Final project:How to Interpret the “Nonsense” Artwork: Book from the Sky

“One day in 1986, I was thinking about something else, but instead ended up thinking about a book that no one could make sense of. That thought really moved me…” Xu Bing


This article is an analysis of the artwork, Book from the Sky, one of the most remarkable work created by the famous Chinese contemporary artist, Xu Bing. He creates more than 4000 pseudo-characters in this “book” which resembles real Chinese characters but are undecipherable, without any substantial meanings. I would like to use the knowledge in the field of semiotics, including the part of structured substrate functions of signs, the symbolic-function part as well as the part of “Dynamic Interpretants” to interpret this “nonsense” symbol from a novel perspective.

Key concepts: symbolic; Xu Bing; characters; genre; dialogue;



After the deep depression of the Cultural Revolution, Contemporary Chinese artworks are commonly created in a tendency of combining the traditional oriental elements with the western ones, as a way for artists to express their rebellion and reflection on traditional culture, which always makes these hybrids a little complicated to interpret. Xu Bing’s work, Book from the Sky is a good example of the rebellious Contemporary Chinese art, which is a representation of the extremely undecipherable artwork. Previous researches on Xu Bing’s work mainly focus on the fields of culture, politics, linguistics, etc. However, I hope to open up a new area and make an analysis on Xu’s work by contextualizing it in semiotic background, based on the previous researches and theories.

1. Book from the Sky:Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Chinese Characters

Book from the Sky (also translated as the Book from the Heaven)(fig.1) is a four-volume book created by Xu Bing from 1987 to 1991, who is one of the most outstanding contemporary artists in China. There are more than 4000 characters printed in this treatise and all of which are invented to resemble real Chinese characters deliberately, in an exquisite way, but indeed are some unfathomable pseudo-characters devoid of any real meaning and cannot be interpreted in the standard method and regular logic which we usually use to interpret the real Chinese characters. However, it is worth noting that these pseudo-characters are not constructed out of thin air. Xu Bing actually generates these characters by choosing a number of fundamental radicals or strokes ( 一, 丨, 丿, ㇏, 乚)from the Chinese writing system as the basic building blocks, recombining them in diverse ways, within an intrinsic logic, creatively. In the book Xu Bing: A Retrospective, the artist illustrates how he studied the imperial Kangxi Dictionary (a standard Chinese dictionary during the 18th and 19th centuries) and designed his characters by going systematically from simple stroke characters to multiple strokes ones. Likewise, this title refers to an installation in which the book sets are combined with three long scrolls draping from the ceiling and huge wall panels that are also printed with the artist’s unintelligible characters. (Erickson, B., & Xu, B., 2001) The installation of his work certainly enables viewers to immerse themselves in a thinking game where the promise and the disappoint exist simultaneously.


Fig.1: Book from the Sky, Xu Bing, 1987-1991. Above: detail of pages from two of the set of four books. Below: Installation view.


2. Structured Substrate Functions of Book from the Sky

When viewers begin to appreciate one artwork, what they cannot neglect is the structured substrates of it where the instance tokens receive their imposed, distinguishable form. By considering details of its material structure, viewers can be frequently brought back in to the value and meaning of an artwork. Therefore, by giving insights into the details of material-perceptible forms presented on the substrates of Xu Bing’s work, Book from the Sky, like the rigorous structures of a book, the fundamentally modular structure of Chinese characters and so on, viewers are able to interpret this “nonsense” book in a clearer way.

2.1 Rigorous Physical Structures of a Book

“The process of completing this book must be the process for a ‘real book’” Xu Bing

Considering the structure substrates of Xu Bing’s work, Book from the Sky, we can easily discover that it adheres closely and meticulously to the rigorous and imposed physical structures of a genuine book whereby people can perceive the meaning and value of these material forms. Focusing on the symbolic structures of this “fake” book, we find that although made up of pseudo-characters completely, it punctiliously follows the material structures and formats of a stitched book, including the preface, page numbers title, table of contents, subtitle, general introduction, chapter introduction, postscript, columns, footnote, headnotes, passage endings, folio, verso pagination and so on. (fig.2) People can quickly recognize that this artwork owns the similar function of a real book under which masses of information and meaning flows based on these distinguishable physical forms of the token instance.


