TEXT | Notes on Jia’s Painting Series: The Chinese Version | by Drew Hammond

There are no limits to the interior dialogue of the soul with itself. With this thesis, I would oppose the suspicion that language is an ideology.
Gadamer, Truth and Method

In her own written statement on The Chinese Version paintings, Jia (b. Beijing, 1979) leaves no doubt that the series arises from her outrage over an enduring act of cultural degradation.

From the standpoint of language, the [Chinese character] simplification program was a much more ambitious cultural atrocity than the Taliban dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas … it was more extreme than censorship because it not only restricted expression, but also, to a degree, it restricted the ability to conceive certain ideas.1

In this regard, it is useful to recall that ideological destruction of culture recurs in history in accordance with patterns that foreshadow even more terrible events. In the case of the Chinese Character Simplification Program of 1955-1957—whose linguistic modifications remain in effect in China with the force of law—not only did it pave the way for the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), most likely it was a necessary precondition for it. As such, it was both a first phase and a vehicle for an even more general destruction of Chinese culture, the most extreme since the famous anti-Confucian “Burn books, bury scholars” edict of the First Qin Emperor in the third century B.C.

As atrocities against humanity continue with such frequency, we often hesitate to respond to atrocities against culture, even though it is through culture that we define our humanity. And programmatic killing, presupposes that murderers relinquish genuine culture in order to realize themselves in action.

If barbaric regimes did not view culture as a threat to their aims, it is hardly credible that they would be at such pains to destroy it, or to replace it with an ape of culture whose function is rather to de-cultivate: “The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you,” proclaimed Goebbels during the book burning on May 10, 1933, at Berlin’s Platz am Opernhaus2, a site where besides the Opera, the Catholic cathedral and the Humboldt University conjoined, and which was to evoke the fulfillment of Heine’s famous remark that those who burn books would also burn men.3

By 1937, the party was sufficiently confident in the success of its own domination of the popular imagination that it staged two simultaneous exhibitions in the new Haus der Deutschen Kunst (since 1946, Haus der Kunst) in Munich—one of its own approved art, The Great German Art Exhibition (Die Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung) and the other whose title conveys the reception demanded of the viewing public: Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst).4 Hitler, who had been twice rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and who by this time had embarked on a Gesamtkunstwerk infinitely more ambitious and obscene, gave the laudation at the inauguration of the new institution, with a remark of an irony to which he himself surely was blind:

“But with the opening of this exhibition, the end of German art foolishness and the end of the destruction of its culture will have begun.”

Written in 1945, Isaiah Berlin’s eyewitness appraisal of Soviet culture policy almost could lead us to imagine that Stalin was in competition to outdo his National Socialist rival in the ferocity of his attack on culture:

“The great purges and trials of the years 1937 and 1938 altered the literary and artistic scene beyond all recognition. The number of writers and artists exiled or exterminated during this time…”5

We need not have an artist’s talent for invention in order to imagine how such lines continue. As many among the living still recall, the war on culture6 that was inherent in the Soviet official policy persisted in a less virulent form for the decades that the regime continued, and, to a degree, it continues to this day, albeit with comparative restraint, and under a different flag. 7

This is not to say that postwar militancy against culture became less violent as the examples of the previous generation in the industrialized countries rippled across the developing world. The institution of “Year Zero” by the Khmer Rouge upon their seizure of power in Cambodia, in April, 1975, began as a campaign to eradicate the all prior cultural development in favor of a new “Revolutionary Culture”, and began with the execution of artists and intellectuals. The Taliban, whose name means students, announced itself to the world at large by dynamiting Sixth century masterpieces of monumental sculpture in March 2001. 8 Boko Haram encodes its war on Western education in the very name of the organization, but there are many organizations with different names whose programs are nevertheless similar, and who follow in the footsteps of scores of regimes that have ruled Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Mid-East for generations, often in conscious imitation of Western paradigms. 9

The point of this cursory survey, which at best may serve as a general reminder of facts already familiar, is not to offer a historical catalogue of the forces of cultural destruction, but to draw a distinction between the means of conventional government acts against culture and the means chosen by Mao Zedong—and by extension, those of—as many Chinese call it—“the current dynasty.” Before doing so, it is useful to remark that, despite the broad geographical, ethnic, and historical range of the aforementioned programs against culture, they tend to follow a similar course:

