Inscrutable Characters

Last week Tian at Hanzi Smatter had a really cool post on the “Book From The Sky,” an art exhibit consisting of a book printed from hand-carved wood blocks. What makes the book so special is that the thousands of characters in the book were all created by the artist, Xu Bing, using existing character elements — a sort of “faux Chinese.”



This sort of reminds me of a game I used to play with my tutor back when I first started studying Chinese at UF. I would “make up” a Chinese character based on existing elements I knew and write it out, and my tutor would tell me what character it was. The idea was to “stump” my tutor by coming up with a nonexistent character. The simpler the character, the more glory. It was very hard for me to stump my tutor as a first year Chinese student (although I had had two years’ study of Japanese). I was amazed at how many characters I could “invent” that already existed. Xu Bing has done it thousands of times and made it into a book. None of his characters appear to be very simple, however.

Visually, the characters remind me of the characters of China’s Western Xia civilization (西夏文字). They, too, look like Chinese characters, but are, on average, much more complex.

Here’s a corny picture of me posing with some 西夏文字:

Xia Characters

The name of the script in English is apparently Tangut.

I tried to find a good book on Tangut script in Yinchuan, but I couldn’t find one. I did learn in the museum, though, that the Tangut script was created by a king of the short-lived civilization. They were also extremely complex — possibly needlessly so. For example, why does the character meaning “one” need to be 5 strokes (in Chinese it’s simply “一”)? You may say, “sure, it’s 5 strokes for ‘one,’ but the script makes up for that in other ways.” But no, I don’t think it does. According to the information at the museum, all the Tangut characters were at least as complex as their Mandarin equivalents, most being more complex.

Not all civilizations value simplicity and efficient orthography, I guess. And not all civilizations survive. (By this logic, the Koreans will be our overlords one day.)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Is this just a complication of the language or like a different font?

  2. Tim P,

    Which “this” are you referring to?

    Tangut has its own script, heavily influenced by Chinese.

    Book from the Sky is essentially a huge collection of nonsense characters in the name of art.

  3. One can easily see the multitude of problems Qin Shihuang the great faced that led him to the courageous decision to legislate and enforce a unified system of characters.

  4. Interesting.

    I have sometimes wondered if the ‘success’ of any particular civilization had anything to do with its language.

    Clear, accurate and efficient communication would be most important in matters directly related to warfare, and I wonder if this had anything to do with the military successes of any particular civilization.

    For example, most of the West use the the standardised NATO signalling alphabet to avoid confusion when communicating over radio. I wonder if there is a Chinese equivalent, and given the emphasis on the sound/cadence of each particular character (which could drastically alter its meaning), I can imagine how some pretty huge misunderstandings/fukups can be made just by pronouncing something slightly differently.

    Which is why I personally think that if the people of Hong Kong had to go to war (Cantonese – with its 17 cadences), we would be sooo screwed. Better stick to economic warfare, or karaoke.

  5. Da Xiangchang Says: June 9, 2005 at 6:53 am

    I really like the book; it’s rather pleasing to the eye, for some reason. I could, however, do without the comment on the link: “This installation … questions entrenched practices such as written communication and reading or human cultures.” Why does modern art always have to justify itself via such pretentious self-praise?!!

  6. The deliberate complication of characters is interesting. Is there something to do with the purpose of segregation of people in upper and lower classes (e.g. slaves)?

    Or would it be the people who invent the characters see themselves not just officials but artists?

  7. You didn’t mention my favorite Xu Bing exhibition, which is called a Case Study of Transference. In that exhibition, he painted a bunch of his fake Chinese characters onto a female pig and then painted a bunch of fake English words onto a male pig and then got Western imperialist-pig to make sweet love to the poor vicitimized Chinese pig.

    Some pictures of it are here:

  8. Da Xiangchang Says: June 9, 2005 at 6:14 pm

    I don’t know, the Chinese pig looks pretty happy being screwed. Haha.

    I got to admit, this guy’s quite imaginative. But let’s see what he can do with a simple brush and paint. It’s easy to think of something weird and proclaim yourself an artist, but what real artistic talent does this guy have? Is he great at painting, sculpting, etc? With some training, I’d bet 90% of the people walking the street can produce art just as great as this guy. This cannot be said of true art–like I’ll bet not one person in 1000 can sculpt Michelangelo’s David or write Joyce’s Ulysses, even with proper training. That should the true criteria to art: how hard is it to make? The harder it is to make, the truer the art. Two pigs screwing ain’t shit.

  9. This stuff would be good Lorem Ipsum material – a mixture of dense and open tetragraphs (there seem to be quite a few simple characters in these images, John) that have no meaning would beat out random sequences of real characters that have just enough meaning to confuse.

    DX – don’t go in for engravings much, I see.

  10. Tangut/Xixia script is so awesome… It has that heavily Chinese influenced look, but the strokes make it also look like an ancient cuneiform in Arabia…
    I just checked on how is called this script I had in mind, it says its name is Ugaritic.

    John, have you got more photos of Ningxia?

