Nerding Out Over Contemporary Chinese Art – Part III

Welcome to the third and final installment of my series on contemporary Chinese artists, featuring none other than Shu Yong!

Issues of translation are central to Shu Yong’s installation piece entitled “GuGe Brick” that was recently exhibited at the 55th Venice Biennale International Festival earlier in 2013. “GuGe” (古歌) can be interpreted as phonetic translation of “Google”, but is literally translated as “Ancient Song”. Shu Yong examined 1,500 commonly known Chinese words, phrases, and sayings, and translated them into English using Google software.

As Shu was born in 1974, he is historically informed by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in China and thus many of the sayings depicted in his work are economically oriented. Of course, the sayings also include ideological phrases, references to Chinese history and philosophy, as well as contemporary slang terms. All of the terms that Shu selected are clearly of great significance to the artist, and are perhaps representative of Chinese culture and society today.

To produce the installation, Shu wrote the original Chinese saying as well as its respective English translation according to Google on rice paper using black ink. Then, he pasted the rice paper texts onto transparent resin bricks of comparable size and shape to the bricks in the Great Wall of China, and arranged the bricks into a wall.

Shu Yong, “GuGe Brick” (2013

Shu Yong, “GuGe Brick” (2013)

Shu Yong’s piece is a humorous testament to the inaccuracy of Google translation software, but more importantly, it serves as an embodiment of the difficulties of cross-cultural communication. The artist cleverly depicts the impact of globalization and digital, real-time communication on Chinese language and Chinese culture, and the inaccurate translations reflect the international community’s skewed understanding of Chinese culture and history. Like Xu Bing and Gu Wenda (for my previous posts on them click here and here respectively), Shu is primarily concerned with meaning, and how meaning can be manipulated by text and, in some cases, completely lost in translation.

Although this piece is incredibly relevant to the digital age, Shu, like the other contemporary Chinese artists examined in this series, still makes references to Chinese tradition and history: by utilizing ink and rice paper to create the bricks, he draws upon traditional Chinese ink painting and calligraphy writing practices. By arranging the bricks into a wall, he clearly references the Great Wall of China, an iconic image and a distinctively Chinese one at that. Alternatively, the wall of bricks could be interpreted as a dividing wall between East and West, and a barrier to cross-cultural communication. In this sense, Shu Yong attempts to explore Chinese language and define Chinese identity by juxtaposing it with the “other”, much like Gu Wenda’s “Forest of Stone Steles”. The transparency of the bricks themselves creates an interesting comparison to the lack of transparency and inaccuracy in the textual translations.

However, Shu Yong is not as pessimistic about the prospects for Chinese identity in the 21st century as his colleagues are; perhaps the transparency of these bricks can be interpreted as an opportunity to see the other side of the wall and transcend the barriers of cross-cultural communication. The bilingual nature of the piece itself seems to imply that Chinese language and culture can co-exist peacefully with other cultures as China finds its place in the 21st century, provided that Chinese people maintain a sense of humor when misunderstandings occur.

I particularly like the more light-hearted tone and general sense of whimsy of this piece, especially in contrast to the slightly less hopeful, darker, more “serious” pieces I featured earlier in the series.  Shu Yong’s use of Google as means of producing artwork also seems refreshingly relevant and contemporary. “GuGe Brick” might be my personal favorite.

And that concludes my series of posts on Chinese contemporary artists (at least until I receive my newly purchased Ma Nan piece!)


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.

The Lion Eating Poet in the Stone Den

Here is an amazing example of how puns work in Mandarin Chinese language.

This is a very famous Chinese poem written by Yuan Rao Chen (1892-1982) that consists only of the sound “shi” in different tones. Yuan Rao Chen was a Chinese American linguist who developed a new romanization scheme for Chinese, served as Bertrand Russell’s interpreter for his visit to China in 1920, and created this really cool example of constrained writing in Chinese.


