See the character 門 mén near the middle of this painting? See the 窗 chuāng on either side of it? These aren’t the only characters that form part of the image in this 2001 painting by Xu Bing (徐冰), which was a gift to the Harvard Art Museums. Here’s a slightly edited version of the description from the Harvard Art Museums’ website. (I’ve added the Chinese characters and tone marks on the pinyin in the list of words).
… this painting depicts a thatched-roof cottage set in a lush landscape. The cottage sits at the very center of the composition, nestled between a small lake in the foreground and a series of rolling hills in the background and flanked on either side by groves of trees. Grasses and short bamboo plants surround the lake, in which various insects swim. A small, tile-roofed building appears to the (viewer’s) left of the cottage, and vegetables grow in a garden to the left of the tile-roofed building. A clump of bamboo grows behind the thatched-roofed cottage. The trees to the right of the cottage are identified as cypresses and pines; those at the left of the composition are unidentified.
Xu Bing has coined the English word “Landscript” to describe his landscapes of this type; the proper Chinese translation is “wenzi xiesheng”, though it sometimes also is translated as “dufengjing”. Landscapes of this type use Chinese characters as pictorial elements, the characters varying from standard script (“kaishu”) and draft script (“caoshu”) to simplified forms as well as such archaic forms as bronze and oracle-bone scripts. Thus, the doorways of both thatched-roof cottage and tile-roofed building are represented with the character meaning “door” (“men”), just as the windows in the thatched-roof cottage are represented with the character for window (“chuang”). The various characters incorporated into the composition can be identified as follows:
Doors: 门 / 門 “mén” (door, doorway, gate);
Windows: 窗 “chuāng” (window, portal);
Thatched roof: 草 “cǎo” (grass);
Tile roof: 瓦 “wǎ” (rooftile);
Beans: 豆子 “dòuzi ” (bean)–the plants in the lower right corner, in front of the lake;
Bamboo: 竹 “zhú” (bamboo)–the plants in the lower left corner and behind the thatched-roof cottage;
Insects: 虫 / 蟲 “chóng” (insects, bugs, worms)–the tadpole-like animals in the lake;
Soil: 土 “tǔ” (earth, soil)–the characters to the right of the lake and at the top center of the composition;
Vegetables: 菜 “cài” (vegetables)–the plants in the garden to the left of the tile-roofed building;
Trees: 木 “mù” (trees, wood)–the trees at the left of the composition, to the left of the vegetable garden;
Grove: 林 “lín” (copse, grove, woods, forest)–the trees at the left of the composition, to the left of the vegetable garden;
Leaves: 叶子 / 葉子 “yèzi” (leaves)–the trees in the upper left corner of the composition, above the “mù” and “lín” characters; because the trees are far away, one sees only the trees’ crowns (i.e. leaves), rather than the trunks and branches;
Cypress: 柏 “bó” or “bǎi” tree)–the trees at the right edge of the composition.
Xu Bing’s artistic practice is an exploration of language … In playing with Chinese characters, Xu Bing typically explores the relationship between word and image–that is, the close relationship between painting and Chinese characters of a pictorial or semi-pictorial type, as he does in this and other paintings in the “Landscript” series.
This work would make a great cultural topic to discuss in a beginning or intermediate Chinese class since it actually incorporates some of the language and many of the words are at a fairly elementary level. Discussions of art in Chinese textbooks so often focus on historical figures that I think it would be great to introduce a contemporary artist.
See more of Xu Bing’s work on his website.