Author Archives: Zhihui Yu

The Language of Xu Bing: Subvert Culture with “Chinese Characters” By Zhihui Yu


Although the use of Chinese language in art work is prevalent in much contemporary art, the Chinese language is worth more and more focus and attention at this moment. To most westerns, Chinese language is usually regarded as “exotic” because of its complexity and its totally different internal structure against western letters. Language differences and diverse understanding structure of culture are still main gaps between Asian and Western art world. Xu Bing, as a Chinese-born artist who lived in the United States for a long time, always had a strange relationship to words and books, has been trying to build bridges and connect the east and the west, creating a series of art works and characters in terms of Chinese characters and English letters. This article will first make a brief description of Xu Bing, and then analyzing his three most famous works and installations, Tian shu (Book from the sky), Square Word Calligraphy, and Di Shu (Book from the Ground) to explore his art world and his comprehension of the world.


Xu Bing is a Chinese-born artist who is widely regarded as one of the most recognized modern Chinese artists in West culture, having won numerous prestigious awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship—considered to be the Nobel Prize of the America at world. He is mostly known for his printmaking skills and installation pieces, as well as his creative artistic use of language, words, text, and how they have affected our understanding of the world.

In his article To Frighten Heaven and Earth and Make the Spirit Cry, Xu wrote about his family background, “My father worked in the Beijing University History Department, My mother in the Department of Library Sciences. I am familiar with all types of books because I grew up surrounded by the books from my parents’ work.” (Xu Bing, 1998) Taking advantages from his parents’ work-related access, he can easily access to all kinds of books from every culture. And after his whole life that exposed to books, he became to have strong and special feelings and sensitive outlooks toward books. When Xu was young, he regarded books as strangers since he was not able to read them, and when the time went by, though he was capable of reading characters, he was even more muddled and lost. “I was like a starving person who all at once has too much to eat, and winds up so uncomfortable that he is filled with disgust.” Books, which became to be his mainly interest afterwards, has always been something that make him feel both unacquainted and conversant simultaneously, and he started the idea to make a book of his own that would explain the world.

Xu Bing was born in 1955, he experienced the tumultuous years of Chinese Culture Revolution, New Culture Movement in 1980s, and 1990s’ American Immigration Flow and had lived in the United States for a long time, which can all be found in his creations and inventions, especially in his works of books. When we are appreciating Xu Bing’s works of books, we can see that he usually created his books and installations, complying with his unique calligraphy and characters of regional history and culture, to manifest the propagation role books play in every specific civilization.


The Language of Xu BIng, Photo of Xu Bing’s exhibition,  Source: Xu Bing Studio


The Chinese language is a performance of culture. Use Chinese cultural elements to address global issues, to participate in global cultural debates is a positive development. Part of the international success of Book from the Sky has come precisely from the fact that it embodies a particularly Chinese approach to culture.

Although the use of language is prevalent in much contemporary art, the appearance of Chinese Characters and Chinese language at historic moment is worthy of particular focus and attention. In the west, where the Chinese language is so often taken as a sign of the exotic, the methods which many Chinese artists are using can sometimes get confused and lost. In Xu Bing’s art work, he wants to find the balance between familiarity and strange, he wants to find the equal point from words and in words. Xu’s inspiration for universal signs can be found in nearly all his works related to books and words: Everybody is equal in their approach to two books, as one is unreadable while the other one is understandable.

To Xu Bing, books and words reflects his unique life experience and Chinese culture that he represented. What form do books and characters appear in his art work? How Xu Bing show his experience and culture concept and understanding through these works?

Tian shu (“Book from the Sky”)

“……when visitors first entered the space, they thought that the words they saw were words they could read. However, when they actually tried to read the words, they couldn’t. they thought that some of the words are wrong. Then they realized that all of the words were wrong. Their expected response was disrupted.”

——Xu Bing


Book from the Sky, 1987-91. Hand-printed books, ceiling and wall scrolls, and false character blocks, installation view. Source: Xu Bing Studio website.


The mammoth Book From the Sky installation, originally consisting of several 80-foot-scrolls that swag across a gallery ceiling, a wall covered with contemporary Chinese newspapers and a floor filled with traditional hand-bound books. Its deployment of 4000 hand-carved though meaningless characters resembling Chinese characters that Xu created and carved over a period of several years. After its first showing in Beijng, China in October 1988, Tian shu (Book form the Sky) has since gone to the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Italy and etc.. It is probably the most famous work of Chinese contemporary art in the West at this moment. Throughout these years, these created characters have attracted more and more attention and stirred discussion and speculation over their meaning.