  1. The regime identifies cultural elements and institutions that it regards as inconsistent with its aims. This presupposes the establishment of a bureaucracy for the political evaluation of cultural production. Any aesthetic evaluation is subordinated to the political.
  2. The regime proscribes such works—this follows government monopolization of the means of cultural dissemination—and enforces its proscription by means of its police apparatus.
  3. Depending on an ensemble of conditions that find their industrial analogy in the field of cost-benefit analysis, the regime may take the additional steps of arresting, torturing, imprisoning, and / or murdering the authors and disseminators of alternative cultural production, even if their work predated the new regime, and even if their activities have ceased.

Now to the distinction implied by Jia’s statement: only one leader conceived and implemented an anti-culture program so ambitious that he not only proscribed unofficial cultural production and persecuted its authors—which he also did on a grand scale10but he also succeeded in imposing severe limitations on the very capacity of language to express ideas inimical to his political program. By extension, to the degree that our thoughts only may be fully formed insofar as we can express them in language, he also limited the ability of his people to precisely formulate certain thoughts. 11 This leader who so distinguished himself in this regard from his senior contemporaries in Germany and the Soviet Union, was none other than Mao Zedong. 12 And the means he invented in order to achieve this goal was the Chinese Character Simplification Program, a mandate enforced by policy that remains in effect in the People’s Republic to this day.

Formal Character Simplification and the Limitation of Vocabulary

Chinese characters retain such a specific visual aspect that, strictly speaking, it is not necessary to be literate in Chinese for the reader to have a sense of the formal aspects of the changes the program has wrought—even if the formal changes were only the first phase of a broader plan. In treating the formal aspect, my somewhat arbitrary examples that follow perhaps are as useful as any for this purpose—clearly, traditional versions are to the left; simplified, to the right.

ye (industry)
long (dragon)
rang (to allow)
jiang (to talk)

Leaving aside the matter of how these characters might appear were they to be written with a brush by an artistic calligrapher, prima facie it would seem that the first simplified character above ye 业 —no matter how aesthetically banal the simplified version might be by comparison to its source—at least would have the utilitarian advantage of being easier to read, write, and memorize merely for the fact of it having fewer strokes.

But the fact is that here the simplified form of ye was made simply by isolating the upper component of the character, a component that may other characters share e.g. 對 dui; 噗 pu 撲 (which has the simplified form扑) pu 蹼, and others; so in fact, the opposite argument is at least as valid: that the simplified version can sometimes render the character even more susceptible to a confusion of associations than the traditional version—except by rigorous memorization of the sort that may even be easier with traditional forms. This is because traditional characters retain constituents common to many characters in a related category, much as the characters for the specific names of birds comprise among their constituents the character for bird (鳥 niao), a character that has many strokes, but which instantly is recognizable as a unified whole. 13

Much potential confusion arises from the fact that those who devised the formal simplifications did so by resorting only to formal criteria, without any regard for conflicts of associated meanings in the character constituents they chose. The third example above is a case in point. For the simplified character 讲 rang (to allow), the simplifiers effectively preserved the left part of the traditional character 講, the word radical 言—which itself comprises the roughly square pictogram for mouth, and which often connotes an association with speech. Here, they simply amalgamated its strokes, rather like a version quickly scribbled in cursive—this part of it is uncontroversial. But for the constituent on the right hand side of the character, they eliminated the lower portion, and took an existing character that resembles but does not duplicate the upper portion of the combination. But since they only chose the upper portion on formal grounds without regard for its existing stand-alone meaning (including its history as a pictographic etymon) they end up using the character 井 (jing) which every Chinese school child knows means well (in the sense of a drinking well), even though this meaning has absolutely nothing to do with the any semantic association of the resulting simplified version of rang 讲 (to allow).