Fig.2: Book from the Sky punctiliously follows the material structures and formats of a stitched book


Nevertheless, the most remarkable part of this “fake” book is its extreme fidelity to physical structures and forms of a Chinese ancient book. More than four thousand “fake” Chinese characters in Book from the Sky are designed by Xu Bing in a “Song font”, one traditional writing style of Chinese characters that was standardized by artisans in the Ming dynasty, which is always known as the reference to a feeling of seriousness. (fig.3)


Fig.3: “Fake” Chinese characters written in a “Song font”


Interestingly, the seriousness brought about by physical structures of this book as well as the absurdness revealed by the semantic instability of these pseudo-characters could be perceived by viewers simultaneously in this postmodern artwork. Moreover, texts of this “book” are designed to be read starting from the right of the page and continuing to the left side, in accordance with a traditional typesetting system of Ancient China. Viewers are likely to be frequently brought back in to the reflection on the cultural value of Book from the Sky when considering details of the physical structures of this artwork where it applies ancient books as models. Xu Bing has expected that, in terms of form, this book would be made knowledgable, exude a “very cultured”, “classic” feeling. (Xu, B., & Wang, C. , 2014)

2.2 An Imitation of Real Chinese Characters

“They must be similar to Chinese characters to the greatest degree possible, but also not be Chinese characters.” Xu Bing

Furthermore, we could discover that as the unit element of this symbolic work, each pseudo-character in this artwork Book from the Sky is created similar to the genuine Chinese character in terms of morphological structures where a large amount of knowledge of semiotics and linguistics is consciously applied. For instance, each pseudo-character is organized into an imaginary square, the most conventional form required by the square word script which characterized the Chinese writing system. Moreover, the majority of those “fake” characters in Xu’s work range between 15-22 strokes. The character with the least number of strokes contains three strokes and the character with the most is over 37. This adheres closely to the rule of creating real Chinese characters in the writing system. Additionally, there are four fundamental structures where genuine Chinese words are created in general: (1) combining the “radical(s)”(one component of a complete word without semantics) with the complete “word(s)”(one component of a complete word with practical meaning). For example, the Chinese character “仪” is structured by combining one meaningless radical “亻” with a word “义” which represents “loyalty” in Chinese. (2) combining one or more complete “word(s)” together. I would like to use the Chinese character “鹏” (a word which means “roc” in Chinese) as an example. This word is organized by combining a complete word “朋” which means “friend” in Chinese with another word ”鸟” which means “bird” in Chinese together. (3) combining the “stroke(s)” (the minimal structural unit of a Chinese character) with the “word(s)”. For instance, the word “冰” (ice)is formed by combining one word “水” (water)with two strokes, “丶” and “㇀”. (4) jointing two or more “stroke(s)” together. For instance, the word “人” which means “human being” in the Chinese language system is constituted by uniting two fundamental strokes, “丿” and “㇏”, of Chinese writing system, both of which are of empty contents. Those pseudo-characters invented by Xu meticulously follow the fundamental structures that govern the morphology of real Chinese characters as well.

As a consequence of morphological similarities between the “fake” character and the existing one mentioned above, viewers are likely to gain a feeling of familiarity which leads them to establish a correlation between the “fake” one and the real one naturally and fully expect that these two types of words share one same semantic system, although they have experienced disappointment in the end, accompanied by a sense of deception. Nevertheless, I believe this is exactly the most contradictory but fascinating part of this artwork.

3. Why Viewers Expect to Interpret This “Nonsense” Book?

Book from the Sky looks like a book, but we cannot actually call it a book because there are no concrete or interior contents in it. However, most viewers who have come across Xu’s work still expect to interpret it as soon as they recognize that this artwork is a sign which needs to be translated into another sign in which it will be more fully developed. From my personal perspective, I would rather to make an analysis on this phenomenon by utilizing the theory of symbols as well as encyclopedic codes.

