The Written Word and Meaning in Book from the Sky 天书by Xu Bing 徐冰
By Staff Writer Lily Spencer
Nothing signifies “China” more than her written language. Its aesthetic pictographic beauty has stunned people all over the world for centuries, but so has its complexity. Chinese history, particularly in the twentieth century when education has come to the forefront of governmental obligations, is dominated by the long battle against illiteracy. Chinese is one of the few languages on earth in which it is possible to become illiterate once having been educated. In an article titled “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard,” David Moser, from the University of Michigan, recounts an anecdote about having lunch with a group of PhD students from the Chinese department of Peking University (often referred to as the “Harvard of China”). He recalls trying to write a note to a friend, in Mandarin, to inform them that he had to cancel an appointment that day because he had a cold. Forgetting the characters for the word “to sneeze” (“打喷嚏”) he turned to the students for help. To his surprise, not one of them could remember the characters. He ends the story with the exclamation “Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word "sneeze"??” This particular state of affairs, the characters’ aesthetic values, and the practice of every Chinese scholar and schoolchild in history writing out each character a hundred times in order to commit it to memory has resulted in writing and writing form being highly significant to Chinese cultural and the social psyche. Traditionally, one’s abilities to write well and to write beautifully have been held in as high esteem as the ability to speak well has in Western culture.
As a result, the written word holds a place of particular significance in Chinese art history, especially for the generation of artists that grew up during Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. From 1966 until his death in 1976, Mao led a campaign against intellectuals and the educated classes, attempting to wipe out the remnants of traditionalism in society and China’s historic culture, all of which he believed to embody bourgeois and capitalist values. Intellectuals, such as doctors and academics, were arrested, including the parents of the artist Xu Bing whose father was Professor of History at Peking University and whose mother was a university librarian, and were sent to so-called “re-education camps.” In addition, urban youths (of whom, Xu Bing was one) were moved to the countryside in the “Down to the Country Movement,” and forced to help make “Big Character” propaganda posters. Most significantly of all, however, was Mao’s modification of Chinese characters to create the “simplified alphabet” (简体字). By asserting control over the country’s language, hijacking the country’s history and using it in the swathes of propaganda posters, books and films created in service of the regime, Mao brought writing, meaning and language to the forefront of political and artistic thought.
Being born in 1955, these ideas dominate Xu Bing’s artwork. In his first major piece after finishing his Master’s degree at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Book from the Sky, 天书, (originally Mirror to Analyse the World: The Century’s Final Volume) 1987-1991, he presents an installation with scrolls, covered in writing, hanging from the ceiling and lining the walls, with a hundred and twenty traditionally printed and bound books laid out neatly on the floor. The viewer is surrounded by a sea of what looks like words and what, in the solemn atmosphere created by the minimalist flowing order, feels like ancient knowledge. However, not one of the four thousand characters displayed in the room is a real Chinese character. Xu Bing invented all of them, deliberately making them look like Chinese characters, using traditional radicals (constituent parts of Chinese characters that often convey meaning or give hints to pronunciation), but maintaining no meaning. Xu Bing creates a feeling of disorientation and alienation for the educated Chinese viewer, by surrounding them with a language that looks as though they should be able to read it, but can’t. Xu Bing replicates the experience of his late teens when the language that he was so used to and had grown up learning was nullified. In extension of this, the viewer is alienated from and by the work, reflecting the growing inaccessibility of Chinese history and literature as a result of the abrupt change in writing system. Furthermore, the work reflects the distortion and manipulation of language that Xu Bing was witness to in the 1960s and ‘70s for the purpose of political rhetoric and propaganda.
Xu Bing has acknowledged the influence of all of these ideas and experiences on his work. However, it can also be seen that his musings on the nature of language, the loss of language and the search for meaning in a confusing, changing and dangerous world goes far deeper than this. The title of the piece – tian shu 天书 – has an ambiguous meaning in itself. “Tian 天” means “sky,” but it can also mean “heaven” and has various numinous connotations. “Shu 书” can mean “book” or “written language.” As a result, the title of the work can be seen to be both secular and divine, with the words coming from the sky, and thus effectively nowhere, or heaven – traditionally, in China, the realm of the divine and, significantly, the ancestral past. It is both a book from the sky, a book from the past and a book from the divine. Further confusing this, the phrase 天书 tian shu can refer to a specific type of historic philosophical writing from the Daoist tradition, thus giving gravitas and authority to the concept, but in the past century it has also come to mean “gibberish” with a colloquial meaning similar to the English phrase “it’s all Greek to me.”
These juxtapositions inspire the viewer to question where meaning comes from and where its authority lies. As is consistent with Chinese traditional linguistic philosophy, which was reinforced in the mind of Xu Bing by the twentieth century works of Western linguistics and philosophy that flooded China in the 1980s after Mao’s death, like Wittgenstein and Saussure, Book from the Sky supports the idea that meaning is born through context. To Xu Bing, however, the Cultural Revolution stripped China of its historical and cultural context, leaving China’s language meaningless and its connotations ambiguous.
Ames, Roger T. “Reading Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky: A Case Study in the Making of Meaning.” In Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art: Cultural and Philosophical Reflections, edited by Hsingyuan Tsao and Roger T. Ames, 33-66. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.
Hearn, Maxwell K. Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013.
Bloomberg “Brilliant Ideas” Documentary
Accessed 9th Dec. 2016
Xu Bing’s personal website
Accessed 9th Dec. 2016