A comprehensive analysis of the faults, inefficiencies, and downright obfuscations implicit in character simplification’s formal aspect—one that is beyond the scope of our present intention—would further substantiate that the stated goal of the program, to improve literacy, is so remote from any credible appraisal of the program’s effects that, unless we insist that Mao was simple-minded, which no rational person could believe, the program must have had some other goal. The fallacy that formal simplification makes for a higher literacy rate is confirmed as such by the fact that literacy rates in Hong Kong and Taiwan (where traditional characters remain standard) are marginally higher. 14

Whatever the program’s stated raison d’être, its transparent effect was to destroy the ability of those who were learning to read under the new system, to comprehend any texts except those approved by the Chinese government’s General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) 新闻出版总署 (xin wen chu ban zong shu), and its corresponding Party organization, the Central Propaganda Department (CPD) 中共中央宣传部 (zhong gong zhong yang xuan chuan bu). As these “reforms” took hold, it is perhaps no coincidence that Mao was able to launch the Cultural Revolution ten years later, when those who had been raised under the new writing system already had grown to late adolescence and early adulthood, and had been schooled with a language appropriate for their entry into the ranks of the Red Guards.

Their exclusion from the immense literary culture of China prior to the advent of the Simplification Program, was reinforced by another of its mandates much more disturbing in its ambition. Besides the formal simplification of Chinese characters, the program eliminated from use approximately two thirds of Chinese characters from legally sanctioned publications. In this way, two thirds of Chinese characters effectively disappeared from the lexicon of published discourse.15

Besides limitations on expression and thought, the formal simplification of characters and the mandated elimination of the majority of them, had a further calamitous effect on the art of Chinese calligraphy—arguably, the only truly indigenous Chinese art form.16

The distinctive aesthetic potential of Chinese calligraphy derives from the nature of the Chinese character itself, a uniqueness that resides, in large measure, in that traditional characters are, for the most part, pictographic and / or ideographic, and comprise their own etymologies. Poets, for example, often wrote their works in a calligraphic style that formally could imitate the thematic content or mood of each poem; and the overall compositional layout on the paper also could have corresponding resonances in the structure of the text.

This is not merely a matter that a poem of mourning could be written with a thick, heavy stroke, and a poem about dancing the sword mime with a thin stroke in a rapid cursive style that conveyed the speed of the dance. Artists often expressed the aesthetics of this integration between the formal, semantic, and structural elements of a text by means of the stroke order of characters that also determine transitions from one character to the next. One measure of virtuosity was the degree to which a calligrapher intentionally violated conventional stroke order so as to heighten expressive abstraction through the degree of cursiveness, and the deftness of transition. Artists also employed intentional inconsistencies of scale from one character to the next, in the service of overall composition, evoking a “push-pull” sense of oscillating orthogonal perspective and, ideally, they achieved the synthesis of form and semantic content aforementioned.

These and other aesthetic criteria that continued to evolve at least since since the Chinese invention of paper in A.D. 105 abruptly stopped with character simplification, which simultaneously curtailed the richness of vocabulary that accompanied and nourished the form. It is possible, of course, to execute a calligraphic work with simplified characters—Mao’s own calligraphy is replicated in stone inscriptions throughout China. But divorced from its artistic specificity, the inevitable result of such calligraphy is a pale reflection of the medium’s potential, often to the point of travesty. Imposed simplification also entails a concurrent loss of the culture of mastery and development of the aesthetics of the calligraphic medium.

A principal reason for this is that unlike alphabets or syllabaries, it is appropriate to assign to Chinese characters three principal attributes, of which the first is one they do share with words written in alphabets or syllabaries:

  1. Chinese characters are semantic signifiers. In this respect, they serve a function analogous to written or printed words in any language, as units of meaning that can form grammatical syntactic sequences— despite that they do not represent sounds even though they have sounds associated with them.
  2. Unlike letters or characters of syllabaries, [traditional] Chinese characters are also image-signs, with varying degrees of pictographic or ideographic content that visually conveys meaning that comprises their own etymology. In the sense that they can, at times, visually convey multiple meanings, they may also be symbols.
  3. Chinese characters in their traditional forms retain the potential for a high degree of sophistication and specificity of expressiveness in their capacity to reflect signification in a text in the manner of their rendering [see above]. 17

The arrangements of characters in the paintings of The Chinese Version18 occur entirely on the basis of formal criteria—not semantic criteria. Each character therefore may retain its individual meaning, but not as a syntagm in sequential relation to other syntactic or grammatical units that could form a phrase or sentence. This artistic strategy simultaneously achieves several aims.