3.1 Books as Symbols

As one basic category of sign functions, symbols or general signs have become associated with their meanings by usage, distinguishing from icons which represent things simply by imitating them. As a book as well as an artwork, although not the regular one, Book from the Sky could be interpreted as a symbol in that the book has many levels and context of cultural meanings that are part of our system of meaning and values for works of literature and art. It is applicable to whatever may be found realize the idea connected with the word “book”; it does not, in itself, identify that thing. The promise of the observers that some specific values or concepts will show up in this book actually could be attributed to the social and cultural convention or contract. Based on the convention, they naturally rise an appetite for interpreting this artwork, even if after realizing it is a work deprived of any substantial meaning. At this level, we could also infer that people from different cultural contexts are able to interpret the Book from the Sky in distinct ways, with no knowledge of its implications.

4. Dynamic Interpretants

In the process of interpreting an artwork, we usually add other associations with codes and categories we have learned for building a “stack” of multiple interpretant. Pierce has mentioned a term “Dynamic Interpretants” which represents the process of filling in meaning and knowledge as we interpret in successive moments in time with access to other information for a fuller sense of overall meaning. It enables humans to establish more code associations and get meanings of one artwork in depth and breadth. From my personal perspective, I would like to use the term “Dynamic Interpretants” to build up more correlations with codes to help interpret the artwork Book from the Sky at a deeper level.

4.1 Experience It in the Form of Genre Codes

What we call codes and genre conventions, for example, are systems of regularity patterns, habitual and contextual correlations, for selecting out the most likely interpretable associations. We discover and map forms of symbolic types to what they’re about or stand for by means of interpretant correlations, a kind of dynamic interpretants way, selecting out the learned meanings, ideas, beliefs and responses that our interpretive communities associate with the genre of expression that we are interpreting.

When interpreting Xu’s work Book from the Sky, viewers are used to beginning with selecting the most relevant codes as an interpreting way for sorting out categories and levels of meaning-correlations of this work. Based on Peirce’s theories, most symbolic correspondence associations are first generated by applying an Interpretant for a code, category, or class of meanings. Based on those distinguishable genre features and concepts recognized from Book from the Sky, viewers could identify the genre of it, a contemporary artwork as well as an art installation, which partly because this artwork is a sign that could be collectively available and perceptible from its physical structures of some kind. After experiencing this work in the form of genre codes, viewers might have already known which kinds of Interpretants are normally applied to this art genre and will begin to make a “code switch” to associate the code correlations that allow them to interpret and appreciate the genre of artwork from either our own time or earlier historical periods. With regard to the Book from the Sky, most viewers would like to interpret it from a Contemporary-artwork perspective as well as appreciate it by using the concepts and values of “art installation” at first and then turn to discover and understand the kind or type expression of it. From the perspective of analyzing one specific art installation, viewers could easily realize that Book from the Sky is designed as a three-dimensional work which has made an attempt to transform the perception of a space. In order to enable viewers to experience a sense of grandness of this space, Xu Bing has organized this art installation by incorporating a broad range of book materials in daily life like scrolls draping from the ceiling and huge wall panels that are also printed with the artist’s unfathomable pseudo-characters to complete the book sets of this work. As a substitute for part of the book, scrolls as well as the wall panels enable viewers to be at once immersed into one specific narrative ambience that surrounds them which encourages them to maintain a degree of self-identity as a viewer. As viewers who have already known that this is a work belongs to the artistic genre of installation art, they would try to interpret this work by choosing the associated “codes” at first and then immerse themselves into that work and begin to dig out the intrinsic meaning of this artwork. What’s more, as a Chinese Contemporary artwork accomplished under the circumstance of the Chinese New Wave movement in 1985, Book from the Sky could be regarded as a major masterpiece of this genre which concentrates almost all the characters of Chinese Contemporary art, like formalism abstraction, subjectivity, irrationality, anti-traditionalism and so on.

4.2 Interpret it in Different Dialogues

From the symbolic perspective, we realize that anything can function as a sign in a human use context and all interpretation of the signs is dialogue-dependent and artworks are no exception. The intersubjective social or cultural bonds of sign users which are installed by symbolic cognition in lived contexts, precede individual understanding and individual instances of expressed meaning. Therefore, one of the first things we can ask ourselves when appreciating a work of art is “what conversation is it part of, what longer conversation(s) does it assume, what dialogue is it participating in that it is a response to?” Moreover, the conversations or dialogues in which the artworks participate are often plural, multiple, established by applying multiple levels of interpretants. To analyze Xu’s work, Book from the Sky, I would like to place it in three different dialogues: the political, the cultural and the ideological one.

