This Monumental Xu Bing Installation Helped Me Embrace My Taiwanese American Identity

Grace Loh Prasad
May 18, 2021 8:40PM

Xu Bing, installation view of Tianshu (Book From the Sky), 1987–1991, at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2018. © Xu Bing Studio. Courtesy of the artist.

I vividly remember the first time I saw Tianshu (Book from the Sky) (ca. 1987–91) by the Chinese artist Xu Bing. It was at the “Inside Out: New Chinese Art” exhibition co-presented by the Asia Society and SFMOMA in 1999. The show featured some of the most exciting artists of the Chinese avant-garde that flourished in the late 1980s and 1990s. The influence of Western contemporary art was apparent in works like Li Shan’s satirical portraits of Mao Zedong and Wang Guangyi’s riffs on socialist propaganda posters which he emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo. These works were easily accessible to an American audience. Xu Bing’s Tianshu, by contrast, struck me as more subtle and intellectual, drawing on a deep knowledge of Chinese history and language. As a Taiwanese American living in the diaspora with very minimal Chinese language skills, the work had a profound effect on me.

Tianshu is an installation that fills up an entire room. It consists of dozens of copies of a book arranged in a grid on the floor, each open to a different page, along with massive hanging scrolls of the same text suspended from the ceiling and giant wall panels. Each book is printed and hand-stitched with blue cloth covers in the style of a Song or Ming Dynasty manuscript. The monumental size of the installation is awe-inspiring and lends Tianshu a palpable authority, as though we are looking at ancient sutras containing timeless wisdom. But here’s the catch: the books and scrolls are inscribed with 4,000 made-up Chinese characters painstakingly hand-carved by the artist. Each word has real components of Chinese language, recombined in ways that follow the rules of writing but lack any actual meaning. The symbols represent form without content: They are literally illegible.

The work was first exhibited at Beijing’s National Art Museum of China in 1988, where it provoked a range of reactions. Many admired the work’s fine craftsmanship while others appreciated its calculated absurdity. Some searched in vain for at least one intelligible character and left angry, insulted by the inaccessibility of the text. Before long, the government condemned the work and shut down the exhibition, judging it to be subversive and mocking centuries of Chinese culture with art that appeared classical (referencing established traditions of bookbinding and calligraphy) but was actually meaningless.

Xu Bing, Tianshu (Book From the Sky), 1987–1991. © Xu Bing Studio. Courtesy of the artist.


For me, Tianshu has a very profound meaning; it replicates the feeling of being locked out of Chinese and Taiwanese culture due to the language barrier and having access only to superficial forms of belonging. I was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States with my family at age two. Living in New Jersey in the 1970s, my parents wanted me to assimilate; when I stopped speaking Taiwanese upon entering preschool, they didn’t fret. In high school, I studied Mandarin for a couple of years and learned to write some characters, but I didn’t keep up with it so my abilities in both languages remain very basic to this day. For most of my life, I was too embarrassed to speak to my Taiwanese relatives with my scant vocabulary and imperfect tones, so I let my parents do all the talking for me. Without them I felt like an impostor, someone who appeared to fit in but was revealed as fraudulent as soon as I opened my mouth.

Tianshu evokes that feeling of loss—of something missing, of a flaw that spoils the whole. The work affirmed my diasporic position of standing outside and looking in, of being denied access to something that was familiar but just out of reach. It challenged what had always felt to me like a binary definition of identity: Either you are Taiwanese or you are not, with language being the litmus test I would never pass. Tianshu opened up the possibility of a third space for someone like me who was neither an insider nor a foreigner, but in between.

In the Western imagination, China seems like a monolith—a vast country and culture that’s opaque and unknowable, protected both literally and symbolically by a great wall. There are no shortcuts in learning about it, not even a shared alphabet. It takes years for a non-native speaker to develop functional literacy in Chinese, requiring a seriousness and dedication that’s the opposite of today’s culture of instant gratification. Xu plays with this sense of enormity in Tianshu, both in the size of the installation as well as the time-consuming labor of designing and carving 4,000 distinct characters one at a time. “What would motivate Xu to take on the daunting task of creating his own language completely by hand?” I wondered.

Xu Bing, installation view of Tianshu (Book From the Sky), 1987–1991, in “Crossings/Traversées” at National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1998. © Xu Bing Studio. Courtesy of the artist.

Born in Chongqing in 1955, Xu lived through the cataclysm of Mao’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. The son of a history professor and a librarian at Beijing University, Xu experienced firsthand the persecution of families that were considered elitist by the Maoist government. Traditional sources of knowledge such as literature and antiquities were deemed “bourgeois” and destroyed, replaced by the orthodoxy of Mao’s Little Red Book. Seeing how words could be weaponized to justify political purges made Xu question the reliability of language. Xu also grew up during the government’s campaign to replace classical Chinese with simplified characters, resulting in two competing systems for writing. Although Xu has resisted giving an official interpretation of Tianshu, one can see how these events could make him view language as slippery and untrustworthy and strive for a new form of artistic expression without historical baggage.

The title of the work, meanwhile, bears additional personal significance for me. The character “tian” (天) can mean sky, heaven, or god. Tianshu, therefore, can also be translated as a “divine book” or “book from the gods.” Although Gutenberg is often credited for inventing the printing press, publishing the first mass-printed Bibles, the Chinese invented movable type 400 years earlier, around 1040 C.E. My father carries both these lineages. As the first Taiwanese person to receive a Ph.D. in biblical studies from Princeton Theological Seminary, he went on to have a lifelong career in Bible translation and a role in setting up a Bible printing press in China. He was fluent in at least four languages (Taiwanese, Japanese, Mandarin, and English), with working knowledge of several more, including Hebrew and Greek. Like Xu, he had the ethos of a scholar, marked by a deep and sustained focus dedicated to a singular topic over multiple years. In a way, they are kindred spirits.

What Tianshu gave me was a sense of relief—it didn’t matter that I couldn’t read it, because no one could. For once I was in on the joke; I didn’t feel judged or inferior, I was equal with everyone else. Like my father, the translator, the work provided an opening for me to be accepted and to belong. In my quest to connect more fully with my culture, Tianshu symbolized not a wall but a bridge.

Grace Loh Prasad