First, it invests the characters with a formal aspect to “replace” that which was mutilated by the state’s program of formal character simplification imposed for propagandistic ends. The paintings evince this new formal aspect in a way that is not based on traditional calligraphy, but which is entirely contrived by the artist through juxtaposition and de-semanticization of the characters’ syntactic relations. Ironically, the artist achieves this while appearing to imitate the outward aspect of printed characters, thereby implicitly turning the pretext of simplification for the sake of efficiency against itself. Despite their printed appearance, the artist laboriously paints the works by hand, thereby evoking a tension between their outward aspect and the manner of their execution that is consistent with their overall conceptual program.

Second, the artist’s arrangements juxtapose simplified characters with the “lost” characters from among the two-thirds of characters excluded by official general publication guidelines. By their very presence in these paintings, these characters constitute further repudiation of a policy of cultural degradation.

Third, these arrangements reconfigure the semantic potential of the characters degraded. As mentioned earlier, the artist’s deliberate criterion for the arrangement of the characters is not semantic in the conventional sense, but formal and without semantic relation:

These works divest the simplified characters of the propagandistic role for which they were intended, and return to them a formal aesthetic. Another way of saying this is that one can return a formal aesthetic to simplified characters, but only by eliminating their lexical and semantic relations. Ultimately, this is also to return to Chinese characters their critical role, but entirely through formal artistic means.19

As the artist’s text implies, to say that these formal arrangements are without internal semantic relations is not to say that they are without meaning. As ensembles, the arrangements in their formal aspects generate collective arrays that simultaneously operate as image-signs (e.g. as dynamic patterns of waves or other movements along x or y axes); or, in their conceptual aspect, as symbols of opposition to imposed linguistic and cultural degradation in the service of ideology.

In this sense, they posit a semantic shift from conventional grammar to a meta-grammar that simultaneously comprises image and language. 20 And yet, unlike Western text-based Conceptual Art of the sixties, which, in general, stripped art of an historically “decreed” formal aspect in favor of the idea, The Chinese Version restores to a historical textual medium a formal aspect that had been stripped by decree.21

Just as literacy in Chinese is not strictly necessary in order to perceive the implications of these works, neither is their critique of state-mandated cultural degradation necessarily limited to a Chinese condition.

In Michael Dummett’s analytical study, Frege, Philosophy of Language, a text that helped introduce the artist to contemporary Western ideas, 22 the author reveals how Frege, in Der Gedanke: Eine logische Untersuchung, distinguishes between a picture and a sentence or a thought:

A picture may be called true insofar as it corresponds closely with what it is intended to represent. Truth of a picture is, therefore, relational: we can judge whether a picture is or is not a true one only if we know the other term of the relation, namely, the object represented. By contrast, the truth of a (complete) sentence, or of the thought it expresses, is not relational… the sentence is simply true or false without qualification. 23

Through artistic means, The Chinese Version paintings render sentences relational. The truth is in the picture.


