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Art Scene
Chinese Characters Reloaded
Artist Jiao Yingqi’s Radical Proposal
by Chris Barden

“Either Chinese characters die or China is doomed.”

The author of these words-penned in the same ideographic text he wished to see scrapped—was none other than the writer and rebel Lu Hsun. Lu was one of China’s greatest 20th century writers, its most influential promoter of vernacular fiction, and a key proponent of the New Writing movement of the 1930s.

Although often remembered for donning multiple hats-medical student, artist, activist and political icon-few would associate the author of The Diary of a Madman with the proposed eradication of China’s most unique contribution to the world’s linguistic heritage--the more than 55,000 ideographs (hanzi) that make up the Chinese written language.

But while China’s hanzi were once the most salient symbol of its cultural dominance of East Asia, by the mid-19th century the empire found its ports colonized by much younger countries buzzing with languages that used measly 26-letter alphabets.
Meanwhile, literacy and written culture in China were hampered by the relative impenetrability of those aesthetically elegant, compactly square, meaning-rich ideographs. And China lagged fatally behind its onetime cultural dependent, Japan, which had effectively combined Chinese characters with two phonetic syllabaries. Japanese bomber pilots did not need advanced degrees in literature to read their flight manuals.

Like other reformers, Lu Hsun therefore called for a “Latinized” vernacular phonetic system to replace hanzi entirely, thus expediting a system whose goal was to effect a crucial expansion in literacy and a leveling of the unfair linguistic advantage of the undemocratic literati.

Because of this diseased, tetragonal legacy, fulminated Lu Hsun, “For thousands of years, the vast majority of our people have been martyrs to illiteracy, and China finds itself in its current state. While other countries have already developed technology to create rain, we are still worshipping snakes and summoning spirits.”

Lu Hsun and others successfully midwifed a vernacular revolution in writing. However, they never quite fully proved the case for ditching the aesthetically pleasing, ideographic-phonological trainwreck that is a typical Chinese character.

Eventually, the mid-20th century revolutionary novelist Mao Dun’s solution of “walking on two legs”—using both Chinese characters and romanization-would later be codified in the digraphia policy that is standard in primary education in China today.

Since then, Chinese characters have been reformed, reorganized, re-numbered, regulated, restricted and simplified. The Beijing government recently outlawed the use of puns in advertising (to prevent the corruption of eons-old idioms). And to accommodate the limited capacities of various government names databases, the legal number of acceptable characters for personal names was reduced from 55,000 to a very snug 10,000.

The New Radicals
“The sounds in the language of the masses,” wrote Lu Hsun, “are too numerous for either classical or colloquial written Chinese to accommodate. To continue to write with characters is a waste of mental energy and time, not to mention an uneconomical use of paper and ink.”

In the 1930s, of course, the Haidian University District in Beijing was just another village, its pathways more likely to be littered with camel droppings than bootleg Windows software featuring multiple character-input methods and instantaneous translation between simplified and traditional hanzi.

Would Lu Hsun have sounded his now infamous death-knell for the written Chinese language, had he lived to see the technical innovations of the late 20th century?
“Of course not,” says Jiao Yingqi, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Art, and founder of the Beijing Artists Storehouse (BASH).

Since 1994, the 45-year-old artist, theorist, designer, and inadvertent linguist has been working on a radical project that might discombobulate even a digitally literate Lu Hsun.
“With the advent of computers,” argues Jiao, “the Chinese written language has become more accessible. But the basic composite elements of Chinese characters are increasingly archaic, inflexible and poorly equipped for the 21st century.”

The approximately 55,000 extant Chinese characters are based on root components known as “radicals” (pianpang bushou in romanized Chinese). These 189 ideographs include archaic representations such as man, woman, tree, water, soil, rock, sky, heart, field, roof, dish, tiger, bamboo, bird, metal, hand and foot.

But what intrigues Jiao is the absence of radicals for concepts such as: computer, privacy, electron, network, DNA, homosexual, genetically modified (GM), digit, money and independence.

“The radical chart of a Chinese dictionary,” says Jiao, “is a laundry list of pre-20th century, pre-Industrial Revolution concepts. But there is no reason it has to be that way.”

To address the disconnect between China’s writing system and the post-steam engine world, Jiao embarked on a personal and theoretical project he calls New Characters (Xin Hanzi). Via a trial-and-error process that tightly integrates his artistic, design and theoretical interests, he has thus far created 32 new radicals.

Each new radical, combined with existing or new radicals, carries the potential for hundreds of new characters and words.

For example, Jiao’s new radical for pollution is an intuitive and visually obvious fusion of the characters for ‘poison’ and ‘gas.’ When the pollution radical is then combined with the existing radical for light, it creates the character “visual pollution.”

Pollution combined with sound gives one an unsurpassably compressed expression for “noise pollution.”

A new radical for genetically modified makes possible the construction of characters to described entities like genetically modified livestock, plants, and people-which then suggest entirely new possibilities for words, phrases and concepts.

Imitation vs. Innovation
“At first,” says Jiao, “I did not have any specific idea that I wanted to create new radicals.”

In 1994, while working in Europe, Jiao felt ready to give up painting. “Conveying meaning through an image was not sufficiently precise,” he explains. “It was too dependent on others’ imaginations. So I began doing very conceptual text-based works, including working with interactive text.”

While doing his character-based work, Jiao uncovered certain limitations in the written language: “The characters were not expressive enough. “For example, if you look in the dictionary, there are more than 240 words related to ‘beauty’ that include the woman radical. Which means there are a lot of characters in the language for describing feminine beauty. But there are not nearly as many with the male radical.”

Citing another area of human behavior underrepresented in the lexicon, Jiao points out the dearth of words for describing abstract thought. “Chinese has plenty of words to describe concepts related to the physical senses, but lacks words able to express, coherently, notions of self-reflection or cognition.”

Thus, for Jiao, the project became more than simply a matter of modernizing the writing system. It had deep implications for the bigger issue of what he calls China’s “Copy Culture” or “Culture of Imitation.”

“A thousand years ago China was a cultural powerhouse,” says the erudite but eminently approachable art theorist Jiao. “But if we cease to create anything new, to innovate—if we just imitate what the ancients and other civilizations did—then we become culturally irrelevant.”

And while Jiao has not yet actively proposed his new radicals to any official body, such as the Language Work Committee-the Beijing government’s official Chinese language watchdog-his work offers a glimpse of what the Chinese language could look like in the future.

Responding to criticism that new radicals would be impractical to implement, Jiao says, “People stuck in a culture of imitation always respond to true innovation by saying it is ‘impractical.’

“Should we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of Chinese characters?” asked Lu Hsun. “If we wish to go on living, we have no choice but to ask Chinese characters to make the sacrifice for us.”

Jiao Yingqi, however, thinks that Chinese characters could be the very source of a 21st-century renaissance in cultural and scientific innovation, a challenge to a culture of imitation that might be facing a linguistic crisis even more serious than the one it faced a century ago.

To Jiao Yingqi, the Chinese writing system still has life in it. It just needs to be reloaded once in awhile.

If you wish to be notified of Jiao Yingqi’s upcoming New Characters exhibition, please send an email to bash1@sina.com

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Copyright 2003, by China Now Magazine. All rights reserved.