Symbols of a country

This summer, I’ll be visiting three countries – Singapore, Australia and Malaysia. All three have things which instantly define them. Singapore has the Merlion, Australia has the Opera House (which I sadly won’t be able to see this trip), Ayer’s Rock and kangaroos, both of which I will be able to see, while Malaysia has the Patronas Towers. This led me to think about what defines a country.

What instantly makes a place recognisable? Is there something which is so famous that the entire country is defined by it.

Sydney opera house

I’m not just talking about buildings or statues, but animals, culture and people. For example, in my mind, the most British thing that could ever happen is –

Stephen Fry, Mr Bean, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, The Doctor and Harry Potter standing in London all drinking tea and eating scones, with Big Ben, The London Eye, Tower Bridge (not London Bridge), The Gherkin, St Paul’s Cathedral, Nelson’s Column, The London Eye and the Shard in the background (I know they are not in the same place but I think suspension of disbelief is in order here), while Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens and Shakespeare drive a London Bus past a phone box all the while being pursued by the Queen’s Guards in a London taxi with pigeons flying round. Meanwhile, the rain is falling and Land of Hope and Glory is being played by the Beatles.

phone booth and Big Ben

I don’t think you can get more British than that.

Whenever a film or TV show has Britain involved, there is a very high chance that it will be in London. The scene will open with a shot of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. British entertainment does this too. Doctor Who in particular enjoys destroying and using British landmarks, with the Shard, London Eye, Big Ben, Stonehenge and St Paul’s Cathedral all being used in recent years.

But that just says something. British films and TV shows are very popular in other countries, where their perception of the UK is probably based off London. So it makes sense for Skyfall and Doctor Who to set be in the instantly recognisable London and not Leeds (although Doctor Who also uses Cardiff, which has helped the tourism). Similarly, in Series 3 and 7 when the Doctor visits the US, they go to New York City and not Albany, and in Series 6 he visits the White House. And in City of Death, the Eiffel Tower is used to say “Yes, this is set in Paris”.


So landmarks are used to identify a place when watching a film, but what about animals? Most countries have a national animal: England has the bulldog and the lion (which doesn’t count as there are no wild lions in Britain), the US has the bald eagle, Canada has the beaver, Australia has the kangaroo, New Zealand has the kiwi, while Mauritius has the extinct dodo. Most of these animals are iconic and so serve as a symbol of the country as much as a building or place. Wales kind of cheats; they have the dragon, which doesn’t exist.

So overall, I believe a symbol of a country is an important part of a country for many reasons. Not only will it help to identify the country in movies, adverts and tourism, but it also represent the culture and the legacy of the country.


One thought on “Symbols of a country

  1. I think food and drink are important identifiers: pasta says Italy, sushi says Japan, Camembert cheese says France, fish and chips says Britain as does bitter, vodka says Russia and tequila says Mexico. There are loads more examples of this.

    I don’t think many people would agree with your (very entertaining) vision of Britain. It probably says London and definitely says England, but has no imagery relating to Scotland (I would go for kilts and deep-fried mars bars), Ireland (shamrocks and Guinness) or Wales (male voice choirs and leeks).

    I feel that buildings are more usually a symbol of a city rather than an entire country. For example, to me Big Ben says London not England, the Eiffel Tower says Paris not France and the Empire State building says New York not USA. There are of course some exceptions the pyramids definitely represents Egypt and the Taj Naval is symbolic of India as a whole.

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