On Book From The Ground

Xu Bing (translated by Jesse Robert Coffino) 

What do you call the language used in your Book From The Ground?

It is not a language, but a script. Spoken languages and written scripts are two separate things. [Book from the Ground] is a pictography suited to all spoken languages. A person of any nationality—a French reader or a British one for instance—will read [Book from the Ground] into their own language. Meanwhile, not a single pictogram in Book from the Ground is—in and of itself—pronounceable. 

Is it a sort of Esperanto?

It is a script that transcends region. As long as the reader has experience of contemporary life, this script will be effective. It is not the same as Esperanto. Esperanto was impossible to popularize, promote and use because it was a language that required study. Every culture already has its own language, so why bother studying Esperanto? Esperanto had this utopian quality to it. 

The script in Book from the Ground requires no study; rather it has taken shape through widespread popular use. I have not created these symbols, but instead have collected them, symbols already in wide circulation. 

Is it a way to reconsider Babel?

Yes, it is. As human horizons have expanded, people have realized that languages and scripts differ from region to region. With advances in technology, and the expansion and increasing commonality of cross-region communication, humanity has become aware of the inconvenience of [traditional] language. In our digitized age, this directly impacts the individual. 

Which is to say, the implications of Babel have been reawakened, and only today are people truly aware of what that implies. 

Your book borrows all the traditional codes of narrative. If the story is simple, you manage to infuse suspense, humor ... Knowing that your materials, icons, are short messages which include ellipses - meaning potential misunderstandings - how did you manage to be sure being understood?

Languages themselves are simple. And any written language leaves enough “space” for its users to supplement additional meanings. We are amazed by the refined expressive capabilities of Chinese or English. However, this sense of “refinement” is the consequence of long use; it ha been developed over time by users [of the language] operating within and between the limits of pre-existing symbols. When we see hearing-impaired people "conversing" excitedly on a bus, we have a hard time imagining that the hearing-impaired can achieve the level of expressiveness of “normal” people. But just as with any other language, its effectiveness relies on its users supplementing [its range] . Icon-based languages are the same. An investigation of the potential of a given script, is not based merely on its current expressive range. Instead attention should be paid to its future space, the quality of its linguistic genetics and its ability to reproduce. 

What difficulties did you encounter?

This project began 10 years ago. When it was published in 2012, people said that “Book from the Ground” could only be published in this era. And in the process we did confront many difficulties, the primary difficulty being that 10 years ago, pictographic symbols were not rich a varied, emoticons were all relatively simple. 

And now, with the rapid development of digital technology and the rise of the internet, with the appearance of icon languages as a part of every kind of digital product, the work of collecting and organizing [these icons] has become a seemingly endless task.

If a few more years had passed before the writing of “Book from the Ground,” it would have been even easier, and it would have been able to express more, and more richly. The written language of symbols grows and changes with every day and month that passes, with new things [symbols] emerging practically by the day.

Globalization has led to the continuing standardization of transnational products and consumer lifestyles, and these globalized lifestyles have grown increasingly similar by the day. An “environment of repetition” and copy culture has elevated the recognizability of all material things. And, at the same time, the development of media has led to the [rapid and widespread] transmission of these highly symbolized versions of material things, with the very real effect of “eliminating illiteracy through visual recognition.”

How long did it take to "write" (would you say "write"?) that book?

It took me about 10 years of writing. And I would say “writing.” 

The process of writing was just like [my] experience with [more traditional] writing.

In the expressive system that makes up “Book from the Ground,” every “word” has its source and provenance. The aspect of “grammar” [and usage], including the expression of memory, imagination, dreams, person, emotion, even things like adjectives, tone, prepositions, punctuation, these all derive from commonly used “rules of expression.”

Have you tested phrases to different audiences in preparation of your book?

Tested. Different audiences in different places—America, Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan—all had the same level of receptiveness. We did an experiment with translation in Taiwan. Volunteers at an exhibition in Taiwan each [translated] a paragraph, the degree of difference was very small. 