  1. In Chinese epistemology, the idea that to fix a linguistic term for something is a precondition for understanding, and, by extension, the understanding of its appropriate role in society, has a long tradition that dates to Confucius’s own comments on “the Rectification of Names” (正名zheng ming) in Analects 論語 Lun yu Book 3, Chapter 3. Since the great Neo-Confucian philosopher, Zhu Xi (朱熹) (1130-1200) incorporated the Analects into the canon of texts for the Imperial Examinations, this view pervaded Chinese thought through the 20th century. In the West, this “language first” criterion is a staple of 20th century analytic philosophy enunciated in Frege and Wittgenstein and substantiated by Dummett e.g. “We have seen that it was both natural and correct for Frege, in extending the distinction between sense and reference [Sinn and Bedeutung] from names and expressions of other kinds, to take truth-values to be the referents of sentences.” Michael Dummett, Frege, Philosophy of Language Harper & Row, New York, 1973, p.644. In continental philosophy, Gadamer is perhaps the most authoritative exponent of the view that understanding presupposes mediation through language. See Hans Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, Tübingen, Mohr, 1960. English version: Weinsheimer and Marshall, tr. Truth and Method, Continuum, London, 2004. “Supplement II: To What Extent Does Language Preform Thought?” p.545 []
  2. Since 1947, Bebelplatz. []
  3. “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” Heinrich Heine, Almansor (Jazzybee Verlag, Altenmünster, 2012) []
  4. In order to mark its 75th anniversary in 2012, Haus der Kunst opened what Okwui Enwezor has called “a reflexive exhibition” precisely to explore this aspect of the history of the institution. Enwezor: “I am of the opinion—as my predecessors Christoph Vitali and Chris Dercon were—that we absolutely have to not only show this material, we also have to properly contextualize it, we have to work towards defetishizing it, we have to work towards demystifying it.” (See Haus der Kunst marks 75th Anniversary) []
  5. Isaiah Berlin, “The Arts in Russia Under Stalin” New York Review of Books, October 19, 2000 []
  6. I.e. any culture that was alien to the Socialist-Realist orthodoxy that produced works of the sort that so disappointed Engels, the enthusiastic fan of Balzac. (See Marx Engels Correspondence 1888 “Engels to Margaret Harkness in London,” Early April) []
  7. Since Vladimir Putin’s first election victory in April 2000, besides the persecution of Pussy Riot and its associated art collective, Voina—a campaign that has received international attention— museum directors Yuri Samodurov and Ludmila Vasilovskaia were arrested and charged in 2003 for organizing an art exhibition at the Sakharov Museum; they were convicted in 2005. Together with another colleague, Andrei Yerofeev, Samodurov was convicted once again in 2010 for organizing an art exhibition. The arrest of Pussy Riot members in 2012 that would result in their imprisonment was the culmination of a long campaign of suppression of their associated group, Voina, against which at least a dozen criminal indictments have been filed. See Amnesty International, Freedom Under Threat in Russia []
  8. This was in fact the fourth time that hostile elements had attempted to destroy the sculptures since the thirteenth century. []
  9. The lesson of Adorno and Horkheimer who coined the term “The Culture Industry” in Dialectic of Enlightenment first published in 1944, reveals that Western liberal democracies that replaced the most appalling tyrants, and which generally refer to themselves as “free societies” are not immune to conditions inimical to culture because, according to the authors, it is inherent in capitalist societies to subsume artistic production and dissemination with a domination that their legislative freedoms belie. Despite these liabilities, such a condition is altogether different from the organized programs of cultural destruction of totalitarian regimes, and therefore, while lamentable, does not merit comparison with them on equal terms. []
  10. The immense literature on this subject in Chinese and Western languages is listed online under the Oxford Bibliographies heading Revolutionary Literature Under Mao.
    As good a brief summary as any is in Richard King’s introduction which characterizes the period as follows: “The effect of mercurial and often vindictive policy changes on writers and artists could be devastating: the Anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of Mao’s last decade (1966–1976) saw the persecution of many of the nation’s leading cultural figures; virtually no writer or artist had an uninterrupted career.” Contemporary art as we currently understand the term, did not exist in China during this time. Art was limited to official Socialist-Realism of a sort that would be familiar to those who follow current artistic production in the DPRK. []
  11. Op cit [note 1] []
