Xu Bing's Square Word Calligraphy

Britta Erickson

The Art of Xu Bing" Beijing Beat Issue 9


In Hong Kong in 1997, artists from that city, mainland China, and Taiwan exhibited works of art with particular relevance to the handover. Many of the works dwelt on fears for the future. By contrast, Xu Bing's contribution, Square Word Calligraphy, highlighted Hong Kong's role as a meeting ground for East and West. It proclaimed the possibility of unexpected rewards for those making the effort to communicate across cultures. Square Word Calligraphy had been exhibited previously in Europe, to great acclaim, but only achieved its full potential as a poignant message of hope for the future at its Hong Kong venue.

Square Word Calligraphy is a new kind of writing, almost a code, designed by Xu Bing. At first glance it appears to be Chinese characters, but in fact it is a new way of rendering English. Chinese viewers expect to be able to read it but cannot. Western viewers, however, are surprised to find that they can read it. Delight erupts when meaning is unexpectedly revealed.

The idea of inventing this new form of writing came to Xu Bing when he observed the attitude of awe and respect with which non-Asians regard Chinese calligraphy. Intrigued, he sought to create a work that would demystify calligraphy, and reward the Westerner's engagement. For Square Word Calligraphy, Xu Bing designed a system whereby English words are written in the format of a square, so as to resemble Chinese characters. He created a set of two books, An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy and Square Word Calligraphy Red Line Tracing Book, to teach his new form of writing (figure 1). The first book is instructional, beginning with directions for holding the brush and rendering the brushstrokes. The directions themselves are written in Square Word Calligraphy. First of all, the student of Square Word Calligraphy must learn how to prepare ink, grinding the ink stick with water against the inkstone (figure 2). (Of course, many people now use bottled ink, but Square Word Calligraphy adheres rigorously to tradition.) Before attempting to write anything, the student then must master the correct posture and method of holding the brush (figure 3). This concurs with traditional calligraphy instruction. Sitting upright, the calligrapher holds the brush perpendicular to the paper, poised in the air while he marshals his forces to begin. Sloppy posture equals weak calligraphy. Xu Bing illustrates the posture with a rare self portrait.

Because the eight different kinds of brushstrokes most frequently employed in Chinese calligraphy come together in the character yong, meaning eternal, beginning calligraphers traditionally study yongzi bafa, or the "Eight Strokes in the Character 'Yong.'" Xu Bing has Square Word Calligraphy beginners learn the "Eight Movements of the Word, Lag" (figure 4). He augments the lengthy descriptions of just how to render each movement or brushstroke with instructive illustrations. The horizontal stroke, for example, should be strong and taut "like a bridled horse, not a rotted log" (figure 5), and the brush movement for a left falling stroke should be "like an elephant tusk, not a mouse tail" (figure 6).

Following the instructions are pages of sample writing in the traditional format of beitie. Beitie are calligraphy style models originally made by taking rubbings from stone carvings of exemplary texts, but later simply printed so as to resemble rubbings (figure 7). Although they bear the ostensible appearance of traditional models for calligraphy, however, the content of Xu Bing's An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy is highly unusual: English nursery rhymes (figures 8-10). The second book in the set is a "red-line" tracing book. The calligraphy student practices by writing over the characters, which are printed in red outlines with numbers indicating the order of the brushstrokes (figure 11).

When Xu Bing exhibits Square Word Calligraphy, he installs a calligraphy classroom in the art gallery, with the aim of introducing visitors to a world previously considered too obscure and elitist to bear trespassing by the uninitiated (figure 12). Desks set for use with Square Word Calligraphy copy books, ink stones, brushes, and other writing utensils fill the gallery. When visitors take up the brush and begin working on a page of the red-line copy book, the process of demystifying Chinese calligraphy begins. Eventually, when they realize that they are writing English language nursery rhymes rather than unfathomable excerpts from the Chinese classics, they realize it is not necessary to feel intimidated by Chinese calligraphy.

