Nov 13

Now here is an idea for people looking for Chinese (looking) tattoos

Written by DJ on Friday, November 13th, 2009 at 9:19 am
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Berlin Wall Domino Piece At the Berlin Wall anniversary celebration a couple of days ago, the Germans arranged a thousand pieces of eight-foot tall Styrofoam slabs, symbolizing Berlin Wall pieces and each decorated with various arts, into a line of dominoes and started their toppling. This cascading action eventually came to a halt at a piece with apparently some Chinese calligraphy written on it, which stayed up. You can check out this youtube video for the full sequence of events.

There has been quite a bit of discussion going on in the Chinese forums regarding the symbolism of this scene. Well, this post has nothing to do with it. So if you have comments regarding Berlin Wall and China, please go to Allen’s post of that subject.

I wondered what was written on that domino piece. Well, it turns out to be the work of Xu Bing 徐冰, a vice president of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts since March 2008. According to this news report:

Xu Bing told the reporter … [that he] put onto the wall piece a poem titled “Phoenix Hair Pin” 钗头凤 by Lu You 陆游, [a Chinese poet of the southern Song dynasty], in German use the “New English Calligraphy”. The writing on the Berlin Wall piece included a footnote explaining how the poet was expressing his complex emotions after meeting his ex-wife, [forced away by his mother], after years apart.

Wow, so the writing on the wall piece is actually an ancient and well known Chinese poem, translated into German, but written in a style that gives it the look of classic Chinese calligraphy. How interesting!

In case you are curious, the following is the poem and its best translation I can find:


Pink hands so fine,
Gold-branded wine,
Spring paints green willows palace walls cannot confine.

East wind unfair,
Happy times rare.
In my heart sad thoughts throng;
We’ve severed for years long.
Wrong, wrong, wrong!

Spring is as green,
In vain she’s lean,
Her silk scarf soaked with tears and red with stains unclean.

Peach blossoms fall
Near deserted hall.
Our oath is still there.Lo!
No word to her can go.
No, no, no!

As for the calligraphy style, Xu Bing invented and showcased this New English Calligraphy in the 1990s. As explained in his studio website:

Essentially, New English Calligraphy is a fusion of written English and written Chinese. The letters of an English word are slightly altered and arranged in a square word format so that the word takes on the ostensible form of a Chinese character, yet remains legible to the English reader.

square calligraphy alphabet

The basics of the New English Calligraphy, aka Square Calligraphy, seem pretty simple. Just go through the alphabet above, and one should be able to start reading such writings. Among Xu Bing’s New English Calligraphy artworks found online, there are two that I want to point out.

bird The writings shown at the left are all the same Chinese character 鸟 and its corresponding English word “bird”. The left column, going downwards from the top, presents how 鸟 as a character evolved throughout history to settle into today’s form. The right column starts with a conventional writing of the word “bird” and iteratively morphs it through the New English Calligraphy transformation, ending up with something remarkably similar to the original Chinese character.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd, Petals on a wet black bough This second artwork is a writing of the poem “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I find this artwork full of symbolism. Here it is, an exemplifying poem of imagism, a movement in poetry which derived its technique from classical Chinese and Japanese poetry—stressing clarity, precision, and economy of language, written in a style that is meant to present a fusion of the English and Chinese writing.

P.S. If you wonder what the title of this post is about, check out Hanzi Smatter.

Further P.S. I can’t help but wonder how Mr. Xu would (or could) write the word “hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia” in the New English Calligraphy. Hmm…

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4 Responses to “Now here is an idea for people looking for Chinese (looking) tattoos”

  1. Nimrod Says:

    Wow, this is an interesting use of character components. Reminds of Japanese kana forms and Korean letters. I guess any language can be rendered in 2D by means of characters…

    On top of that, the poem on the block was about reunion, which is what some Chinese bloggers thought initially — that it referred to the separation of the mainland and Taiwan rather than the CCP remaining standing.

    In general, I’m happy to see another side of affluence and modernity in China, that of art and culture. What with this:


    and this:


    When next year China surpasses Japan in GDP, will it also become the new exporter of culture from Asia? Time will tell.

  2. Chinese dominoes Says:

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