Nerding Out Over Contemporary Chinese Art – Part II (B)

Today’s post features Chinese artist Gu Wenda’s piece entitled “Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry”. (For my previous post on Gu, click here).

To produce this piece, Gu carved translations of Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 C.E.) poetry into 50 stone tablets. The poems were translated first literally from Chinese into English, and then phonetically from English back into Chinese. As you can imagine, this convoluted method of translation renders the final product completely incomprehensible.

Gu Wenda, “Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry” (2001)

Gu Wenda, “Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry” (2001)


Gu’s “Forest of Stone Steles” comments on issues of translation and cultural misunderstanding in a globalized world. His artistic rendition of misinterpretation challenges the accepted notions of translation and meaning, arguing that a misunderstanding of text, writing, and language inevitably results in a misreading of culture itself.

Gu Wenda’s concern with translation can be interpreted as a distinctly post-modern, global problem, but his knowledge of traditional Chinese poetry and writing systems ground him firmly in ancient Chinese history. In this way, Gu manages to straddle the past and the present, the East and the West, addressing contemporary, universal questions with an understanding of tradition and a sense of history.

“Forest of Stone Steles” can alternatively be interpreted as an exploration of the Chinese cultural identity as it stands in opposition to “the other” or “the West”, exposing the miscommunications that occur because of that dichotomy. Gu’s artwork does not offer a solution to cross-cultural misunderstanding, nor does it provide a concrete definition of what it means to be Chinese; however, his work clearly exposes the linkages between Chinese writing systems and the Chinese concept of cultural identity. Through his commitment to ancient Chinese methodology and his deep understanding of Chinese linguistic traditions, he proposes that ancient Chinese language and text can serve as a source of distinction and definition.

Stay tuned for my next post featuring another contemporary Chinese artist who deals with issues of language and translation in his work!


Nerding Out Over Contemporary Chinese Art – Part II (A)

Another Chinese artist who works with language as a means of deconstructing the Chinese cultural identity is Gu Wenda. Gu has an array of fascinating pieces to explore – which is why this post will actually be divided into two parts (A and B). Part A will focus specifically on the “Mythos of Lost Dynasties” series, which explores the historical significance of the simplification of Chinese characters. Check the blog again in the next few weeks to see my next post about some of Gu’s other works.

Born in 1955, Gu Wenda experienced the Cultural Revolution and even joined the Red Guard, where he was asked to contribute to the simplification of Chinese characters. His experience during this time sparked a fascination with the ancient Chinese writing system, and he was inspired to study traditional Chinese calligraphy. As a result, text and language are central to his “Mythos of Lost Dynasties” series, which are large-scale ink paintings on scrolls depicting subverted Chinese ideographs.

Gu Wenda - The Mythos of Lost Dynasties

Gu Wenda, “The Mythos of Lost Dynasties” (1983-1987)


Much like Xu Bing’s “Tian Shu” (check out my previous post on Xu Bing here), Gu Wenda’s characters are “meaningless” and invented, but both artists’ works remain true to traditional Chinese methods of calligraphy and printing, and both pieces clearly maintain a distinctively Chinese quality. Gu Wenda’s characters are in fact based off the ancient Chinese “Seal Script” that was widely used in the Qin (221-206 B.C.E) and Han (206 B.C.E – 220 C.E.) Dynasties. Aside from the fact that the ideographs are completely indecipherable, Gu’s art works look remarkably historically accurate. He utilizes conventional media such as ink, paper scrolls, and traditional calligraphy tools to create a seemingly authentic pseudo-language.

Gu posits that writing and text are fundamental to Chinese cultural identity. He argues that language is a signifier of cultural conventions, but by manipulating language, one can both embrace and challenge tradition simultaneously. Like Xu Bing, Gu’s “meaningless” characters also provoke questions about the limitations of language and human understanding. Perhaps Gu Wenda, in calling attention to the fact that language and text can be manipulated, is drawing upon his own experience in the Cultural Revolution and referencing his own role in the process of simplifying traditional Chinese characters.

Although his work provides no easy answers, I would argue that Gu, like Xu Bing, laments the current state of Chinese identity, and proposes a renewed interest in ancient Chinese writing and language as source of self discovery. His fastidious commitment to historical accuracy in the process of writing the characters and clear respect and knowledge of the discipline of calligraphy itself can be interpreted as somewhat nostalgic; perhaps Gu is arguing that a renewed understanding and of the process and methodology of traditional Chinese writing systems can provide meaning to the Chinese people.

In 1993, Gu began a fifteen year project called “United Nations”, in which Gu collected human hair donated by people around the world to create massive calligraphy installations that explored the idea of “internationalism”. You can learn more about that project here.

Also, check out Gu’s website for his bio and some of his other works. Look forward to part B of this post, which will feature more on Gu Wenda!