In the introductory page to An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy, Xu Bing emphasizes the notion that practising calligraphy has far greater significance than simply mastering a new way of writing. He says, "'Calligraphy' is by nature different from 'writing.' It is not merely a tool of communication, but also an activity that combines both artistic expression and spiritual energy. From the first stroke of a word to its completion, our entire bodies are involved. It is a process of communing with nature, of experiencing consummate beauty, and of discovering our inner selves. Through this practice, our minds, bodies, and thoughts will enter a new realm." All this is, of course, written in Square Word Calligraphy, making it something of a mystery. But untangling the Square Word Calligraphy to discover the words' original forms and meanings is engrossing and relaxing. In fact, the process of reading the instructional book becomes a meditative passage, paralleling the state of mind required of the calligrapher. The words begin to look familiar, hinting that calligraphy, too, may not be as alien and unattainable as its mysterious aura implies. As Xu Bing says, "We will quickly learn to enjoy putting the instructions in this book into practice. By doing so, we will experience something we once thought impossible. It will help us rediscover things that have been forgotten and now seem strange to us. For actually, these things have always belonged to us."

"Square Word Calligraphy" is not Xu Bing's first attempt to create a new form of writing by combining English and Chinese. In 1991, shortly after moving to the United States, he made A B C . . . , thus beginning his investigation into the possibility of using Chinese characters to communicate in English. A B C . . . comprises a set of ceramic printing blocks, each bearing a Chinese character whose pronunciation is roughly equivalent to that of one letter of the Roman alphabet. For example, ai ? stands for A, bo ? for B, xi (or hsi) ? for C, di (sounds like dee) ? for D, yi (sounds like ee) ? for E, and so on (figure 13). Ostensibly, A B C . . . represents a harmless personal code based logically on the premise that different symbols for the same sound might as well be interchangeable. Xu Bing did not base his choice of characters on their pronunciation alone, however. If, after spelling out English words using Xu Bing's set of phonetically equivalent Chinese characters, one then reads the Chinese message for meaning rather than sound, the result can be humorous or subversive.

A B C . . . did not progress beyond its initial exhibited format, perhaps because of the limited number of puns that could be manufactured with it, as well as the very narrow audience that could truly appreciate them. "Square Word Calligraphy," on the other hand, presents seemingly limitless possibilities. Central to its first variant, entitled "Please, What Is Your Name?" is a computer program which will print out gallery-goers' surnames written in Square Word Calligraphy. Ideally, there will also be a computer program capable of converting any text entered in the Latin alphabet into Square Word Calligraphy. Another project will take Square Word Calligraphy back in time, rendering it even more faithful to traditional Chinese calligraphy models: Xu Bing plans to have the pages of model text carved into stone, to be reproduced as rubbings.

Xu Bing's fascination with language and books is due largely to his mother's long-term affiliation with Beijing University's Department of Library Sciences, where she was Senior Administrator. Because of her (and his father, who was Chair of the History Department), Xu Bing developed a fondness for historical books at an early age, and was encouraged to investigate the Beijing University Library's important collection of rare books and rubbings. He remembers that he often accompanied his mother to work, where he enjoyed passing the time surrounded by books.

Language and books did not translate immediately into a subject for art, however. Because of his "bad class background," during the Cultural Revolution Xu Bing was sent to the countryside for reeducation through labor. At that time he confined his artistic endeavors to sketching the people and scenes of the countryside. Later, when art schools reopened following the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Xu Bing earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from the Print Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. There he perfected the techniques of both woodcuts and copperplate etchings. His subject matter gradually evolved from simple representational scenes of farm life (figure 14) to complex musings on the nature of art, the process of creation, and the possibility of meaningful communication. His consummate technique and existential deliberations came together in his masterpiece, "A Book from the Sky."

For A Book from the Sky (Tianshu ??), Xu Bing designed two thousand imitation "Chinese characters" which he then carved into wooden blocks, to be typeset as books, scrolls, and wall posters and printed in the traditional manner. When installed at Beijing's China Art Gallery in 1988, A Book from the Sky drew immediate attention, both positive and negative. Xu Bing's invented "characters" so closely resemble genuine characters that some people reportedly spent days searching for one they could read. In laboriously creating an unintelligible language, Xu Bing denigrated Chinese culture's uncritical reliance on text, as well as questioning the value of all human endeavor.

Close to a decade elapsed between Xu Bing's creation of A Book from the Sky and Square Word Calligraphy. In that time, a diametric shift occurred in Xu Bing's representation of language. The earlier work presents a view of language as divisive and frustrating, and the latter suggests language's power to unify and delight. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that, for Xu Bing at least, communication in the late 1990s is easier and more rewarding than it was ten years ago.