The language of art is universal. When artists migrate, this experience brings a creative energy that is an essential element of art production in the 20th and 21st centuries. A young Chinese artist has settled in Berlin in order to practice calligraphy, providing her with the necessary distance from the destruction of traditional Chinese characters wrought by the Cultural Revolution. It also provides the inspiration of a vibrant, artistic city, a place for art that is ‘Made in Europe’.
I remember a little girl’s colorful skirt waving in the breeze, and the sun casting swatches of light through the leaves. It was summer, five years ago. I was outdoors at the café of Berlin’s Literaturhaus. At that moment, I fell in love with Berlin, which seemed to me a city full of green trees and bicycles, images that fused with those from when I was a little girl in Beijing. Berlin remains the center of new art production in Europe. This fact, combined with the idyll of that summer afternoon, sealed my decision to move to Berlin as quickly as possible. But Berlin isn’t Beijing. I still see very few Asian faces on the street, and until now, I probably know fewer than ten Chinese in the city. It was a shock to learn that there is no Chinese bookstore.
Global strategist Pankaj Ghemawat published World 3.0, a book on how limited globalization really is. This condition may have its benefits. I learned that the inhabitants of my adopted city know very little about China, but they have plenty of curio-sity. Being asked all the time about China by my friends, and living seven thousands kilometers distant from Beijing makes me think of my home country all the time. James Joyce lived most of his adult life in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris, but he only wrote about an Ireland he could neither escape nor forget.
Nostalgia is an eternal theme of literature and art. When I think about China from the vantage point of Mitteleuropa where I have no personal history, looking back helps me to understand better the gap between traditional Chinese civilization and the tsunami of Western trends that has swept over China. On the one hand, Chinese have been excited and curious about new influences from the West. But since we are still struggling to find our way through these cultural connections and differences, we often get lost and abandon our own culture. This problem especially afflicts the young.
Studying both architecture and traditional Chinese opera in Beijing pushed me to the forefront of this clash of cultures. For Chinese students, the thrust of our studies was toward Western architecture. It was the beginning of the 21st century. Beijing was preparing for the 2008 Olympics. China became the world’s factory, and the world’s biggest construction site. Three hundred million migrant workers moved to the cities. Twenty-four hours a day, construction sites filled Beijing with lights, dust, and endless noise. Hundreds of neighborhoods were demolished. When my book about traditional Chinese garden architecture was published in 2005, only 5.76 percent of Beijing’s old city was intact. The developments for the Olympics saw to the rest. Travel restrictions during the closed period through the end of the Cultural Revolution made it impossible for Chinese to see modern architecture in situ. Even students of my generation would eagerly make notes and drawings of famous designs from the limited books in the library. For us, Modern Architecture was, in many respects, imaginary.
Later, when I attended my first Master’s class in traditional Chinese opera, our professor told us that in the 1950s, there were more than 3,000 kinds of local opera in China; now less than 200 remain.
“Nostalgia is an eternal theme of literature and art. When I think about China from the vantage point of Mitteleuropa where I have no personal history, looking back helps me to understand better the gap between traditional Chinese civilization and the tsunami of Western trends that has swept over China.”
China’s self-inflicted cultural destruction, its frenzy and despair, combined with increased idealistic worship of the West has yielded a strange state of affairs. The Chinese worked very hard to increase their GDP to reach fourth place in the world; but on the other hand, once the backward old China was no more, high hopes for a new, ideal system were darkened by the corrupt habits of patronage and ‘relationships’ exactly like those that have been practiced for thousands of years. Bulldozers not only demolished traditional buildings that were the essence of much of our history, but they also demolished much of the harmony, contentment and optimism that we inherited from traditional Chinese thought. Those born in the big cities during the 1980s, have found that 50 percent of their parents’ marriages have ended in divorce. My own family was one of the casualties of this trend.
By contrast, all these features of social upheaval and cultural destruction reinforce my sense of Berlin as an idyll in a way that Berliners of my grandparents’ generation would have found hard to believe. While I enjoyed studying German culture, and benefiting from its positive influences—happily discovering the similarities and differences between the two cultures—with the time constraints of daily life, I simply cannot fill my time with the Chinese language anymore. But neither can I put aside my Chinese. Wittgenstein wrote that, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Having lost the environment of the Chinese language, and with the limits of my German and English, art as universal language allows me expression. In this way, I first conceived my painting series based on Chinese characters: The Chinese Version.
Chinese characters have had a history as a developed writing system for no less than 3,300 years. Unlike alphabetical writing systems, Chinese characters do not represent sounds even if they have sounds associated with them. Rather, they are symbols that convey meanings. An Analysis and Explanation of Characters written by Xu Shen at the beginning of the first century AD summarized the ways of creating Chinese characters in the earliest known stages of written Chinese. The first major criterion was pictographic. For abstract concepts not conducive to pictographic representation, early Chinese developed the indicative method. They added a symbol to a drawing in order to indicate the concept. The associative method combined two existing pictographs in order for the reader to deduce the meaning. Another combination is a pictographic component to explain the meaning, added to another that represents both an associated sound (distinct from a true phonetic) and meaning of the whole character. Still others are borrowed to represent another concept with the same pronunciation.
Lines, dots and hooks
Gradually, Chinese characters comprising various lines, dots and hooks that de-rived from the ancient pictographs became ever more symbolic. This organic development continued until it was broken in 1955 when Mainland China imposed the simplification of Chinese characters. This directive had two stated purposes: the simplification of the ‘structure’ or the number of strokes in characters, and a reduction in the number of characters. In this way, not only the form of characters changed, but also thousands of characters simply disappeared from the Chinese lexicon.