  11. Smart Ass Says: June 11, 2005 at 10:33 pm

    You misspelled orthography, hehe

  12. Joyce’s Ulysses is better art than fake characters? I don’t even care to read Ulysses, let alone write something comparable. There’s no accounting for taste.

  13. Smart Ass,

    Oops. Not anymore!

  14. Re: Gin’s comment: As far as I know Qin Shihuang united regional script variants of one language. But what I’m really wondering, Gin, is how you consider enforcement, or even legislation, to be “courageous.” I think we’d agree such things shouldn’t be done at any cost. It seems to me that codification of characters as they stood would have been a much more difficult job than simply imposing a single set. And how is forcing a people to change their script necessariy good? Even allowing that Han Dynasty historians made QSH out to be more inhumane than he might have actually been (in the tradition of succeeding dynasties justifying their takeovers by making the preceding dynasty–especially its last emperor–look bad), how well can we say he
    treated the states he annexed? Probably not very. How “courageous” was it for the Russians to make the Turks use Cyrillic script? For the Han to force the Uighurs to change theirs? Imagine Bush declaring that only Latin script be used in US territories. No more Han, Arabic, Devanagari (I do not think this would happen, by the way–just an analogy.) Should we “unite” Naxi to Han
    script? etc.

  15. schtickyrice Says: June 13, 2005 at 6:13 am

    If I remember correctly, the Tangut script borrowed from Hanzi characters, but is applied phonetically. This may explain why Tangut script appears to be needlessly more complex than Hanzi: a single Tangut ‘character’ may have multisyllabic connotations. As far as Tangut linguistics goes, isn’t it related to Tibetan?

  16. schtickyrice Says: June 13, 2005 at 6:22 am

    Allen and Gin RE: Qin Shihuang and script, etc.

    The above statements don’t really apply to the Tangut script, which developed over a thousand years after QSH’s standardization of Hanzi script. Besides, the Tangut language was not legislated out by language reform, but died out after the Xixia kingdom was annihilated by the Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan.

  17. If I seem to be referring to the Tangut script in my previous message, I certainly had no intention of doing so. I was replying to assumptions held about Qin Shi Huangdi, Han script, and script unification in general.

    Re Kenny’s comment: that’s an interesting you bring up. Derk Bodde’s book Chinese Thought, Society, and Science argues that the Chinese character handicapped development in scientific and other areas of thought. Joseph Needham et al disagree, as do some reviews of Bodde’s book by others. For Needham see certain volumes of Science and Civilisation in China.

  18. Qin Shihuang saw the importance of a unified code and without hesitation took the initiative, albeit involving brutality (knowingly), that’s what I mean courageous. We can’t politicize ancient history by making analogue to modernday events (or the metamorphs thereof). Back then, not only did many regional scripts exist but variations (multiple codes) were also wide spread within each regional system. Unifying them was necessary for his ambition of a one China empire (he also unified transportation/roads) but I would venture that he had the foresight that a unified code will, in balance, do more good than bad to econmical, educational, and cultural progress.

  19. Hey- Xu Bing also did this calligraphy thing (so yes, he does do his own brush to paper art as well) where he wrote English language words and arranged the letters such that they looked Chinese (if you aren’t accustomed to reading Chinese so you may be less impressed than I was when I first saw it.)

    Image of more fake Chinese from Xu Bing:

    He also did this really weird thing where he took a rubbing of The Great Wall (Ghosts Pounding on Walls…or something. I forget the name.) It was after Book from The Sky.

    Apparently he also had some stuff up in Shanghai this past fall…but I didn’t read about it until after the show was over.

    Rambly, I guess (especially given that I mostly just lurk around your blog) but I think this guy’s really weird and pretty cool.

  20. Hannah,

    Xu Bing definitely does interesting work! I really liked the one you shared. I enjoyed deciphering it:

    Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and can not tell where to find them. Leave them alone and they will come home, and bring their tails behind them. Xu Bing two thousand and two

  21. Each of us has our own likes and dislikes, especially in regards to art. I do not care whether others like what I like or not, but I am interested in what others like and why they like it, sometimes I will even change my own attitude. Once, when I was a young lad, in college, listening to a rock n roll song, one of the korean rommates told me that anyone can enjoy rock n roll, there is a lot of noise, a lot of energy, and it is easy to involve yourself in the music. But, he said, listening to an aria from a classical opera requires more effort on your part, requires a tenseness from your own self to enjoy. Later on, one day I had the opportunity to listen to an aria from an Italian opera. I sat and listened. I did enjoy it. I like opera today. Well, I am not particulary enthralled with Xu Bing’s work with the phony characters. But the piece that Hannah brought up, that was interesting, something I did enjoy. This is more akin to James Joyce.

    Even in our own times, Japan and China will publish new rules on orthography and names, etc., and no thinks they are brutal. Qin Shi Huangdi was only one person, he himself was not able to physically do all that is ascribed to him, but he was the government. The meritocrats, especially the click that was on the winning team, decided to bring order and unity to the whole country, so they promulgated the language reform. All the other meritocrats in the conquered areas commplied. There was no brutality involved here. It is as if the government declares that all rail roads will use the same gauge in their railroads, there is no brutality (although some lose out, others gain). The real brutality came from a political crisis. The meritocrats wanted the governemnt to re-establish the old Zhou system of feudatories, and he wanted to establish a new reformed system based on what we would call bureaucratic structure. The meritocrats started to oppose his direction, he took a couple hundred of them and buried them alive; they then fell in line, obeyed. The historical source we relie on is from a three generation later individual with his own political agenda.

