Simple symbols convey complex ideas.
For example, two intersecting lines symbolize a religion held by 2.2 billion people and a religious text of 783,000 words.
Simple slogans have similar power.
Like when the King of Macedon sent a threatening letter to Sparta (best summed up as “if we go to war against you and if we win, we’ll enslave or kill you all,”) and the Spartans responded with a single word: “IF.” By saying almost nothing, they conveyed just about everything.
That last part is why symbols and slogans spread, go viral, and become successful memes. They say a lot with a little and inspire imitation. And recently, Chinese protesters might have just discovered the ultimate slogan and the ultimate meme: none at all.
Writing something on a placard is a crime in Communist China. It can get you arrested and thrown in jail for years.
So, as you have likely seen, protesters started holding up blank A4 pieces of paper to communicate their dissent. And it’s spreading like wildfire.
This simple white piece of paper symbolizes their voicelessness (paradoxically giving them a voice). It symbolizes their tenacity and the tyranny they face. It symbolizes the idea that freedom can never be stamped out, that it will always “find a way.” It symbolizes censorship, as paper is how information flowed before the internet.
White is also a common funeral color in China, so the blank white sheets have been said to symbolize mourning for the death of the 10 people that initially sparked the protests and perhaps even the death of freedom. It symbolizes being fed up with draconian anti-covid measures. It signals the fragility of authoritarianism – if the Chinese government feels threatened by blank pieces of paper, how can they possibly be strong? A blank canvas, invites subjective interpretations.This in itself is an act of rebellion.
All that, captured by a blank canvas.
In this instance, “nothing” is the ultimate expression of the power of symbols. It’s infinite compression of some of the most important ideas known to humankind.