Tian shu, in Chinese, literally means “heavenly words” and those words and phrases people are not able to understand. For this well-established and even overwhelmed installation, non-Chinese viewers can be no doubt guided through the strange geography of ‘heavenly’ signs because of the reading issues. To those viewers who know nothing about Chinese language and characters would consider those words are unmistakably drawn from Chinese traditional culture and literary form, however, these carved words are also strange to local Chinese.

“Strictly speaking, Book from the Sky doesn’t have any connection with text, since there is no ‘real’ text, even though it takes the form of books and the appearance of ‘words’.”, Xu Bing said about the ‘words’.  These characters are devoid of any kind of personality and thus have no concrete implication or emotional significance. While different from foreign viewers who would directly and suddenly feel strange to these characters, those audiences who mastered Chinese language would sense the similarity and feel intimacy, while the upcoming unfamiliarity would trigger feelings of simulation and then become uncomfortable. Furthermore, Chinese characters was created and experienced evolution over a period of 5000 years, the unfamiliarity may somehow remind these local viewers of ancient Chinese Characters.



Original carved printing plate form and scanned version of one page of books of Book from the Sky, Source: Xu Bing Studio website.


Xu Bing’s work speaks powerfully to me and it does do, to one who was brought up on Chinese classics and Western semiotics. These ‘nonsense’ words and characters are not invented groundlessly, the very first thing to consider is the format and architecture of the characters, they look as much like Chinese Characters as possible and meanwhile cannot be one. They make no sense themselves and unreadable, while strictly follow internal structural morphology.

According to Xu, Book From the Sky was originally created to express his feelings about popular culture at that time. It has different effects on people from different cultures, but the entry point is essentially the same. From Xu’s perspective, the invented characters have a sort of equaling effect, “they are playing joke on everybody, but at the same time they do not condescend to anybody”. There’s no one on earth can read and comprehend these characters, including Xu Bing himself. In Book from the Sky, what Xu wanted to create is a huge, empty space free of meaning and content, without giving people any hint of specificity.

New English Calligraphy

“Turning the written English language upside-down is fascinating for English-reading viewers”

——Xu Bing


Letters separation of Square Word Calligraphy, Source: Xu Bing Studio website.


Square Word Calligraphy, Art for the People, MoMA, 1999, Source: Xu BIng Studio website.


From the thorough value denial of language to the earnest search for a trans-cultural communication tool, language has always been at the core of Xu’s artistic works. After he moved to America in 1990, though the fresh environment and different styles of living started to flow into his sight, he never changed his passion towards words. Facing English everyday, he was always trying to figure out the relationship and integrating point between English letters and Chinese characters.

Xu Bing’s creative manipulation of language worked, another specific language created by him. In the mid-1990s, Xu invented what he calls “Square Word Calligraphy.” He used his printing and calligraphy background and arranged English letters in squares to make the words look like Chinese characters, yet they remain legible to the English speaker.

Square Word Calligraphy takes a visual turn on translanguaging by inventing a hybrid calligraphy that incorporates English words into the orthographic frame of Chinese. By physically tracing the alphabet through the character, viewers would gain an embodied translingual experience, which encompasses an intercultural imaginary negotiating and transcending the English-Chinese divide.

As for Square Word Calligraphy, Chinese viewers can recognize the characters as familiar shapes but can’t figure out exactly what they mean. To a non-Chinese viewer, they first appear as mysterious characters from Asian culture, yet ultimately they can be read and understood.


Square Word Calligraphy classroom installation, source: Xu Bing Studio website


Except for doing exhibitions and making design signs and logos for some organizations in the United States and abroad using Xu’s Square Word Calligraphy, he has turned gallery and museum spaces into classroom settings where visitors can learn how to write Square Word Calligraphy.

The intention of this installation is to simulate a classroom-like setting in a gallery or museum space. Desks are arranged with small containers of ink, brushes and a copybook with instructions on the basic principles of ”Square Word Calligraphy,”, just like traditional Chinese classrooms. A video titled ”Elementary Square-Word Calligraphy Instruction,” was played on a monitor in the exhibition space, capturing the audience’s attention and inviting them to participate in the class. Once they are seated at the desks, the audience are instructed to take up their brushes and the lesson in New English Calligraphy begins.