Nerding Out Over Contemporary Chinese Art – Part I

I’m in the midst of my final exams, and I can’t believe that my graduate program in Chinese Studies is coming to an end already. (I do have to submit a dissertation that’s due in September, but that’s another story!) My parents have generously agreed to give me a piece of art as a congratulatory gift, and I’ve already selected the piece that I want. Of course, it’s by a Chinese artist! I don’t want to give too much away, since I haven’t even purchased the piece yet, but it definitely got me thinking about other works of contemporary Chinese art with similar themes that I could showcase on the blog in the meantime. I’ll definitely do a post about the piece I am buying once I’ve seen it in person!

I particularly love contemporary Chinese art because it is so closely linked with Chinese culture and history. There seems to be a huge pool of very talented Chinese artists working today, and the fact that the PRC heavily censors the media adds a lot of dimension and controversy to the landscape that these artists inhabit. As a result, the Chinese art market is booming, and the variety of styles and perspectives represented in the field is truly incredible.

My very close friend Nina Lippman is a specialist of Contemporary Chinese art based in Shanghai and New York, and she is the one who introduced me to the piece that I am buying. Have a look at her beautiful and inspiring facebook page that is constantly updated with the latest news in the Chinese contemporary art world.

This will be a three part post that explores some of my favorite Chinese contemporary artworks who are all concerned with issues of written language, calligraphy, and translation, starting with Xu Bing’s “Book from the Sky”. Look out for more art-related posts to follow in the next few weeks.

Keep in mind that these are just my personal interpretations of artworks and my opinions may not accurately reflect that artists’ original intentions.

Xu Bing’s “Tian Shu” (天书 - translated into English as “Book from the Sky”) was first shown publicly in 1988, and it is an installation of invented, meaningless Chinese characters hanging from the ceiling. The name “Tian Shu” functions as a pun in Chinese, meaning “Heavenly Script”, or “Obscure or Illegible Writing”.

Xu Bing Tian Shu

Xu Bing, “Tian Shu” (1988)


The book was printed by hand in a factory specializing in traditional Chinese methods of printing and binding which are based on the techniques used in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 C.E.). The structure of the book includes a title, table of contents, recognizable paragraph structures, quotations, etc… Excluding the fact that the characters themselves are unreadable, “Book from the Sky” is a perfect example of an archive of Chinese literature.

The disciplined and historically accurate production, organization, and formatting render the piece a perfect example of Chinese cultural authority. The very name “Tian Shu” implies that the book has come from heaven and is bestowed or imposed upon the masses, thereby further emphasizing its authority. In this sense, one can interpret Xu Bing’s work as a commentary on how simplified Chinese characters were made the compulsory standard by the government in the 1950’s and 60’s and have lost much of the original cultural meaning of traditional characters.

However, “meaningless” may be a poor way to describe the characters in “Tian Shu”; perhaps Xu Bing has actually created a new system of writing in which each character has a specific connotation, but has yet to disclose this information to the public. Although this is entirely possible, we must not discard the word “meaningless” when describing the characters featured in “Tian Shu”, because their very “meaninglessness” makes a very significant point; some viewers speculate that Xu Bing’s intention was to comment on the reliability of knowledge and the place of tradition in modern Chinese society.  The artist himself spent around three years designing and producing this work of art that no one can read or comprehend, thereby poignantly commenting on the futility of existence and limitations of human knowledge.

Chinese people’s reactions to “Tian Shu” are notably very different than those of a Western audience: Chinese people are frustrated by the piece because although the characters look like legible Chinese writing, ironically, they are unreadable! People who have no knowledge of written Chinese would not understand the significance of Xu Bing’s work. “Tian Shu” is certainly not “export art” because it is intended for a Chinese audience, or at least an audience with some knowledge of Chinese language.

Xu Bing’s emotive piece laments the current state of Chinese identity; by implying that Chinese written language itself has lost its meaning, Xu Bing is pointing out that Chinese culture is losing its meaning and significance as well. The artist uses Chinese characters to assert that language is a critical component of culture, and that Chinese language and historical traditions must be protected, internalized, and revered in order for Chinese culture to thrive and remain relevant in the 21st century.

You can see some of Xu Bing’s other amazing works on his website.

My Favorite Chinese Poem – “Quiet Night Thoughts” by Li Bai

Li Bai, also known as Li Po or Li Bo,  (701-762 C.E.) is one of the most well-known and widely quoted poets in Chinese history. He lived during the “Golden Age” of Chinese art and culture, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.).


Li Bai

Here is one of his most famous poems, which also happens to be my personal favorite:








Jìng yè sī 

Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,

Yí shì dì shàng shuāng.

Jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè,

Dī tóu sī gù xiāng.


Quiet Night Thoughts

In front of my bed, the bright moon shines,

I thought it was frost on the ground.

I raise my head and gaze at the shimmering moon,

Then lower my head and miss my home.

