Yellow Ribbons and Yellow Butterflies

Vera Mackie considers the deployment of the colour yellow in diverse political contexts, from protest against sexual violence to protest both for and against democratic principles.

No colour has intrinsically positive or negative connotations. It depends on the evolving context in which they are deployed and, indeed, the various associations may, at times, be contradictory. In this blog, I survey the disparate uses of the colour yellow though a series of case studies from the United States of America, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and South Korea.

Statue dressed in a brown coat and jacket surrounded by yellow flowers.
The Statue of Peace decorated with yellow flowers. Photograph by Vera Mackie

The colour yellow has different connotations in different national, local and temporal contexts. In the United States, the colour has been associated with military personnel, who wore yellow neckerchiefs with their uniforms in the late nineteenth century. It became the practice for women waiting for the return of serving military personnel to wear yellow ribbons. This was immortalised in the mid-twentieth century song and western film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1947). Similar stories concern an ex-prisoner who looks for a white or yellow ribbon as a signal that he will be welcomed home on his release from prison. This is dramatised in the 1973 song, ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon round the Ole Oke Tree’.

Some folklorists trace the antecedents of the yellow and white ribbon stories back to early modern Europe. More recently, the yellow ribbons have been adapted in other situations, such as support for the United States nationals held hostage in the US Embassy siege in Tehran from 1979. The yellow ribbons appeared again in support of United States soldiers fighting in the first Gulf War in 1990–1991.

There are often gendered patterns – the women on the home front wore yellow as they waited for the return of menfolk from the war front. Yellow is also seen as the colour of ‘sunshine, hope and happiness’.

Yellow in the Philippines People’s Power Revolution

Picture of a commemorative plaque on the ground.
Commemorative Plaque at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Photograph by Vera Mackie.

Yellow ribbons were also used as a symbol of the People’s Power Revolution in the Philippines from 1983, a series of protests which ultimately led to the overthrow of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. The People’s Power Revolution is also known as the EDSA Revolution after the highway in Metro Manila (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue) where demonstrators gathered.

The yellow ribbons are widely interpreted as a reference to the aforementioned song, ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon round the Ole Oak Tree’. After half a century of US colonialism and several decades of hosting US military bases, Filipinos are familiar with US popular culture.

Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino Junior (1932–1983) was a senator in the Philippines from 1967 to 1972 and also served as governor of the province of Tartar. He was a leader of the opposition to President Ferdinand Marcos (1917-1986). He was imprisoned for some years, but was allowed to travel to the USA for medical treatment in 1980.

After ending his self-imposed exile, in 1983 supporters festooned the streets leading to the – then quite new – Manila International Airport with yellow ribbons in anticipation of his return. Aquino, however, was assassinated on the tarmac of the airport on his disembarkation. The airport was renamed in 1987 as Ninoy Aquino International Airport in his honour.

Corazon Aquino stands before a crowd in a yellow top.
Corazon Aquino swears in as President of the Philippines at Club Filipino, San Juan on February 25, 1986. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Image of a coffin surrounded by yellow and white flowers with four soldiers standing guard. The crowd surrounding the funeral procession is in black and white.
Cory Aquino Funeral 2009. Photo taken by Richel King. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

On Aquino’s death, his widow, Maria Corazon (‘Cory’) Sumulong Conjuanco Aquino (1933–2009) took up the mantle as figurehead of the anti-Marcos and pro-democratisation movement. She was seen campaigning in yellow clothes and wore yellow for her swearing-in as President.

For several years from the election campaign and her eventual accession to the Presidency, Corazon Aquino was always seen in public wearing yellow.

One commentator a few years after the ‘People’s Power Revolution’ stated that:

President Aquino finds it acceptable now to wear dresses of a greater variety of colours [other than yellow], her wardrobe suggesting the opportunities, as well as the pressures, of normality.

When Corazon Aquino died in 2009, the streets leading to her funeral were festooned with yellow, while US aeroplanes dropped yellow confetti.

Yellow Butterflies in South Korea

The colour yellow has also been used in campaigns for redress for survivors of militarised sexual violence. Demonstrators regularly carry yellow placards in the shape of butterflies.

Butterfly shaped postcards with a yellow design on one side and information on the obverse.
Amnesty International postcard with obverse. Photograph by Vera Mackie.

An Amnesty Australia campaign in the 1990s distributed postcards in the shape of yellow butterflies, the obverse side bearing demands for the Australian government to put pressure on the Japanese government to acknowledge responsibility for wartime sexual violence.

Butterflies are regularly used as logos in South Korean campaigns on militarised sexual violence. The butterfly is said to have spiritual connotations.

In central Seoul, there is a statue devoted to the campaign for redress. The figure of a young woman is regularly decorated with yellow scarves or mufflers and pots of yellow flowers, depending on the season.

Asian studies scholar Elizabeth W. Son reports that with the use of the colour yellow activists sought to foster a ‘sense of hope and solidarity’ and that the colour ‘evokes light and vitality’. Over several years, the colour yellow was also used for vests which the women wore to demonstrations, with various printed protest slogans.

Yellow in Hong Kong and Thailand

A rally of people, some of them holding yellow signs and wearing yellow jumpers.
A rally on militarised sexual violence in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, October 2012. Supporters of the grandmothers wear yellow vests. Image via Creative Commons.

In the twenty-first century, the yellow ribbon has also been used as a symbol for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

The yellow ribbon was first used by pro-democracy camp legislators in a press conference after the December 2005 protest for democracy in Hong Kong. It was later adopted as a symbol by demonstrators during the 2014 protests. It became more widely used after Hong Kong police used tear gas and pepper spray to dissipate the students and protesters in 2014 and again in the 2019–2020 protests.

In Thailand, by contrast, ‘yellow shirts’ were worn by pro-monarchists in protests against the then government of Thaksin Shinawatra.

It can thus be seen that there is no intrinsic meaning or set of associations for the colour yellow. Rather, it is deployed in strategic ways in particular national, local and temporal contexts. In Hong Kong, it was associated with calls for democratisation, while in Thailand it denoted support for the monarchy. In the United States, yellow scarves and ribbons could be interpreted as nationalist and militarist. In South Korea, by contrast, yellow has come to be associated with feminist protests against militarised sexual violence.


Image of author Vera MackieVera Mackie is Emeritus Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong. She recently co-edited, with Sharon Crozier-De Rosa, a special issue of Women’s History Review, on ‘Mobilising Affect and Trauma: The Politics of Gendered Memory and Gendered Silence’.


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