While undergoing this process of estrangement and re-familiarization with one’s written language, the audience is reminded that the sensation of distance between other systems of language and one’s own is largely self-induced, and no matter where the audience is from, they are all the same.

Di Shu (Book from the Ground)

“As long as the reader has experience of contemporary life, this script will be effective…… The script in Book from the Ground requires no study; rather it has taken shape through widespread popular use. I have not created these symbols, but instead have collected them, symbols already in wide circulation”

——Xu Bing



Different from Tian shu (Book from the Sky) and Square Word Calligraphy, Di Shu (Book form the ground) was called as the books and works everyone can understand regardless of your own culture and background. Xu borrowed and utilized icons and symbols that he thought were popular used. Xu’s inspiration for this called universal signs was drawn from the ancient Chinese form of pictographs. The modern Chinese written language is based on using pictures for words, and the characters have developed over thousands of years. Xu developed his new language using his keen sense of art, which grasped the real essence of common signs from his everyday life and frequent travels.

In Book From the Ground, Xu tried to develop a new kind of communication system relying on universal symbols, such as the icons and logos that people around the world come across everyday in places such as airports and bathrooms.

“I have a special interest in this work (Book From the Ground)) because it is my most practical work,” Xu told Beijing Review. Everybody can feel the restraints traditional languages place on modern society, Xu said, adding that his intention was to create a way of communication using the simplest, most direct and common signs.

Conclusion: The language of Xu Bing

“No matter what outer form my works take, they are all linked by a common thread, which is to construct some kind of obstacle to people’s habitual ways of thinking—what I call the ‘cognitive structures’ of the mind. These obstacles derive from intentionally mixing up different received concepts to create a sense of estrangement and unfamiliarity.”

——Xu Bing

In terms of most of Xu Bing’s art works that related to books and characters, by inventing words regarded as ‘nonsense’, even some of them never exist in the human history, those are works that most people cannot read or complete comprehend in a usual way or in a normal way, even including the artist himself. He used and deepen the abstract concept of books and words, and not limited in the format of books and languages. Radically speaking, Xu’s books, even Book from the Ground, are not readable, because those contents are basically too much abstract, isolated, and to some extent, distorted. Xu wants his readers and audience to feel this singularity, the bizarrerie, and most significantly, the conflict with in languages. He intentionally designed his installations, complying with his works in order to force his audience to interactive with his works and experience certain conflict, no matter what background you are.

His work included the relation of language to experience and the nature of writing, however, can culture be transferred and interpreted? And from my perspective, to Xu Bing, culture is a communication platform that pushes the development of human civilization. He utilized books and language as a carrier, to express his personal experience and his understanding of culture propagation. Comprehend Xu’s work from perspective of books, his works are basically grounded in the wisdom of Chinese culture, and meanwhile deepened to the topic of global cultural fusion. The aesthetics of his works are unique and abstract. Analyzing his works, the audience can go deep into the inner concept of books and languages and further experience the essence and culture significance of books.


  1. Xu Bing’s Personal Website:
  2. Lloyd, Ann Wilson. “Lost and Found.” Xu Bing: Language Lost. Massachusetts: Massachusetts College of Art, 1995. 20-25.
  3. Yang, Alice, ‘Xu Bing: Rewriting Culture’, in Why Asia? Contemporary Asian and Asian American Artists (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 24-29.
  4. Danni Shen, Sun Contributor, A Dialogue With Chinese Artist Xu Bing, Taken from The Cornell Daily Sun, 20 October, 2014
  5. Simon Leung with Janet A. Kaplan, A Conversation with Wenda Gu, Xu Bing and Jonathan Hay, Art Journal, 1999, p86-99
  6. Kong-King Lee, Translanguaning and Visuality: Translingual practices in literary art, Applied linguistics Review 2015, 6(4): 441-465
  7. Patrick Mahon, Xu Bing, Ed Pien and Gu Xiong: Lost and Found in Translation, Visible Language 42.1, 28-43
  8. Adam Jaworski, Metrolingual art: Multilingualism and heteroglossia, International Journal of Bilingualism, 2014, Vol. 18 (2) 134-158
  9. Xu Bing, The Book of Unknown, MUSE, January 2014, 32-33
  10. Glenn Harper, A conversation with Xu Bing: Exterior Form and Interior Substance, Sculpture, 22 no1 January/February 2003

Exploring Xu Bing and his Square Word Calligraphy

The artist I would like to choose for my final project is a Chinese contemporary artist Xu Bing, one of China’s best-known artist. And I want to focus on his Square Word Calligraphy this time, which proclaimed the possibility of unexpected rewards for those making the effort to communicate across cultures.