Another interesting phenomenon is that adults do not read as quickly as children. 15-16 year-olds read the fastest. In the past when a family read books, it was always the children who would ask their parents questions. But when reading “Book from the Ground,” its the parents asking their children. 

The difference in the accuracy of one's understanding of “Book from the Ground” varies little with linguistic and cultural background.

But there is a difference in receptivity depending on [the reader's] age level.

Your book can, apparently, be read by any urban connected to the internet world, from Bangkok, New York and Sao Paulo. Were you aware, starting to write this book, you address such an audience?

I knew. Otherwise it would not have been necessary to expend so much energy writing “Book from the Ground.” 

My earliest motivation for writing “Book from the Ground” came from my desire to write the world's first book that would not require translation. And I have confirmed that it is possible. 

My interest in the expressive capacity of the icon was first piqued by airport signage and in-flight safety manuals. Over the past 20 or so years, much of my time has been spent in airports and on airplanes. Airport signage and in-flight safety manuals rely heavily on “diagrams,” which strive to use the least number of words to clearly explain matters of relative complexity. This system of signage or these safety manuals, can be said to represent humanity's earliest “common text,” and it was this point that really spoke to me. 

Then one day in 2003 when I saw a few small images on a gum wrapper

(“please use this wrapper to dispose of gum in a trash can”), I realized that in so far as icons alone can explain something simple, they can also be used to narrate a longer story.

Do we have to worry that we can better communicate with someone who is at the other end of the world, than with, for example, our own parents (who are not necessary sharing an Amazon or Gmail culture )?

Right now the way that young people communicate amongst each other is indeed more convenient. And they use a different way of communicating with the older generation. There is a generational divide that really does exist. With the exception of that small number of older people who have kept up with the trends and are willing to learn. 

The older generations, including my generation, have an natural-born dread of computers and digital culture. In the past, this kind of technology belonged to a given sphere, a given specialization. Now, through commercial promotion, it has become more humanized, and has transformed into a tool of daily life. Sometimes the older generations can't turn that corner. 

Just like the telephone. At first I didn't like to like to speak into an answering machine, but then I got used to it. It is a slow process of adaptation. 

The fact that we can tell a comprehensible story in a given environment involving Internet-related codes but also codes via consumer brands-not because we share a language and cultural heritage, does it mean a young man of 28 years (as is the case of the hero of your book), in Paris or Singapore, is similar in all sides?

It is very sensitive of you to recognize this. A 28 year old man, living a white collar existence is the most representative example of life in today's system of online symbols, the person who represents what it is to exist in this online-inflected world. This is exactly the kind of person I wanted to write about.  

Most literature and works of fiction are in search of the out of the ordinary. But my novel is in search of a standardized setting. Even the the setting itself is symbolized. The content and style are all in keeping with this concept. 

The protagonist is more or less the same the world over. Because the internet—this tool—is more or less the same. And the contemporary lifestyles of those who have been caught up in the internet are all more or less the same. 

Just like driving a car in America, particularly when you get to small and medium sized cities, there is no change, they are all more or less the same. Walmart, Target, Shell Gas, and on and on. 

This quality of similarity is the result of consumption. “Book from the Ground,” this work, is an expression of contemporary life. Only in this mode of contemporary life is it possible for iconographic scripts to emerge. It is impossible for the classical to emerge. 

Does your book demonstrate that our culture now passes through consumption before geolinguistic connection?
It's like this. Trends in written language, trends in global common recognition, have been led by consumption. 

For example, the most important step in the emergence of personal computing was the transformation of abstract numerical computer commands into visual icon-based ones, changing a specialized vocabulary into an intuitive pictographic one; lowering the bar for a technology that once “required study for mastery” and thereby allowing everyone to identify and make use of computer functions. And the the original motivation for everyone to use a personal computer began with consumption.