4.21 Political Context: The Cultural Revolution

 When we start to track back the individual background of Xu Bing, we realize that he has lived in the period of the Cultural Revolution when he was a child, a special era of China in which a large number of intellectuals have been persecuted and suffered a wide range of abuses which mainly attributes to the consideration of Chinese leaders at a political level. As professors of the Beijing University, Xu’s parents have been involved in this political storm as well, suffering the public humiliation as well as other punishment. Therefore, as the victim of the Cultural Revolution, Xu Bing has pondered over this event deeply for a long time, which is clearly reflected in his work, Book from the Sky. Xu Bing fully understand the Cultural Revolution is a past dialogue where the culture or language functions as a senseless subjugation of humans’ cognition. During the Cultural Revolution, it seems like almost all words and phrases served a political purpose, from the widely distributed “Little Red Book” of Chairman Mao’s thoughts to the publicly displayed big character posters (fig.4) which function as propaganda tools to proclaim the latest dominant ideology within the ruling party of China, facilitating the control on citizens’ mind and cognition instead of serving as a vehicle for expressing personal views. When realizing the past context under which Xu’ work is created, viewers can learn what’s assumed as already been expressed and represented in his work. By interpreting this artwork in one specific social dialogue, we can understand that Xu Bing actually hope those pseudo-characters in this “nonsense” book serves as heuristics for viewers to reflect upon the role of words and phrases, asking the question “what is the real connotation of characters.”


Fig.4: Publicly displayed big character posters in the period of the Cultural Revolution


4.22 Cultural Dialogue

Among those multiple dialogues, cultural context is one of the most essential ones to enable observers to project into the future for adding more new information of the artwork, with learned encyclopedic codes and correspondences. To understand Xu’ s work in a further way, we are supposed to place his work under a traditional Chinese cultural dialogue. We can find that all characters in Book from the Sky are written in the form of calligraphy which originally is a kind of expressionistic art, a combination of both tuxing (writing form) and tushi (idea) inside. However, the Book from the Sky has broken the structure of traditional writing form of Chinese characters by depriving any of the substantial meaning a character is charged with but just leaving the physical structure of it. Xu’s work has once been regarded as an invention with the counter-calligraphy tendency under the traditional cultural context. By creating pseudo-characters written in the form of calligraphy, which is not only a style of writing, but also a representation of traditional Chinese culture, Xu Bing is intended to stimulate a much richer reflection which is located within a familiar Chinese cultural dialogue, on the flaws of contents of the Chinese culture.



Although those pseudo-characters in Book from the Sky seem unfathomable and undecipherable, they are actually organized and invented by the artist in a well-designed form and substantial physical structures where multiple chains or levels of Interpretants could be sensed from it by viewers. From my personal perspective, viewers are capable of interpreting this “nonsense” artwork in a clearer way from the perspective of semiotics.

Firstly, viewers are capable of catching some information through structured substrate functions of Book from the Sky. By considering details of its material structure, viewers can be frequently brought back in to the value and meaning of a “book”. Second, by realizing the morphological similarities between the “fake” character and the existing one mentioned above, viewers are likely to gain a feeling of familiarity which leads them to establish a correlation between the “fake” one and the real one naturally and fully expect that these two types of words share one same semantic system, although they would experience disappointment in the end, a feeling which encourages them to explore in a further way. Third, viewers tend to interpret Book from the Sky as a book, which is a symbol has been associated with its meanings by usage, and has many levels and contexts of cultural meanings that are part of the system of meanings and values for works of literature and art. Fourth, by selecting different code relations for genres and putting it diverse dialogues, like social dialogue, cultural dialogue and so on, viewers are able to interpret this artwork from different levels, establishing multiple meaning correlations. By means of all these ways mentioned above, viewers are more likely to draw the reasonable inferences of Xu’s work.




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