Although the use of Chinese language in art work is prevalent in much contemporary art, the Chinese language is worth more and more focus and attention at this moment. To most westerns, Chinese language is usually regarded as “exotic” because of its complexity and its totally different shape against western letters.


Square Word Calligraphy is a new kind of writing, almost a code, designed by Xu Bing. At first glance it appears to be Chinese Characters, but in fact it is a new way of rendering in English. Chinese viewers expect to be able to read it but cannot, while western users are sometimes surprised to find that they can read it, which for my perspective is the magic power of art, which seems to be a bridge connects east and west culture. Square Word Calligraphy takes a visual turn on translanguaging by inventing a hybrid calligraphy that incorporates English words in to the frame of Chinese characters.


My final project will focus on Xu Bing’s Square Word Calligraphy, and my main questions and research topic will be as follows:

  • Why Xu Bing created this kind of calligraphy which seems like chinses language but its not?
  • How he balanced the translanguaging method and the aesthetic text?
  • How he represent his interest in the relationship between Chinese characters, English Alphabet, rendering Chinese nonsensical and English into legible Chinese characters?

I will do my research paper and case studies with some of Xu Bing’s art work as follows:

  • A Book from the Sky
  • Art for the People, MoMA, 1999
  • Zhuangzis Discussion on Making All Things Equalin New English Calligraphy.
  • Square Word Calligraphy: Quotations from Chairman Mao
  • Couplet: Learning From the Past, Moving Forward in Time, 2009
  • Men, Nursery, Women Sign, 2000



Reference so far:

  1. Xu Bing’s Personal Website:
  2. Lloyd, Ann Wilson. “Lost and Found.” Xu Bing: Language Lost. Massachusetts: Massachusetts College of Art, 1995. 20-25.
  3. Yang, Alice, ‘Xu Bing: Rewriting Culture’, in Why Asia? Contemporary Asian and Asian American Artists (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 24-29.
  4. Danni Shen, Sun Contributor, A Dialogue With Chinese Artist Xu Bing, Taken from The Cornell Daily Sun, 20 October, 2014
  5. Simon Leung with Janet A. Kaplan, A Conversation with Wenda Gu, Xu Bing and Jonathan Hay, Art Journal, 1999, p86-99
  6. Kong-King Lee, Translanguaning and Visuality: Translingual practices in literary art, Applied linguistics Review 2015, 6(4): 441-465
  7. Patrick Mahon, Xu Bing, Ed Pien and Gu Xiong: Lost and Found in Translation, Visible Language 42.1, 28-43
  8. Adam Jaworski, Metrolingual art: Multilingualism and heteroglossia, International Journal of Bilingualism, 2014, Vol. 18 (2) 134-158
  9. Xu Bing, The Book of Unknown, MUSE, January 2014, 32-33
  10. Glenn Harper, A conversation with Xu Bing: Exterior Form and Interior Substance, Sculpture, 22 no1 January/February 2003



Why we make photographs?

Zhihui Yu (Yvette)

“The expression ‘to take a photo,’ in the sense of recording a photo image with any kind of camera……We have another expression, ‘to make a photograph’, which implies that a photograph is an intentional artefact, something composed, something requiring an intervention with a human-designed technology, not a slice of nature already there just waiting to be taken”

——Martin Irvine

We are now commonly regarding photography as a format of art, and can represent unique and illustrate the exact existence of certain things. “…… the nineteenth century desire to explore, record and catalogue human experience, both at home and abroad, encouraged people to emphasis photography as a method of naturalistic documentation”. There was a conflict and concern that whether photography would replace portrait or painting at the very beginning, while as we can see photographs becomes more and more “ubiquitous” in all kinds of format.

Not only because of the enhancement and perfection of photographing technology and equipment, but with the exploitation and intensification of photography’s social function, people intended to transfer their lens from home to abroad. I myself love making photographs, and I am interested in visually representing something in as many ways as possible, to reach as many fields and as many different forms as possible.


