Shu – Reinventing Books in Contemporary China

All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Resource Collection
  • Pic. Left: Yuan Chin-ta, Piling Up Books (2005);Pic. Right top: The character for “to write” or “book” (shu). Calligraphy by Zhu Suiliang (596-658); Pic. Right bottom: The character for writing or a written composition (wen) From an inscription dated 156.

Writing, Paper, and Printed Books in Pre-Modern China – 书在当代中国艺术中的再创


These web links and questions provide background for both contextualizing and appreciating China Institute’s first exhibition of contemporary art, Shu: Reinventing Books in Contemporary China.

Contemporary Chinese artists draw upon (and react against) more than three thousand years of a visual culture in which writing and books played an important role. They also live in a world in which change is occurring at a rapid pace. These are perhaps the two major stimuli for “reinventing the book.”

“Reinvention” means making something over completely. In learning about the Chinese book and asking why Chinese artists would want to reinvent it, students and teachers will both learn about contemporary Chinese art and contemporary Chinese society.

The Written Word and Books in China

Writing and books occupy a central place in Chinese culture. In pre-modern times the written word helped unite a geographically large and linguistically diverse empire. Written documents were not only part of everyday life, but also inseparable from scholarship and the visual arts.

Paper was invented and in use before the beginning of the Common Era.(See Note1) Woodblock printing developed during the Tang dynasty (618-907), centuries before Gutenberg “invented” printing in the 1450s. By the second millennium CE, printed books circulated all kinds of information among a sizable minority of literate people, mostly men.

Based on their knowledge of the classics, history, and literature, these “literary men” (wenren ) qualified to serve in the imperial bureaucracy by taking civil service examinations. Although there were many more applicants than jobs, the examinations remained the most prestigious path of upward mobility until the beginning of the twentieth century. Books and written texts were at the core of this phenomenon.

The Character ‘Wen’

Wen symbolizes the importance of the written word in pre-modern China. Narrowly defined, wen refers to writing or a written composition. Broadly defined, however, it means “culture” or “refinement.”
The modern Chinese words for both “culture” (wenhua 文化) and “civilization” (wenming 文明) contain the character wen. They were coined in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century under the influence of Western ideas and subsequently adopted by the Chinese.

The intrusion of the West in the nineteenth century brought the rise of modern printing, publishing, and journalism. Western-style lithography was introduced as early as 1834. By the end of the century, Western language books of all kinds were being translated into Chinese.
After the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911, reformers sought to discard literary Chinese (wenyan 文言) as a written language in favor of the modern colloquial (baihua 白话). After 1949, language reform in the People’s Republic of China resulted in the adoption of simplified characters (jianti zi簡體字/简体字), making it easier to learn how to read and write.
The late 1970s and 80s were a period of tremendous change witnessing the abandonment of collective farming and China’s opening to Western investment. It also marked the beginning of exhibitions of experimental art (shiyan meishu实验美术) of the kind featured in Shu: Reinventing Books in Contemporary China.

Note 1

Centuries before the traditional date of its invention by Cai Lun in 125 CE.

Wu Hung 2004.
Exhibiting Experimental Art in China (University of Chicago Digital Collections: Fathom Archive)

– 2006.
Shu: Reinventing Books in Contemporary Chinese Art. New York: China Institute Gallery.

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Resource Collection


Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.