The difficulty of expressing "nothing"

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This is a clever attempt to write a spring couplet (chūnlián 春聯), not in the usual Sinoglyphs / Chinese characters, but in pictographs:


(source)

I could figure out about half of the character equivalents (rebuses and puns) quickly just from the pictures, most of which are deftly chosen.  Below I present first the horizontal scroll at the top, then the right and left vertical hangings in romanization, characters, English meanings syllable by syllable, then English translations of the three components.

yùtù yíngchūn
jíxīng gāo zhào hǎoyùn dào
xīn xiǎng shì chéng wú yālì

玉兔迎春
吉星高照好運到
心想事成無壓力

fish rabbit welcome flower
chicken star tall shine good cloud feet
heart think persimmon orange nothing duck strength

——

(May the) jade rabbit welcome spring,
An auspicious star (from on) high shine good fortune to arrive,
The things we think of in our heart be achieved without any pressure.

Of all the symbols, the lamest is the one for "nothing", which is a real cop-out, simply using the character wú 無, which means "nothing".

So now I must ask, why is it so hard to depict "nothing" (they could perhaps have drawn an assemblage of five objects for the near homophone wǔ 五)?

The abstract idea of "nothing" is hard to depict in a morphosyllabic script like Chinese, so the devisers of the oracle bone script borrowed the glyph for "dance" to stand for the homophonous "there is not; nothing").  Later, to distinguish the latter meaning from "dance", they invented another character by adding a component at the bottom, thus wǔ 舞. 

There are several other characters used to convey the notion of "nothing" (wú 无,  wáng / wú 亡, líng 零, líng ), but the story of how to depict "nothing" in writing is much more complicated than just listing these characters, because most of them are also used as particles for grammatical negation or have other meanings such as "scattered", were adopted / adapted relatively late, etc.. 

Selected readings

[Thanks to Chau Wu]



13 Comments »

  1. Stephen L said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 2:06 am

    "Of all the symbols, the lamest is the one for "nothing", which is a real cop-out, simply using the character wú 無, which means "nothing"."

    If the poem is specifically an emoji rendition then it's not *strictly* the character 無, but rather maybe the emoji "無 in a box" ️ [ which has the apparent usual meaning "free of charge" ( https://chenhuijing.com/blog/east-asian-character-emojis/#japanese-free-of-charge-button ) ]?

  2. Stephen Jones said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 3:31 am

    I'm keen on these composite characters, from a New Year's couplet in north Shanxi:
    https://stephenjones.blog/2022/07/14/more-composite-characters/

  3. unekdoud said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 5:31 am

    You could use × for "no", but perhaps that's too visually negative.

    Wiktionary claims that ㄨ comes from 㐅 which is just 五, so maybe this suggestion isn't too far off.

  4. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 8:37 am

    might be nicer to read "無" in a box as 免 mian3 'avoid' given the connection to mian3fei4 'free'

    "The abstract idea of 'nothing' is hard to depict in a morphosyllabic script like Chinese"
    No, it's (arguably) (relatively) hard to depict in a pictographic system like… emoji?etc.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 9:17 am

    @Stephen L

    Thanks for your important observation that the depiction of "nothing' in this pictographic spring couplet is, strictly speaking, an emoji.

  6. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 10:05 am

    So now I must ask, why is it so hard to depict "nothing"?

    The reason is

  7. Aristotle said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 10:24 am

    To be less cute about it – the only actual attempt at how to depict it that I can think of would be to punch a hole out of the sheet. Of course “a hole in the paper” isn’t something a printer can print, so this would not in fact work either.

    The problem is that “nothing” is meta. Instead of describing or referring to the idea of a thing, it refers to the idea of the absence of a thing – in fact, the absence of any thing. But any depiction of something is, well, literally, a depiction of some thing. And so there is an inherent contradiction in attempting to depict “nothing”.

  8. Peter Taylor said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 2:03 pm

    Looking at it with just the knowledge that it was intended to depict nothing, I thought it might be a fader from a mixing desk pulled down to the minimum value. That might more accurately be considered to depict zero (or very pedantically considered to depict negative infinity if you work in decibels rather than linear multipliers), but it's in the right general semantic area.

  9. Chris Button said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 9:27 pm

    Personally, I've always liked 冇 as a clever take on 有

    so the devisers of the oracle bone script borrowed the glyph for "dance" to stand for the homophonous "there is not; nothing"). Later, to distinguish the latter meaning from "dance", they invented another character by adding a component at the bottom, thus wǔ 舞

    Only a technical note that doesn't affect the overall point, but I'm not sure 無/舞 was ever used as a negative in the oracle-bone inscriptions. I think that came later on. An alternative example from the earliest inscriptions would be 母 with later graphic modification to 毋.

  10. unekdoud said,

    January 24, 2023 @ 3:02 am

    @Peter Taylor: Also not an emoji, but Unicode has the up tack ⊥ which represents false/contradiction or bottom. (Physics pedants will also draw a distinction between "minimum" and "empty", e.g. the phenomenon of zero-point energy/vacuum energy.)

  11. Chris Button said,

    January 24, 2023 @ 3:04 pm

    Random aside, but the idea that 舞 "dance" might be related to 巫 "shaman" is an interesting one. I personally don't think they are, since 巫 is pretty much a clear-cut loanword (as we've discussed on LLog a few times based on Prof. Mair's proposal–with Old Chinese velar coda intact, albeit approximant/fricative rather than stop), and 舞 is equally ancient (i.e. in the oracle bones). I also wonder if 舞's onset might have been prenasalized versus pure nasal based on word family associations, but that's another matter.

  12. NoLongerBreathedIn said,

    January 26, 2023 @ 8:19 am

    @unekdoud
    Or even better, ∅!

  13. Terpomo said,

    January 31, 2023 @ 9:23 pm

    This reminds me of a rebus-based 'Heart Sutra for illiterates' that was published in Japan some centuries ago.

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