Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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8 / Writing

Quotations from Chairman Mao
Quotations from Chairman Mao
Artist / Origin Xu Bing (Chinese, b. 1955)
Region: East Asia
Date 2001
Material Ink on paper, Japanese silk backing
Dimensions Four scrolls, 116 x 27.2in (each)
Credit Courtesy Xu Bing Studio

expert perspective

Melissa ChiuMuseum Director and Vice President for Global Art Programs, Asia Society

Additional Resources

Erickson, Britta, and Xu Bing. The Art of Xu Bing: Words Without Meaning, Meaning Without Words. Washington, DC: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Galleries, 2001.

Silbergeld, Jerome, and Dora C.Y. Ching. Persistence/Transformation: Text as Image in the Art of Xu Bing. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Smith, Karen, and Marianne Brouwer. Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China. Hong Kong: Timezone 8 Limited, 2008.

Xu Bing Web site. http://www.xubing.com

Ying, Wang, and Yan Sun, eds. Reinventing Tradition in a New World: The Arts of Gu Wenda, Wang Mensheng, Xu Bing, and Zhang Hongtu. Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg College, 2005.

Quotations from Chairman Mao

» Xu Bing (Chinese, b. 1955)

Xu Bing grew up in China, but moved to New York shortly after the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square.

As a child during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Xu Bing was taught a new, simplified approach to writing Chinese characters. Later, he was chosen by his school to create propaganda posters and banners for the government. In the first instance, he learned that changes to writing could lead to changes in thinking. In the second, he was exposed to the darker side of writing’s ability to influence opinion. His father, an intellectual, had been denounced publicly by the same kinds of posters Xu Bing was recruited to produce. The artist’s engagement with writing, a major theme throughout his career, might be seen as having its roots in these early experiences.

Xu Bing’s artwork as an adult centers on the importance of context in the ability of writing to communicate with readers. Many of his playful artworks use designs that at first glance appear to be authentic Chinese characters, but are, in fact, nonsensical, unreadable, or hybrids of multiple writing systems. In light of his international background, much of Xu Bing’s work investigates the gaps between different cultures and the role that words might play in creating or filling those gaps.

This image is part of Xu Bing’s long-term experimental project Square Word Calligraphy, begun in 1994. He has adapted the brushstrokes of traditional Chinese calligraphy to write words in English (and other languages) in a compact square form. As non-Chinese readers spend time looking at these seemingly Chinese characters, they slowly realize, with surprise, that they can understand the words. In this way, Xu Bing cleverly makes the esoteric art of Chinese calligraphy seem less foreign and more accessible to Westerners. Xu’s Square Word Calligraphy project is extraordinarily dynamic and multi-layered. In addition to producing the calligraphy himself, Xu has developed primers, organized workshops and classes, produced instructional videos, and even created computer software and fonts to generate these characters digitally.

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