“Red Star Over China” by Edgar Snow – Book Review

In one of my favorite classes during my time as an undergraduate studying East Asian Studies, I was required to read Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow, a classic account of the American journalist’s months spent with the Chinese Red Army in 1936. If you want some more information on the book itself, check out this brief synopsis from the Foreign Affairs website.

by Edgar Snow

by Edgar Snow

Notably, Edgar Snow was the first Westerner to interview Chairman Mao. He became historically significant as an outsider who was granted privileges and information during a turbulent time in Chinese history. Snow outlined his findings in his “classical account of the birth of Chinese Communism”, which claimed the authority of investigative, objective journalism, and was crucial in shaping the Western understanding of China and Chinese Communism.

Snow does display some signs of objectivity throughout his work, especially when he describes Zhou Enlai’s thoughts on the journalist himself: “I have a report that you are a reliable journalist, friendly to the Chinese people, and that you can be trusted to tell the truth…It does not matter that you are a not a communist…You can write about everything you see”. By demonstrating that the Chinese Communists valued truth and were tolerant of different ideologies (tenants of the brand of Enlightenment Liberalism upon which the United States were founded), Snow attempts to create sympathy for the Communist cause in the West. With this statement, he also implies that his account is uncensored, and thus alludes that the information he provides in the following pages is accurate and objective.

Although the author attempts to be objective by asking tough, expository questions throughout the work, “Red Star Over China” must be interpreted with an understanding of Snow’s biases, which arise because he does not adequately evaluate the answers he is supplied with by the Communist leaders, the peasants, the members of the army, and from his own personal experiences. Snow compares the Red army to the White army by interviewing mainly victims of the White army and mainly soldiers in the Red army, and depicting mainly the positive aspects of the Red army and the negative aspects of the White army (unfortunately for Snow, comparing apples and oranges is rarely a convincing strategy). He quotes from members of the Red army: “The Red Army helps the poor”, “It is not like the White districts, where poor people are slaves of the landlords and the Kuomintang” “He [a Red soldier] was fighting for the revolution, which would free the poor”. Of course, utilizing motivational quotations and gross generalizations is not sufficient evidence to prove that the Red army, and by extrapolation the Communist cause in China, is intrinsically “better” (i.e., more humane, more concerned with the general welfare of Chinese citizens, more logical or practical than other ideologies) than the Kuomintang and feudalism, or any other combination of army and government. Despite this, Snow’s testimonies and reasoning did indeed foster a significant amount of sympathy for Chinese Communism.

Snow’s partialities are possibly most apparent in his descriptions of Mao Zedong, of whom he thought very highly. He admired Mao’s intellect, ideology, willingness to live in the exact same conditions as his troops and comrades, talent as a military strategist, charm and appeal, and artistic creative ability. Snow even translated one of Mao’s poems about the Long March, and described Mao as “a rebel who could write verse as well as lead a crusade”. Again, Snow appeals to Western ‘Enlightenment liberalism’, arguing that Mao’s ideologies were well thought out and were constructed according to logical transitions and progressions: “He had in his youth had strongly liberal and humanistic tendencies, and the transition from idealism to realism evidently had first been made philosophically”.

Interestingly, Snow’s fascination and admiration of Mao sets Snow apart from many Westerners who also wrote about China. While authors like Paul Claudel, James Hilton, and Henri Michaux had written about the East as though it were an exotic garden, or a beautiful but stagnant fantasy-land, Snow argued that China was in fact a very dynamic country with change on the horizon. In his description of Mao, Snow writes: “one felt a certain force of destiny in Mao…If their [the peasant’s] “demands” and the movement which was pressing them forward were the dynamics which could regenerate China, then in that deeply historical sense Mao Zedong might possibly become a very great man”. 

While I was abroad in Fall 2009, our group traveled to Yan’an, the birthplace of the Chinese Communist revolution. It was cold and desolate, and I personally found it very difficult to gain an understanding of how the movement was inspired and carried out by merely visiting the place where it began. Edgar Snow’s account offered a lot of insight into this complicated historical event, but also raises a lot of questions: did Snow initially intend to showcase the Communists in such a positive light, or did this evolve as he learned more about the cause? Were Snow’s biases a result of his personal predisposition to socialist ideologies, or did they develop as Snow began to admire Mao Zedong as a personality and leader? How can the reader gain objective insight into the rise of Chinese communism, especially since this particular political ideology is so polarizing?

Perhaps rendering Snow’s account “a classic on the birth of Chinese Communism” is somewhat of a misnomer; as Snow’s work does not merely function as a piece of objective, expository journalism but also proved influential in shaping Western attitudes toward Chinese Communism through the author’s own nuanced partialities. Regardless of one’s views on the biases in Snow’s account, however, the reader must concede that Snow has been able to successfully “penetrate China” on at least two levels; firstly, by simply gaining access to the Communist movement and Party members when no other Westerner was able to do so, and secondly, by identifying Chinese history as intrinsically dynamic and transformative.

So if you’re ever in the mood for some leisurely reading about the historical birth of Chinese Communism, I urge you to give Edgar Snow’s “Red Star Over China” a quick look!