In order to read a Chinese newspaper, around 4,000 characters must be committed to memory. According to one of my favorite professors who spent time in China during the Open Door policy of the late 70s: “Give yourself about a dozen years to get a good grasp of it.”
Chinese, for anyone who has studied it, is a highly complicated language that requires a reader to quickly glean from the root (or radical) some piece of meaning. Consider that every foreign concept that comes into China requires a new word. The word for computer, then, is not computer, but closer to “electric brain.” Try this link for a clearer breakdown of the process.
If this seems like a strangely digressive introduction of artist Xu Bing, who will be speaking at the Museum this Friday, maybe you don’t know Xu’s work.
His father taught at Beijing University, and his mother was a librarian, but because he was born in 1955 at the cusp of the Cultural Revolution, the idyllic world of the scholar’s son was short-lived.
“This is strange,” he says. “When I couldn’t read there were so many books. But when I was finally able to read, there was only one book.”*
Xu turned what could have been a disastrous situation to his advantage. Because he studied calligraphy with his father, he became a skilled propagandist, and learned the value of meaning–and ultimately, the potential meaninglessness of words.
Possessing a deep sense of a lost world, Xu set out to make his Book from the Sky, a monumental work consisting of about 4,000 characters. He painstakingly created a new lexicon of false characters, and from that lexicon a book that no one could read. For anyone who has a passion for books and language, to be unable to decipher words begets crisis.
In China, where Mao’s single volume sustained a revolution, such a work would have obvious implications, especially in the light of the “simplified” Chinese character system that came about as a means of increasing literacy.
While I was in Washington, D.C., for a conference held by the American Booksellers Association, I took an afternoon to steal away to the Sackler Gallery, where Xu’s Monkeys Grasping for the Moon has pride of place in a great shaft of light. The work is based on the folk story of monkeys who link arms to reach the moon in a pool of water, only to see their goal disappear as they reach it. For the sculpture, enterprising primates are replaced with the word for monkey in twenty-one languages.
It was strangely appropriate for me to be missing a panel on selling e-books. One form of technology–in this case, the e-reader–is poised to threaten another mode of technology, an ancient one. I don’t dare draw conclusions of a Maoist nature, as the books still exist, albeit in the form of zeroes and ones. As long as books have pictures, I can tell myself we’re safe, although a very large number of the books we carry are literature, Asian cultural studies, histories: wordy tomes that are within the purview of tablet readers.
What I found in D.C. were questions–so many questions. And like the monkeys who reach for the moon, I don’t know if I’m any closer to answers.
For further conversation and perhaps even a few answered questions, attend the lecture this Friday, January 28th, in Samsung Hall from 2:30 pm–4:00 pm (free with museum admission).
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