When I was learning to write Chinese characters as a child, carefully crafting each stroke into tiny boxes for practice, I kept myself entertained by thinking of writing as drawing.
Specifically, I thought of drawing snowflakes, only black and inky instead of white and cold, smudging and bleeding into the paper instead of melting and sinking into the soil. It made sense—after all, each Chinese character seemed like a complex and unique geometrical pattern, just as snowflakes were.
Chinese is a language composed of logograms, in which graphic rather than phonetic symbols serve as the basic unit of the language. This means that it is an extremely pictorial language, and one that inspires my imagination even now.
As a result, the Chinese language has had a close relationship with Chinese visual arts both traditionally and in the modern day. In traditional Chinese shan shui paintings, language always accompanies image—it is artful not only on a linguistic level, but on a visual and spiritual level as well. “A Brush with Asia,” an ink art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, focuses precisely on this relationship and the way it is being explored and re-evaluated by contemporary Chinese artists.
It is fascinating how being able to read Chinese impacts one’s experience of the art in this particular exhibit. While my companion responded to the re-evaluation of the significance of the Chinese language with cultural interest, I felt deeply disturbed by much of the art on display that manipulated Chinese characters. Often, the art rendered the characters unreadable or dislocated them from their meanings. In other words, the art made the Chinese language gibberish, and in so doing, made me illiterate.
This was how I first felt when I encountered Xu Bing’s “A Book from the Sky”—which features in the exhibit— in my Art Humanities class. Bing, a U.S.-based Chinese artist, shocked the entire Chinese-reading community with this piece, and I can understand why. In that particular class, my professor asked if anyone could read Chinese, and being the only person whose hand was raised, I was instructed to read the words from his “book” that she put up on screen.
To my horror, I was completely unable to. Growing embarrassed, I panicked before finally conceding defeat and telling her I could not recognize the characters.
It turns out that what Bing had created was exactly what its Chinese title suggests—tian-shu translates literally as sky-book but is really a euphemism for nonsense. And nonsense was all I could make out when I looked at the characters on the screen and later at the exhibition. Bing had created characters that resembled Chinese ones, arbitrarily assigned them meaning, and wrote a book with them. Brilliantly, he had created a language and masqueraded it as another.
It is intuitive for us to attribute cultural significance to language. Language has thus been a strong rallying point for Chinese people throughout history, and today, it is especially so for Chinese diaspora all over the world. What “A Brush with Asia” questions is that relationship between language and cultural identity. The Chinese language is questioned, explored, manipulated—deconstructed, as it were, calling into question the identity of the Chinese speaker, reader, and writer.
What are you really reading? That was the question the exhibition left me thinking about. As I walked away from the exhibition, contemplating my answer, I couldn’t help but smile when a simple memory popped into my head.
Joanna Lee is a first-year in Columbia College from Singapore. Found in Translation runs alternate Fridays.