  22. Hi,
    The Confucian burial thing and the burning of books aren’t proven historical events, but they might have happened. We’d have to start citing reliable sources to continue this conversation.
    Yes, QSH standardized a few things, currency is one more that I think wasn’t mentioned above. But my point as in my original email is unchanged, and I think, Gin, you’re attributing some qualities to GSH that he didn’t necessarily have. I’ll grant you ambition, intelligence, etc., but no morally laudable ones that I can think of now. There are many other reasons besides genius and foresight that cause rulers to enforce policies. Consolidation of power is one of the more obvious. BTW, I’m aware of what Mao and PRC textbooks think about QSH, and the attitude towards him that people educated in the PRC are expected to have. For now, Gin, let’s just say that I basically disagree with your definition of “courageous.” For the record, I didn’t say language reform had to involve brutality. However, if you research the examples I cited, in which a foreign power exercises control over a conquered state, script changes are usually resisted by the native user community, and imposed by the rulers on the ruled. –Allen

  23. JFS, your Korean friends were right: Good music or literature is like good food. Once you acquire a taste for quality, junk food becomes not only unappealing, but actually tastes awful. You never go back, and wonder how they can eat/listen to/read the junk.
    It takes time, active participation in listening or reading, and mostly a lot of hard work to be able to learn to appreciate it. This notion is elitist, sure, but that doesn’t make it untrue.–Allen

  24. The “it” in “appreciate it” is as in good music, etc.–Allen

  25. Allen:

    There is no indication in the historical record that there was widespread discontent with Qin Shi Huangdi’s program of rectification of weights, measures, scripts, etc. The continuation of the program under the Han is good evidence of that lack of animosity to the unfication, and that includes the unified state under Han.

  26. Sure, written records left by illiterate masses and corvee labourers under Qin totalitarianism are probably next to impossible, and Qin legalist texts don’t leave room for any difference of opinion from anyone, illiterate or not.
    Evidence of any discontent comes from the brevity of the dynasty itself and the rise of Liu Bang, doesn’t it? I think you’re right that Qin’s subjects showed no discontent, but then neither did the subjects of various twentieth century despots. True, rebellions didn’t start until after QHS died. The Shuihudi texts show that Han writers like Sima Qian and Dong Zhongshu exaggerate the Qin’s brutality. So I agree brutality wasn’t necessarily involved in carrying out parts of GSH’s program. But I don’t think we can dispute that Qin rule was still harsh. The corvee labour, strict punishments and so on, were harsh by any standard. And the reforms had to be imposed, so many must have been enforced, and it’s hard to believe people of foreign, enemy states, with their own regional cultures and dialects, would have welcomed such radical changes. Some of them, we see in hindsight, were for the better of society. But we can’t assume from that that they were also good for the people they were imposed upon. I also don’t dispute that script unification and other reforms set standards that would make China what it was through the whole imperial period, for better or worse. It’s uncritical adulation of the Qin Emperor that I have a problem with.

    Gin, JFS, Thanks for the talk. And add a 抛磚引玉 to my first comment.

  27. Allen:

    Just a few more remarks to think about. The whole warring states period was a de-feudalization period, and each of the previous feudal states was now enlarging and de-feudalizing and each state was attempting to make themselves the universal state in conformance with the Zhou template.

    The ability of the old Chinese state to do perverse things to its population was not as significant as, for instance, modern democratic states are able to do today. This is more a function of technology and the cost of implementing that technology.

    Corvee labor was not invented by Qin Shi Huangdi. It is used quite often in most societies, even ours. For instance, not long ago in America there was a universal draft, and young men were obliged to be part of the military (this is by definition corvee labor). Although some objected, most did not. I would suspect that the tax requirement of corvee labor in old China would be viewed in the same light, some dodging it, most accepting it as our requirement to obey those who command government. BTW, we still used some corvee labor, when some are penalized for misdeamer crimes, we may have them police the roadsides; that is, picking up the rubbish.

    This is not to glorify Qin Shi Huangdi, but much of the criticism is misdirected and superficial, at least in my opinion.

  28. Right, thanks. I don’t and didn’t have a problem with most of what you’re saying, although the kinds of corvee services and conditions they are performed in must vary greatly over time and place. It would be a large question to get into.
    Particularly before the Shuihudi find, Qin Shi Huangdi was unduly demonized, and it’s good to get a more balanced picture of him. At the same time, he has been seen, especially in the 1970’s in the PRC, as an infallible hero, and I have seen this view persisting both in China and sometimes in North American academic culture. That is what I originally reacted to.
    As far as my original point about script unification is concerned, I still believe my analogies to other instances of this in world history are enough to indicate that it may not have been a welcome or smooth transition. Cheers.

  29. John, this image is not publicly viewable – I’d love to see the full size version (and any other shots of the pages of those books you might have)

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