Understanding the symbols of Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’

Story highlights

The umbrella has emerged as the defining symbol of Hong Kong's democracy protests

It became a symbol of passive resistance after they were used to shield against tear gas

A distinct visual language has emerged, including numbered codewords, black t-shirts

The protesters are highly organized and cooperative, sharing food, water, electricity supplies

Hong Kong CNN  — 

Umbrellas, yellow ribbons, numbered codewords and tangles of phone cords: these are the distinctive sights of the dramatic protest unfolding beneath Hong Kong’s spectacular skyline.

Here are some of the defining images to have emerged from the days of pro-democracy protest that have rocked the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, and the reasons behind them.

The umbrella

The key symbol of the protests that have upended Hong Kong is the humble umbrella. Since it was used to shield protesters from the tear gas and pepper spray deployed by police, the umbrella has become a ubiquitous sight on the frontlines, and given the movement its name.

Protesters are bringing in umbrellas in bulk and distributing them for free, sleeping under their shelter and writing slogans on them.

Bryan Druzin, an assistant professor of law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the umbrella was not only functional but had “a certain emblematic resonance in that it’s a symbol of passive resistance.”

“Hong Kong is a city that periodically takes refuge under umbrellas against seasonal typhoons that threaten the city. The turmoil is another storm Hong Kong is trying to weather,” he said.

Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong has been generating protest art by running a social media “competition” to create a lasting logo for “the Umbrella Revolution” (the prizes being “justice, democracy and freedom”). He said the way the umbrella was used brought an “enormous feeling of brotherhood.”

“Tank Man – that was one guy standing in front of a tank,” says Wong. “The umbrella represents people working with each other to form a defensive shield. If you see a piece of the shield ripped away by the police, it will be replaced by another.”

It was a strong image with an inherent contrast, he said. “It’s a soft thing but it’s also very hard in terms of our determination to win this battle.”

Yellow ribbons

A pro-democracy activists shouts at police officers behind a fence with yellow ribbons tied to it by protesters at the entrance to the government headquarters in Hong Kong.

Yellow ribbons are tied to barricade railings, pinned on shirts, and decorate social media profiles. Long an emblem of suffrage movements internationally – particularly tied to women’s suffrage – they have been adopted by Hong Kong’s protesters as a symbol of democratic aspiration.

“Not everyone can be there on the front lines,” says Wong. “The ribbon is a way to show your support.”

Black tees

The student protesters are mostly dressed in black t-shirts.

Black has traditionally been worn at the city’s annual protests to mark the Tiananmen massacre; Wong says they also represent “sorrow and darkness” regarding the use of force on peaceful demonstrators.

Numbers

The protest site reads like a telephone directory of numbers, emblazoned on notes and posters plastered around the streets: 689, 926, 8964. They also figure heavily in social media posts about the protests.

The numbers are a form of shorthand common to Chinese political culture in Hong Kong and in mainland China, explains Wong. In the mainland, he says, due to censorship, “you have to speak in a curveball way. There’s a lot of coded words they use because they cannot express it directly.”

Although no such censorship exists in Hong Kong, the same political shorthand is commonplace, said Druzin. Dates are often used: #926 refers to September 26, when the protests kicked off, #8964 to the date of the Tiananmen crackdown.

Numbers are used as political shorthand by the protesters.