Chinese Printmaking Today

Book From the Sky Dialogues 1: Words and Meanings

Sophie and Bridget have started a conversation. They have raised lots of questions which don't have easy answers. To join in, please send an e-mail to with the subject 'Dialogues' and clearly number the questions you are answering (e.g. Q1.1). We will moderate your replies and add them to the dialogue. You can also find out more about The Book from the Sky or investigate the teachers' notes.

For any question in bold you can send us an e-mail response.
A sentence in italics and the sign ?> is a suggestion for you to investigate further.

Bridget: Maybe Xu Bing could tolerate his many years of carving characters into blocks because he wanted to show the power of words, but in a neutral way that wouldn't hurt himself or anyone else. He said, "The influence of words on my generation was especially powerful. Words alone could determine a person's fate. They could kill one person, and ensure a very good life for someone else. There was a saying then: 'Pick up a pen just as you would a knife or a gun.'" (From the article 'Xu Bing: A Logos for the Genuine Experience', Valerie C. Doran, Orientations, 2001).

Words are important to him for several reasons. His mother was a librarian and the house was full of books. However, his schooling was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution - he was sent to work in the country - so he couldn't read the books very well. His father was an academic who was sometimes forced to wear a dunce's cap or a board that announced how 'bourgeois' he was. Criticism was the chief weapon of the Maoist state. A critical word could lead to loss of a job, a reputation or a life. ?> Find out what the Cultural Revolution meant for students, writers and artists.

Q1.1 Do you think Western culture is more based on the opposite, that 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.'? Or do you think this is just a playground chant and that the truth for most cultures is that 'the pen is mightier than the sword'?

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Sophie: Shu (calligraphy), Hua (painting), Qin (a stringed musical instrument) and Qi (a strategic boardgame) are known as the four basic disciplines of the Chinese literati or the wealthy powerful classes.

Bridget: It's strange that this list of accomplishments doesn't include reading?

?> What is the reading culture of China? How literate are the people? Is there a big education gap? What do they read?

Sophie: Anyway, Xu Bing invented characters for his Book from the Sky that could not be read by those who could read. Can you imagine how those people felt? People often ask Xu Bing whether he made it solely to affect a Chinese audience. He says that even though Western viewers can't recognise the traditional print formats or even begin to try reading the characters, the response from them has been 'overwhelmingly strong and positive'. This isn't surprising if Western viewers have been armed with knowledge about the 'trick' with this work and at least some acceptance of conceptual art.

Bridget: Xu Bing said, "To tamper with the written word is to strike at the very foundation of a culture." He was tampering with the sacred written word, without the authority that Chairman Mao had when he standardised Chinese characters. That was quite a dangerous thing for him to do. ?> Are there examples of other artists or writers (not just Chinese) who have risked censure or rocked the boat by tampering with language?

Q 1.2 Do you think Xu Bing's invented words are meaningless, or that they are meaningful in some ways?

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Sophie: Xu Bing can tamper with language so convincingly because he had detailed knowledge of the ways scripts changed over the centuries. Originally, Chinese characters were pictographic. They looked like the things they represented. Over time they became combinations of sound (phonogram) and a whole idea (ideogram). In contrast, nearly all languages today are phonographic. You can see what you hear. ?> Can you find any other languages that aren't phonographic?

Bridget: About 213 B.C., the first Emperor began the 'burning of the books and burying of scholars'. He got his Prime Minister to draw up an official index of characters and to unify written Chinese (Chuan-Shu). This would help them rule the new vast Empire of so many different regions and would ensure the rulers would understand anything that was written by subversives. In 1956 Mao boasted of repeating 'the burning of books and burying of scholars' and his government simplified the standard characters yet again. However, not all parts of China adopted this system. The simplifications made it harder to distinguish certain characters. Simpler language isn't always easier to understand!

?> Can you find examples of how the scripts became standardised, in either 213 B.C. or 1956?

Q 1.3 Does this remind you of other times and places in history when languages were changed or destroyed by those in power?

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Sophie: I'm still thinking about how it feels when you encounter writing that seems so familiar but that just won't compute. I'm used to this because there are so many different languages that use the Roman alphabet. I feel ashamed that I can't read the ancient manuscripts in our Treasures Gallery, so I end up looking at them as visual objects. But I imagine that Chinese ideograms reveal their meaning more directly and visually than phonographic signs, so that readers would hope to translate any Chinese characters. So, the confusion with The Book of the Sky would be especially acute. Am I wrong?

?> Do Chinese characters ever look like the things they represent? Could you read them in the same way that you read the world?

Bridget: Xu Bing is reminding us what it's like to be a child, to be confronted with so much you don't understand, to be powerless without knowledge. But children always have a stab at making their own sense of what they see. And they don't just reflect what they see by speaking. They actually make their own versions. So, children who can't read yet can try to invent their own letters. This 3 year old was telling a story while writing letters. She made them more graphic to better convey their meaning until they ended up as pictograms.

Sophie: What you said about children reflecting or copying to understand what they see reminds me of Xu Bing's original title for this: A Mirror to Analyse the World: The Last Book of the End of the Century. (It's too long, so people shortened it.) The Book from the Sky is the mirror-print of the world. It's in reverse so you can't read it, but it holds the key to everything.

Bridget: You're right that it's a mirror-print. It suggests that making art is like creating the world, but in reverse or only as a reproduction. But, I hadn't been reading it like that. Because The Book from the Sky is installed like a room rather than a book I was thinking about ceilings. The mirrored ceiling of Olafur Elliason's 'The Weather Project' at Tate Modern reflects us. The painted ceilings of the Sistine Chapel and a thousand other sacred buildings seem to transport us to another place, but they still present a mirror image of man in heaven, not the vista of bleak infinity the sky really is. Many cultures have imagined heaven to be the true or authentic world, but are Xu Bing and Elliason are telling us we only a mental image, a reflection of this world.

?> What links can you make with Leonardo's mirror-writing? Turn the pages of his notebook at the Turning The Pages Site.

Q 1.4 What has heaven meant in Chinese culture? What should it mean to the world today?

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