Yuen RaoChen


All in all, a pretty cool guy! Now, let’s have a look at the poem written in Chinese characters:














Notice that each character is different and each character represents a word (or a word-component) in Chinese. Looking at this, it’s clear that the poem consists of many different words with different meanings.  Now have a look at the romanized version of the poem. For those who aren’t familiar with “pinyin”, the little lines on the top represent various tones.


« Shī Shì shí shī shǐ »

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.

Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.

Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.

Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.

Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.

Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.

Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.

Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.

Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.

Shì shì shì shì.


As you can see, the poem consists only of the sound “shi” in different tones. Now let’s examine the English translation:


« Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den »

In a stone den was a poet called Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.

He often went to the market to look for lions.

At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.

At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.

He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.

He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.

The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.

After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.

When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.

Try to explain this matter.


Brilliant, isn’t it?

恭喜发财!Happy Chinese New Year!

2014 Happy Chinese New Year

In honor of Chinese New Year, which is today, I’m dedicating this post entirely to a discussion of Chinese New Year traditions, culture, and most importantly, FOOD! That being said, here are the most important things you need to know about Chinese New Year:

1) When is Chinese New Year?

This year, Chinese New Year falls on January 31. Because this holiday is always celebrated on the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar, its date in the Western calendar changes every year. It is quite early this year; usually, it is celebrated in the early spring and is often called the “Spring Festival” (春节 - Chun jie).

2) How do you wish someone Happy New Year in Chinese?

Happy New Year! = 新年快乐 (Xin nian kuai le)

Happy Spring Festival! = 春节快乐 (Chun jie kuai le)

…and, if you want to be really authentic, you can say…

May you have a prosperous New Year! = 恭喜发财 (Gong xi fa cai)

In case any of the non-Chinese speakers are wondering about pronunciation, click here.

3) What do Chinese people do to celebrate Lunar New Year?

Lunar New Year is China’s most important holiday. People get time off from work and school and return home to spend the holiday with their families (equivalent in that sense to Christmas in the West). Check out CNN’s article about a really cool moving map depicting travel in China during the holiday.

Fireworks are a really huge part of celebrating Chinese New Year. I have never actually been in China during the holiday, but I once heard someone say that if you’re in Beijing during the Spring Festival, it sounds like a war-zone due to the constant explosions of firecrackers!

During the New Year Festival, elder or married Chinese people give red envelopes of money to younger, unmarried people and children. These are called 红包 (hong bao), and they can contain anything from a few dollars to a couple hundred (depending on the income level of your social circle). Since the numbers eight and six are considered very lucky in China, it is very common to see these amounts in the envelopes. These envelopes come in many varieties, but they are always red. Here’s what they look like:

Hong bao

I am partial to the Hello Kitty one 🙂

Chinese people also celebrate the New Year by preparing special dumplings (饺子 – jiao zi). Although this is a special Spring Festival tradition, dumplings are available throughout the year as well. When I was in China, I would eat them for lunch at my school’s cafeteria for about $1.50! I’m a vegetarian, so I’ve never had the really special ones filled with pork or seafood, but I can attest that the boiled or steamed cilantro filled ones are absolutely delicious. I used to dip them in a vinegary soy sauce with chili and extra cilantro on top. YUM!


4) How is the Chinese Zodiac related to the holiday?

As you may or may not know, 2014 is the Year of the Horse or, in Chinese: 马 (ma). There are twelve Chinese zodiac animals, each one is associated with different years, so all babies born this year will be associated with the horse zodiac. Each zodiac has different personality traits and characteristics, and you can determine what zodiac you are by clicking here. For example, horses are very outgoing, animated, and optimistic.

Horse zodiac

If you’re a snake (like me), then you’re intelligent, materialistic, cunning, and analytical! (Hmm…. sounds good to me except the “materialistic” part)! You can find out more about each of the zodiac signs here. Just remember, Chinese culture does put a lot of stock into these, so even if you think that your zodiac doesn’t suit you at all, it is good to know which animal you are!

On that note, I hope you all enjoy 2014, Year of the Horse! 恭喜发财!