Articles‎ > ‎

Tibet on the Cards of History: Revisiting the Tibetan National Flag

posted Mar 22, 2015, 4:56 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Mar 23, 2015, 5:17 PM ]

By Nick Gulotta and Dicky Yangzom

A number of publications on Tibet have created confusion regarding the historical status of the Tibetan national flag. Without qualification, these works assert that the flag was simply a "regimental banner” used by the Tibetan army and later promoted to the rank of a national flag by Tibetans in exile.[1] [2] This claim ignores a vast selection of scholarship, primary sources, and visual documentation to the contrary. These works also carelessly omit the fact that the flag was internationally recognized and even well known as the national flag of Tibet long before Tibetans came into exile.

The history and international recognition of the Tibetan flag has been well documented. As Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu points out, before 1959, the flag was used to represent Tibet in international diplomatic affairs and was featured widely from an official British Crown publication in 1930 to National Geographic’s “Flags of the World” issue in 1934. [3] One previously unexplored example of the flag’s international popularity was its use on collectable trading cards. Beginning in the late 1920s, images of the Tibetan flag were widely published by companies in Europe, North America, South America, the Middle East, and Oceania in national flag trading card collections.

Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, companies would include trading cards with their products. Intended to boost sales and brand loyalty, these cards were sold with cigarettes, chewing gum, tea, and virtually every type of product. Collecting trading cards was a favorite pastime for many and a trip to the store usually brought back some of these attractive, brightly colored cards. They were ubiquitous with pop culture—often featuring celebrities, famous events, national flags, and other encyclopedic themes. The demand for trading cards eventually surpassed the the demand for the products they accompanied resulting in the sale of trading cards by themselves. [4]

On Cigarette Cards

1) Abadie Zigarettenpapier Ltd.  1928. 2) Massary Zigarettenfabrik, 1929. 3) Bulgaria Zigarettenfabrik, 1933. 4) Tabakmonopol Danzig, 1933. 5) Monopol Zigarettenfabrik, 1936. 6) Kosmos Zigarettenbilder 1950, 7) Cento Tobacco Company, 1950. 8) Kane Products LTD., 1958. 9) Sweetule Products LTD., 1962.

Click image to enlarge

As early as 1928, Abadie Zigarettenpapier, an Austrian company circulated the Tibetan flag on their cigarette cards and until the early 1960s nearly a dozen German, Austrian, Dutch, and English tobacco companies also featured it on cigarette cards. For decades, these cards were included in virtually all packs of cigarettes and other tobacco products. Each card was printed in a themed series and was widely collected by the public with print-runs that ran into hundreds of millions. [5] Many companies also published albums that catalogued these cards and included a description of each country’s flag. The albums had titles such as “Flags of the World” and “Flags of Non-European Countries.”

Vlaggen Van Alle Landen, De Faam, Breda, Netherlands, 1952.

Click image to enlarge

On Chewing Gum, Chocolate, and Candy Cards

Following the success of cigarette cards, chocolate manufacturers also began issuing collectable cards. In 1938, Chocolat Meurisse, a Belgian company included a Tibetan flag with their collection, “The Costumes of Nations.” After World War II, which halted card production due to paper shortages, it became common for candy packets of all types to include trading cards that were often their selling point. [6] One Dutch peppermint company, De Faam, published a series of cards with an accompanying book titled “Flags of all Countries” in 1952.

1) Chocolat Meurisse, 1938. 2) Topps, 1950. 3) Baylan Pastaneleri, circa 1950. 4) De Famm, 1952. 5) Topps, 1963. 6) Topps, 1956. 7) Topps-designed card in Hebrew circa 1959. 8) Saiem, circa 1957.
Click image to enlarge

In 1950, 1956, and 1963, the popular American company Topps, printed three different Tibetan flag cards. Their 1956 “Flags of the World” card was used by a number of companies in Europe and the Middle East and translated into several languages. One example of the 1956 card can be seen above printed in Hebrew. Similarly, “Tibet” is spelled with a dotted “İ" from the Turkish alphabet on the above card from Baylan Pastry, a Turkish chocolate company. Other cards were also sold in coin-operated vending machines with gumballs such as the one printed by Saiem circa 1957 in France.