“I wanted to photograph clouds to find out what I had learned in forty years about photography. Through clouds to put down my philosophy of life – to show that (the success of) my photographs (was) not due to subject matter – not to special trees or faces, or interiors, to special privileges – clouds were there for everyone…”

—— Alfred Stieglitz

Photography can be a representation of love. Photographers usually conduct their affection and communication with their lovers through camera lens. The series of ‘O’Keeffe’ by modern photographer are a series of photograph masterpieces that illustrates extreme romance and tenderness. Alfred Stieglitz (1864 – 1946) was an American photographer and modern art promoter who was instrumental over his fifty-year career in making photography an accepted art form. O’Keeffe was the muse Stieglitz had always wanted. He photographed O’Keeffe obsessively between 1918 and 1925 in what was the most prolific period in his entire life. During this period he produced more than 350 mounted prints of O’Keeffe that portrayed a wide range of her character, moods and beauty.

And in this specific photograph, O’Keeffe looks like a sound statue with a downward sight and upward hands, which forms a movement of visual reverse and make this image full of tension and strength. Her gesture shows power and calmness at the same time. And from this photograph, we can feel the strong intimation and connection between the model and the photographer, O’Keeffe gave Alfred her total trust, and simultaneously, Alfred devoted his love and energy to the her when ‘making this photograph’.


“If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.”

——Tim Hetherington

This photo was shot some day in September, 2017. And as we can see from it, there is a soldier rest in Restrepo, wearing his uniform. It won the 2007 World Press Photo of the Year on Feb. 7th, 2008. And the comment that given by the board member Gary Knight was “This image represents the exhaustion of a man – and the exhaustion of a nation”.

Authenticity and making a picture authentic is obviously important in documentary photos and journalism photos. I was totally impressed by this photo when I first saw it, when you look deeply into the soldier’s appearance and facial expression, you can feel the exhaustion and darkness even from this picture. For me, that is the magical power and uniqueness of photograph. Thanks to its authenticity, you can feel ‘the reality’ and ‘the realness’ regardless of time, space and language differences.


This is a random photo I download from the internet after I typed in ‘snapchat photos’ on google. With the development of technology and these photo shooting applications, there are more and more people prefer taking their selfies utilizing this kind of apps rather than regular cameras. We can see the girl in the photo, who has a pair of big and bright eyes, with cute pink blushes on her face, and when she opens her mouth, there’s a rainbow coming out of it.

Like Eastlake predicted, “……photograph is a democratic means of representation and that the new facts will be available to everyone.” (Liz Wells, Derrick Price) We are nowadays all available of tools to ‘take a photo’, however, we are so much used to this kind of technology in our daily life and usually simply regard it as a tool to capture our daily routine rather than the beauty around us. And this is the problem of social media and socialized photography that we need to consider.



  1. Alfred Stieglitz (19 September 1923). “How I came to Photograph Clouds”. Amateur Photographer and Photography: 255.
  2. Wells, Liz, ed. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 5th ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2015. Excerpts.
  3. Martin Irvine, Introduction to Photography and the Optical Image. Communication and Technology Program, Georgetown University.
  4. Lister, Martin, ed. The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. 2nd ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2013.




How can we chase the beauty in modern society?

Zhihui Yu (Yvette)

“In principle, the work of art has always been reproducible……

In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place. It is the unique existence—and nothing else—that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.”

——Walter Benjamin

In The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin mainly discussed about how technological reproduction changed traditional art interface and representation. And from my perspective, “technological reproducibility”, theoretically, is the technology standpoint of how art, or the work of art, was transformed in modern society. Technology both represents the physical devices in art invention and reproduction methods that produce replicas. “Reproducibility” became one of the existing condition of art works, and which is what Benjamin called as the destructor of “aura”, “It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition. By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence.” (Benjamin 254) and the difference and divide between tradition and modern. Modern art not only made the precise replica of our world possible based on contemporary technology development, but provided new theories to the evolution of art technique.


After the period of industrialization and with the enhancement of modern technology, it seems that hardly anything physically can be regarded as unique and ‘authentic’. Just like the satire we can see from Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times, which portrays Chaplin as a factory worker employed on an assembly line who finally suffers a nervous breakdown because of the ubiquitous repetitive life of his industrial life. Nevertheless, do reproducibility really that ‘evil’?

To me, reproduction is one of the component of creation. There are two kinds of art pieces that can be ‘invented’ due to the appearance of reproduction. The first kind is those replicas replicated based on certain art or art works, which different from original ones due to the lack of ‘aura’. However, thanks to the huge amount and the accuracy and precision, these copies break the original ones’ limitation of time, space and medium, expand and enlarge the influence of art itself. The second sort is those mechanical productions without exact origins such as films, which can be produced and distributed with exact the same version hundreds and millions of times without a tiny difference. In my opinion, in the process of art production or invention, originality and innovation are the premises or preconditions of art. Activities of reproduction are the industrializing and enlarging process of it, which change the function of art and push art to the public. We cannot deny the fact that replication do change certain ‘aura’ of art, while I regard that creation is not opposite from reproduction.