The pretext for this directive was to increase literacy, but literacy rates in Hong Kong and Taiwan are slightly higher than those of Mainland China, despite the fact that their administrations never adopted simplified characters, and never limited the number of characters.
From the standpoint of language, the simplification program was a much more ambitious cultural atrocity than the Taliban dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas or the campaign of the First Emperor of Qin, to ‘burn books and bury scholars.’ 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.
For artists, it was a further calamity be-cause imposed simplification desecrated our most indigenous and distinctive art form: calligraphy. Of course some people still practice calligraphy in simplified characters, but this is a calligraphy divorced from millennia of developments that enabled the form of characters to reflect their semantic content and vice versa.
In my work, I have used simplified characters, but I have mixed them with ‘lost’ characters that are no longer in use or prohibited by simplification. These are made to appear as though printed, but each is painted by hand with a brush rather like traditional calligraphy. In these works, the arrangement of the characters has no lexical or semantic relation. Instead, their relationship is entirely formal. At the same time, 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.
Languages are dynamic and develop all the time, following in step with history. But the deliberate destruction of so much of the Chinese written language is a symptom of a historical tendency that is ongoing in so many places around the globe right through to the present day. In this sense, I believe that my work, which uses Chinese characters and is not only ‘made in Germany’ but also actually made possible in Germany, addresses a global problem. My hope is that this work will arouse people from many nations to reflect on what we have lost from our cultures, and how much of our world cultural heritage continues to be deliberately destroyed by depraved ideologies for which the destruction of culture is merely a prelude to the destruction of our humanity, and then to the destruction of human beings.
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
— Burnt Norton, T.S.Eliot
Informed by Zen (Chan) thought, which aimed to free the mind for sudden enlightenment, mastery of the brush in Chinese calligraphy freed the hand to capture the mind’s vision. Even in ancient China, artists had the freedom to abandon themselves to enlightenment and expression. The conscious artistry of the brush relied on the spontaneity of the hand to distill the essence in the mind. This unconscious unity of the inner (the mind) and the outer (the hand) hoped to allow the calligraphic work to render the living spirit of things.
In contrast, my work uses a font invented after the industrial revolution for printing presses that were imported to Japan and China. This font evokes the mechanization of industrial products ‘perfectly’ made by machine. There is no expressive freedom; everything conforms to a rigid order so as to be in compliance with the state standard — regardless of the individual will. In the end, these characters become the articulations of those who have lost their will. Some of the form remains, and the movement seems to be still there, moving perpetually in its stillness, like the Chinese jar in T.S. Eliot’s poem, but opposite, and dead.
From the time the industrial revolution unlocked the gates to China, to the present, when the invisible power of the Internet blunts cultural differences, part of the evi¬dent prosperity of our society is a direct fruit of scientific development. Not all change is growth, as not all movement is forward. We know that technological progress is real, but whether the progress of civilization is a reality is controversial. There is an old Chinese saying that, “Using copper as a mirror, we can tidy our clothes; using another person as a mirror, we can know our success or failure; using the past as a mirror, we can compel our rise or decline”.
After five years, Berlin is not always like my idyll of the Literaturhaus on a summer’s day. Berlin is a distinctive node in the global network. In the biggest city of immigrants in Germany, different nationalities face different problems. The increasing immigration of the young brings Berlin its vitality and leads to development, but attendant unemployment also brings social problems.
English is becoming ever more the lingua franca. Germans face changes in their own cultural identity. In Berlin, we are striving to become a tech hub, the next Silicon Valley. The startup industry gives young people a new direction for their talents. But a relatively conservative social system limits its speed. Last summer, I attended the DLD Women’s Conference where Viviane Reding, a member of the European Parliament, held a dialogue with Claudia Nemat, a board member of Deutsche Telekom AG. Reding claimed to be disappointed by the shortsightedness and selfish national politics of Europe. She had hoped that after the crisis of 2008, Europe would develop pan-European systems. Telekom, after all, is building a pan-European network. Both these women will present it to Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, who is going to promulgate the digital common market program in Europe. Then Nemat mentioned that, as a result of the complex infrastructure of Telekom, it would take at least one to two years to introduce a new product, a feat that Google and other foreign companies manage in a matter of weeks or days. The fact of bureaucratic delays brought us all back to reality. I remembered that in Berlin, it took me and most of my friends an average of two months to have internet service.
New York’s sixth borough
New Yorkers in the art world call Berlin ‘New York’s sixth borough’. As a person who has chosen to live in Berlin, I see no reason for it to aspire to be an imitation Silicon Valley or an imitation New York. With the greatest population of artists, a profound and rich cultural base of Europe combined with influences from all over the world, why shouldn’t Berlin make its own new historical contribution to which others should aspire? Perhaps we will manage this in either case, but the lack of sufficient economic support compels the art scene in Berlin to fend for itself. Art becomes a monopolistic system dominated by a few art authorities.
“Not all change is growth, as not all movement is forward. We know that technological progress is real, but whether the progress of civilization is a reality is controversial.”
Across a cultural bridge, I hold my brush to paint The Chinese Version series in Germany, my adopted home. But invariably I remember a paragraph from Lin Yutang’s book My Country and My People: “I am able to confess because, unlike these patriots, I am not ashamed of my country. And I can lay bare her troubles because I have not lost hope. China is bigger than her little patriots, and does not require their whitewashing. She will, as she always did, right herself again.” These lines sum up not only my attitude towards China, but also my attitude towards Germany. To be critical of the current condition in order to be able to wish for something greater, something that could contribute further to global welfare is a consequence of genuine respect.