperate with each other. They got into a formation similar to the Chinese character for “Qing,” which is composed of eight strokes, with each stroke representing a dragon. The sharp end on the top of the character was formed with two of the dragons.
When they fully cooperated with one another, the sharp top was like a sharp wedge. They used the wedge to strike between the sun and moon, and the two objects were separated immediately. After the separation, the sun was ahead of the moon.
After accomplishing this task, the Eight Dragons were worn out and they fell down to the ground. At that moment, a gust happened to blow each dragon onto different colored cloths on the ground. They were then permanently fixed on each cloth.
It was these eight pieces of cloth with dragon designs that were used as military banners during the later Qing Dynasty. Because the colors of the eight dragons and the eight pieces of cloth were different, each military unit’s color was different as well.
Since the White Dragon, the Blue Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, and the Red Dragon happened to fall on the white cloth, the blue cloth, the yellow cloth, and the red cloth respectively, they thus became the White Banner, the Blue Banner, the Yellow Banner, and the Red Banner respectively.
Since the other four dragons fell on the yellow cloth embroidered with a red edge, the white cloth embroidered with a red edge, the red cloth embroidered with a white edge and the blue cloth embroidered with a red edge respectively, they became the Border Yellow Banner, the Border White Banner, the Border Red Banner, and the Border Blue Banner respectively.
Each of the banners had a little dragon on it decorated with clouds and flames, symbolizing scenes of fighting against the Ming Dynasty.