“What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it” (T.S.Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, in The Sacred Wood, London, 1921)

Within the history of art, there is one significant question that will never come to a concrete answer. What can be defined as beauty?

And what is essential to the beauty of replicas?

From Benjamin’s perspective, one of the differences between traditional art, those ‘origins’, and those replicas is the lack of ‘authenticity’. “…whereas the authentic work retains its full authority in the face if a reproduction made by hand, which it generally brands a forgery……” (Benjamin 253-254). He mentions photography and films as examples. “In the case of film, the fact that the actor represents someone else before the audience matters much less than the fact that he represents himself before the apparatus” (Benjamin 260). What we cannot deny nowadays is that photos and images in the exhibitions or shot by famous photographers are not that ‘real’. Almost every single ‘finished’ photo was under a process of Photoshop or filter changes.

And as Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin mentions in their theory of remediation, “our culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation: ideally, it wants to erase its media in the very act of multiplying them”. That’s the ‘reality’ we and the whole art world are pursuing. “Filmmakers routinely spend tens of millions of dollars to film on location or to recreate period costumes and places in order to make their viewers feel as if they were ‘really’ there” (Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin), it seems like that the more ‘real’ the replica depict, the more it can be accepted.

Uniqueness and permanence are the quintessence of art, origins. And precision and the new sparkle those replicas can create through coping are essence to ‘Ficticious Art’.



Martin Irvine, “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art“.

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939). (From the new edition of Benjamin’s writings, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003, with the revised title.)

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.


Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring by Zhihui Yu

CCTP-802: Art and Media Interfaced
Professor Martin Irvine
Communication, Culture & Technology Program
Georgetown University

Zhihui Yu


Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutch: Meisje met de parel) , Johannes Vermeer C. 1665. 44.5 cm × 39 cm (17.5 in × 15 in)


The masterpiece I choose to illustrate is Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s well known painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutch: Meisje met de parel). I saw it when I had my visit to Netherland years ago in the Mauritshuis, an art museum in the Hague in the Netherlands, and that’s the very first time I saw it. I was young back then. To be honest, I didn’t know anything about art the time I physically saw it in the museum, but I remember I was totally impressed the first time I saw it. And I knew the name of it in my art history even class years after I saw it. It was a small painting, with a girl wearing headscarf and a markedness pearl earring on her ear. I was shocked by the huge contrast between the innocence and pureness appeared on the girl’s face and the resplendent lightness reflected by the pearl earring.

In Vermeer’s painting, pearl is the element used frequently to express the purity and chastity. To me personally, I regard pearl as a sign of quiet and calm, nature while in good taste. Like professor Irvine mentions in The Grammar of Meaning System: Sign System, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics, “we not only perceive with our senses in brains adapted to immediate awareness of the world, we make mental relations between perceptions and thought, and generate further relations among thoughts connected in vast networks of collectively understood signs spanning many states of times.” And in this painting, pearl earring, to me, is the sign.


The Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, C.1503–06, perhaps continuing until C.1517, 77 cm × 53 cm (30 in × 21 in)


We do not know the relationship between painter and the girl in this painting, I believe they are intimate if the painting is based on real life. What we can see from the painting is the shyness and trust in the girl’s eye, there’s no hesitation and dissociation in the girl’s eyes, her bright, and smart eyes. The appearance and expression of this painting remind me of another world known painting Mona Lisa (a half-length portrait of Lisa Gherardini by the Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci), characters on both paintings have the same exotic expression, they watch your face directly through the frame, you even do not want to escape from their sight.

It is said that signs have three types of expression, Icon, Index and symbol via Pierce’s understanding.  And to me, in this specific painting, the girl with the pearl earring as an icon, is purely an image, and as an index, her expression and her earring becomes the sign of innocence and purity, deep to symbolic meaning, the painting shows timeless peace and mystery to be argue for its audience.



Irvine Martin. “Intro to the Grammar of Meaning Systems: Signs, Symbols, Semiosis.”

Inferring illumination direction estimated from disparate sources in paintings: An investigation into Jan Vermeer’s Girl with a pearl earring, Micah K. Johnson,a David G. Stork,b Soma Biswasc and Yasuo Furuichi

Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007