The embryonic form of the vast majority of written languages took shape in small communities sharing the same set of vocalized expressions—such as a tribe or village. As the territory encompassed by their activities expanded, [this set of expressions] became a regional language, as this further expanded to cover several territories—ultimately, becoming the language of an entire country or multiple countries. This is the process by which languages grow over thousands of years. 

The core of this expansion is commerce. Commerce has bound language to itself. The consequence of the expansion of commerce can be seen in Marco Polo's realization upon his arrival in China, that China used the Chinese language. Otherwise, Chinese would have had no relevance to him. And the existence of different languages has proven frustrating and inconvenient for the promotion of commerce. 

An effect of today's internet is that we live and work together on a global scale. And traditional languages are not well suited to today's modes of life and work.

Does this mean that I may have much more to share with someone who is at the other end of the world?

Yes, of course. 

We have also created a “word bank” software application to accompany this book. When the user enters Chinese on the keyboard, the computer will automatically transfer into pictograms on the screen. Typing English leads to the same result, making it—in that moment—a “transfer station” between languages. Users of different languages can engage in simple communication and exchange. This has definite use value.

Did you "test" your book in different places in the world - I mean, is it effectively understood in any city?

Yes, it was tested.
Many languages began as pictographs. But for reasons of vocalization, they necessarily developed into phonetic scripts, and their pictographic quality disappeared. Only Chinese is a little bit unique. It is monosyllabic—one symbol corresponds to one sound—and so these pictographic symbols have survived. 

Pictographs are humanity's most commonly-shared foundation.

Once I was giving a lecture, someone in the audience said to me, “I want to share an experience with you. When I am overseas, the moment I see these pictographs, I have a sense of security.” I truly believe that this experience is common to people of every linguistic background. And why is that? Because these symbols are connected to human life, to human physical experience. 

Humans are most reliant on visual forms of communication. The visual has the power to transcend culture because it is the direct presentation of reality, the information it conveys differs from that conveyed by other types of media, which can be easily degraded or distorted. Humanity's shared physical experience gives images—themselves abstract representations of reality—a common foundation. For example, images placed in front of a telephone receiver can represent different types of sound. A few curves radiating outward on the same axis, ranging from small to large, represent normal sound. Undulating lines can convey the meaning of softer sound, whereas jagged lines may connote harsh sound. While these are all visual forms, they nevertheless distinguish a variety of sonic qualities. The soothing quality of wavy lines derives from their association with the movement of smoke or water. Jagged lines recall our experience of thunder and lightning, so they evoke intensity. These types of common human experience transcend culture, transcend locality and transcend language. 

Symbols do possess regional specificity, but the gradual expansion of human travel across regions has pushed region-specific symbols in a global direction. 
So what is our work? An example: 

There are hundreds of versions of the icon for “cafe.” So our work is to assemble and arrange these materials, and then initiate psychological and visual analysis and comparison. Through comparison we arrive at those characteristics common to all, what makes the meaning immediately apparent, and then isolate this part. In the end, we are after that part which is universally recognizable. This work depends on a sure sense of visual characteristics, and is, at its core, a study of visual communication. 

What kind of technology user are you?

I am not.

What social network user are you?

I do not use any. 

I am very backwards when it comes to using computers. I pretty much just use simple functions like checking email, etc. But my studio is quite advanced on this front. I have two studios—one in New York and one in Beijing. Because of the time difference, we can work 24 hours a day. If something can't be finished on one side, it can be passed to the other side to continue.

Do you write a lot?

I use Chinese to write many things.

Apart from this novel, I use the “Book from the Ground” script to write short passages for magazines and for other commercial uses.

And here's a personal question: What does the text in Living Word 3 mean?

The text on the ground comes from a standard Chinese dictionary definition for the word “bird.” 

The “bird” characters in the sky, pass from modern simplified Chinese to regular kai script then to clerical script to seal script and finally to Chinese pictographic script, and that last pictographic character really looks like a bird.