On Other Trading Cards

1) Eucalol, 1935. 2) Birkel, 1952. 3) Veen, 1954. 4) Agência Portuguesa de Revistas, 1957. 5) Sanitarium, 1959. 6) Gouda’s Roem, 1950. 7) Nannina, 1961. 8) Saiem, 1959. 9) Minepba,1961. 10) Golden Glow Sales Corp., 1963.

Click image to enlarge

Outside of Asia and Europe, the earliest example of the flag’s use was perhaps in 1935 by Eucalol, a popular Brazilian soap company. Eucalol enclosed flag cards with soap boxes of from their series “Flags of the world.” Similarly, in 1950, a Dutch food company, Gouda’s Roem, included Tibetan flag cards with with boxes of butter. Birkel, Germany’s principal noodle manufacturer in 1952 published a magazine titled “Countries and Flags” which included a card with the Tibetan flag before an image of the young Dalai Lama. In 1954, the Dutch publisher Veen, produced a collectable cards book titled “Flags and Postage,” which included a card with the Tibetan flag above a Tibetan government postage stamp. The Agency of Portuguese Magazines also included the flag in their 1957 educational magazine, “Flags of the Universe,” which contained removable trading cards. The same card was also featured by the Brazil-America Limited publishing house in their “Flags and Typical Costumes” magazine later that year. The New Zealand-based health foods company, Sanitarium, enclosed a Tibetan flag card from their 1959 “National Flags and Costumes” series with breakfast cereals. The flag also made several appearances in Greece on at least 3 different cards around this time. One such card can be seen above with “Tibet” spelled using the Greek letter “Θ” (theta). Several Dutch and German companies even featured the flag on collectable card-like matchbox labels.

Various Tibetan flag matchbox labels 1950-60.

Click image to enlarge

The flag appears to have been printed and reprinted up until China’s annexation of Tibet became well known around the world. In 1959 and 1961, Tibetan flag cards were published by two Italian companies, Sidam and Nannina. Nannina published an album titled “Flags and Costumes World” which included an image of Tibet’s historic borders. A later 1960’s edition of the Sidam card featured the “Occupation of Tibet” in place of its country card. The American Golden Glow Sales Corporation published an educational magazine in 1963 titled “Our Wonderful World of Wonderful People,” which included a Tibetan flag card. The back of the card reads, “it is presently under Chinese Communist domination. A recent revolt forced the recognized and sovereign religious leader of Tibet, the Grand Lama, to seek refuge in neighboring India.”

The National Flag of Tibet

The circulation of these trading cards show that there was a vast international recognition of the Tibetan flag. Although reflecting the orientalist and romantic aura that is often built around Tibet, these trading cards nonetheless unveil the absurdity of the claims of historians like Patrick French (2009) and Melvyn Goldstein (2009) that the Tibetan flag was simply a regimental banner and later promoted as a national flag by Tibetans in exile. While the proliferation of nations was a defining feature of the 20th century, since much of the world was struggling for national recognition, Tibet’s national symbol, had long been recognized. Only after the colonization of Tibet, would this historical fact be distorted by revisionist historians and writers.

Email to a friend or share on Facebook, Twitter, etc.:

Facebook Twitter Google+ Addthis


Far from being an exhaustive study of Tibetan flag cards, this article explores one example of the flag's international popularity. It is our hope more research will be done on this subject. Additional information on the cards mentioned can be found here:

1. Goldstein, Melvyn C.; Jiao, Ben and Tanzen Lhundrup. On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969. University of California Press. 2009. p. 209.

2. French, Patrick, Tibet, Tibet. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009. p14-15.

3.  Norbu, Jamyang, Independent Tibet, The Facts. 3rd ed. High Asis Press, March 2011. p. 3.

4. Crane, Ben, A Brief History of Trade Cards, The Trade Card Place, n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.

5.  "It's on the Cards." Card History. The London Cigarette Card Company, n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.

6. Ibid.

Email to a friend or share on Facebook, Twitter, etc.:

Facebook Twitter Google+ Addthis