A New Tower of Babel

A New Tower of Babel

Xu Bing’s “Book from the Ground: From Point-to-Point”—the Everyman Tale in Icons

, the renowned Chinese artist whose many laurels include a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and an appointment as vice president of China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, has long demonstrated a fascination with the written word.

His groundbreaking work, Book from the Sky, looked like Chinese calligraphy, but was actually nonsensical characters. Square Word Calligraphy, on the other hand, looked like Chinese but was actually English, while A Case Study of Transference was two live pigs—one inked with fake English and the other with fake Chinese—copulating in a book-strewn pen.

Now, after years creating art that explores, and upends, the power of the written word, Xu Bing has authored a novella, which was published in early summer. Formally titled Book from the Ground: From Point-to-Point, the tale recounts twenty-four hours in the life of a young white-collar worker in a major metropolis.

“We are only now realizing the true significance of the Tower of Babel—our languages have stagnated and are utterly unsuited to the global village...”

The man, who remains unnamed, seeks to advance his career and find love, but, like many of us, spends most of his time tending the minutiae of daily life: he battles constipation, burns his breakfast, dreads his boss, drinks too much beer, and spends too much money. The main prism through which he experiences the world is electronic—he compulsively checks Twitter, Google, and Facebook, spends his day making PowerPoint presentations (when not surreptitiously checking email), and searches online for romance. At night, characters from video games populate his anxious dreams. This prosaic existence is interspersed by a few device-free moments of genuine humanity, as when he contemplates marriage, yearns for nature, visits a friend who is sick, comforts another who is heart-broken, and brings a bouquet of roses to a blind date.

Like Leopold Bloom—the main character in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, which also takes place within a single day—the main character of From Point-to-Point is something of an Everyman. But, where Bloom is a hero, a latter-day Odysseus, Xu’s Everyman is an icon—that is, an actual icon.

Indeed, if this plot summary sounds slim, consider this: From Point-to-Point is “written” without a single word—at least as they are traditionally defined. Instead, it is composed with hundreds of icons, or pictograms, that Xu has been collecting for years. Where Book from the Sky can be read by no one, Book from the Ground can be read by any one. It is, in other words, a remarkable effort to create a universal form of written communication that transcends cultural, linguistic, class, and educational backgrounds. In Xu’s words, “The illiterate can enjoy the delight of reading just as the intellectual does.”

Sample page from <em>Book from the Ground</em>

Xu, in conversation with me and my husband, and in an essay he wrote about the Book from the Ground project, explains that the idea came to him during the many hours he spent in airports and on planes, where he regularly encountered pictograms. He began to study airline safety cards, which he calls “humanity’s earliest examples of common knowledge texts.” Then, in 2003, he saw a pack of chewing gum that had written on it, in pictograms, “after use, please wrap in paper and dispose in trash can,” and was inspired to begin collecting enough pictograms to tell a larger story. He argues that we are only now realizing the true significance of the Tower of Babel—our languages have stagnated and are utterly unsuited to the global village in which we live. Philosophers have long dreamed of a shared language (and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some of Europe’s greatest minds thought this language could be rooted in Chinese) but in today’s world, it is increasingly a necessity as much as an ideal. And, thanks to global marketing images and icon-based computer commands, we are increasingly primed to “read” visual symbols.

This all makes great sense and I certainly think the MacArthur committee got it right when it deemed Xu a “genius.” But for one who is as possessed as I am by the power of the written word, From Point-to-Point was a challenging read. I marveled at its beauty on the page but was frustrated by the absence of lyric and poetry, which are so anchored to sound, and annoyed by the clumsy manner in which my brain “translated” the pictographs into words and sentences I could comprehend. Simple though the plot is, there were also parts I frankly didn’t get because I didn’t understand the icons. (Fortunately, I had readily available translators in my eleven-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter, who instantly accepted the premise of a book of icons and had little problem following the story.) I also got a bit tired of story’s emphasis on bodily functions and bathroom humor, and the lack of big ideas—but, then again, I feel that way about much of contemporary fiction.

Xu shares this frustration—he professes embarrassment at having to resort to standard written language in order to explain the premise of his pictographic script. But, as he says, the significance of this effort is in the attempt and all written languages go through lengthy periods of development. Book from the Ground: From Point-to-Point is a work in progress—it is also a genuine work of art.

Sheila Melvin writes about culture in China.  She is a regular contributor to The International Herald Tribune and Caixin, and her articles have appeared in numerous other publications, including The...





Zhang Yimou: ‘Even Though Our Market Is Growing Fast, We’re Still Not Satisfied’

Jonathan Landreth
Hollywood has Steven Spielberg and China has Zhang Yimou, the senior statesman of moviemaking in the People’s Republic. From Red Sorghum, his 1987 debut right out of the Beijing Film Academy, through Hero, which grossed more in America in 2002 than...



Xi Jinping on What’s Wrong with Contemporary Chinese Culture

from China Film Insider
At the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art last October, President Xi Jinping spoke to a high-level audience of arts professionals about the role of arts and culture in China. The event, along with excerpts of the October 15, 2014 speech, given in...



Jia Zhangke on Finding Freedom in China on Film

Jonathan Landreth
Jia Zhangke is among the most celebrated filmmakers China has ever produced—outside of China. His 2013 film, A Touch of Sin, a weaving-together of four tales of violence ripped from modern-day newspaper headlines, won the Best Screenplay award at...



In Zhang Yimou’s ‘Coming Home’ History is Muted But Not Silent

Eva Shan Chou
Coming Home, directed by the celebrated Zhang Yimou and released in the U.S. last week, begins as a man escapes a labor camp in China’s northwest and tries to return home. But he is captured when he and his wife attempt to meet, after their daughter...



French Director’s Chinese Movie Balances Freedom With Compromise

Jonathan Landreth
In 2012, French movie director Jean-Jacques Annaud got a warm welcome in China after more than a dozen years as persona non grata there for having offended official Chinese Communist Party history with his 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet—the story of...



The Met Goes to China

Jeffrey Wasserstrom
In July, while in New York, I toured The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s much buzzed about “China: Through the Looking Glass,” a visually stunning multimedia exhibit that showcases the varied ways that Western fashion designers have been inspired by...



Banned in China, Independent Chinese Films Come to New York

Jonathan Landreth
Three years ago this week I watched the 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival crumble under the weight of official fear—fear that the gritty low-budget, experimental dramas and documentaries screening in a remote Beijing suburb reflected a touch...



Has Chinese Film Finally Produced a Real Hero?

Ying Zhu
“This Is an Era That Calls for Heroes”—the boldface Chinese characters scream from a publicity poster for the Chinese animation film, Monkey King: Hero is Back, which made headline news in July for breaking the animation box-office record in China...



Japan’s Soft Power Leader in China is a Fat Blue Cartoon Cat

David Volodzko
On July 28, costumed in vibrant colors, throngs of fans flocked toward the early morning light of Victoria Harbor, queueing outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center for the last day of the 17th Ani-Com &amp; Games Hong Kong. The...



Chinese Writers and Chinese Reality

Ouyang Bin
My first encounter with Liu Zhenyun was in 2003. At the time, cell phones had just become available in China and they were complicating people’s relationships. I witnessed a couple break up because of the secrets stored on a phone. I watched people...