  12. There are a variety of reasons why the language reforms instituted by Atatürk (1881-1938) in Turkey are not properly analogous to those of Mao in China. Atatürk began by replacing one alphabet with another. The Perso-Arabic alphabet that had long been in use in the Ottoman Empire was neither an indigenous development, nor well-suited to rendering the sounds of Turkic languages. The Ottoman Empire had a long tradition of non-Muslim subjects who wrote Ottoman Turkish in their own scripts, whether Armenian, Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. Atatürks reforms did not reduce the lexicon of publishable words; in many respects, it expanded it. []
  13. Bernhard Karlgren (1889-1978), the great Swedish scholar of Chinese historical linguistics called these word families, a rough translation of the Chinese term 同源詞 (tong yuan ci) (also translated as cognates). []
  14. Many lists of data show a Hong Kong average of 93.5% —96.9% for males—which places Hong Kong two points below the current mainland average, but the sources of these figures are drawn from census data of 2002 vs. more current data from the People’s Republic, and therefore are not comparable. Even taking into account this incongruity, the Hong Kong data is skewed downward because of a comparatively larger percentage of foreign residents who are not literate in Chinese. In Taiwan, where traditional characters are the norm, combined literacy rates exceed 98.2%, and for males the rate exceeds 99.6% Source: “International Comparison of Education Statistical Indicators – 2012 Edition“, Ministry of Education, 2012. pp. 17. []
  15. The poverty of the officially permitted vocabulary of this period is a condition from which even the comparatively “liberal” current status quo has yet adequately to recover. Endymion Wilkinson, whose Chinese History: A Manual (Harvard University Asia Center, 2000) had become a standard even before its substantial enlargement for the 2012 edition, traces the history of Chinese dictionaries of potential use to scholars. He notes that the Kangxi Dictionary kangxi zidian 康熙字典 of 1716 contained 47,035 characters of which approximately 20,000 were variants. (The zhonghua da cidian 中華大字典 of 1915 had even more characters.) Subtracting graphic variants from the total, yields approximately 27,000 characters. Notably, the revision of this work that was released in the early fifties, prior to the Simplification Program, (The New Chinese Character Dictionary (xinhua zidian 新華字典) was so severely restricted that its 1965 revision actually was printed but not allowed to be released. In 1970, Zhou Enlai saved it from oblivion as successive revisions censored politically sensitive terms. But even so, the practical availability of a comprehensive dictionary was, for the general student population, close to non-existent as many living scholars well recall. Even if it were available, it would have been of little use, since official publishing guidelines restricted character use to a vocabulary of less than one third of Chinese characters, a linguistic restriction that was unprecedented in modern times in its ambition not only to suppress the content of published discourse, but the very language in which content might be expressed. This was implemented by the List of Chinese Character Forms for General Printing of 1964 (with 6196 characters), and the List of Generally Used Characters in Modern Chinese (7000 characters) published as late as 1988 and still in force. (See John Jing-hua Yin, Fundamentals of Chinese Characters, Yale University Press, 2006. p.6) []
  16. Clearly, other traditions practice calligraphy, but, as the patient reader is bound to see, the distinctive properties of Chinese characters as pictographic and ideographic elements allow for aesthetic potentials that simply are not possible in languages written with alphabets or syllabaries. []
  17. Consistent with its propagandistic aim, character simplification and vocabulary limitation advance (1), severely compromise (2), and effectively does away with (3). The Chinese Version series, on the other hand does away with (1), uses (2) in order to generate an aesthetic tension, and transforms (3). []
  18. This title for the series has a double meaning that is meant to refer both to The Chinese version [of cultural destruction specific to government mandated formal character simplification and limitation of vocabulary] and The Chinese version [of counteracting such acts through artistic means]. []
  19. Op cit [1] Artist’s Statement. []
  20. Given the intrinsically pictographic and ideographic properties of Chinese characters and their peculiar recent history, and the exclusion of semantic relations in order to effect the images in the artist’s arrangements of them, their theoretical aspect has little in common with Futurist typography or Western concrete poetry. What is more, in the The Chinese Version the typographical arrangement of words is not eccentric, but almost always respects the vertical and horizontal arrangement of standard text. []
  21. The most authoritative treatment of the Conceptual Art of this period remains Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions” October, Vol.55 (Winter, 1990), pp.105-143. At the outset of his essay, Buchloh characterizes Conceptual Art of the period (i.e. that of artists Seth Siegelaub, Sol LeWitt, Lawrence Weiner, et al) as “the most rigorous elimination of visuality and traditional definitions of representation.” (p.107) []
  22. Learned in conversation with the artist, winter, 2013. []
  23. Michael Dummett, Frege, Philosophy of Language, Harper & Row, New York, 1973, p. 442 []