The Making of 「Book from the Sky」

Once in 1986, while thinking of something else, it occurred to me to make a book that no one would ever be able to read. This idea really excited me in a way that, for anyone else to feel, he would probably have to be in my skin. When I woke up the next morning, I still found it exciting, and it was like that for many days afterward. Several months passed, and it was exciting still. And every time I would get excited, the excitement would awaken further ideas, giving rise to all kinds of additional meanings, until the book’s “importance” in my mind became ever greater — even before I ever began to make it. Now it was decided! This was to be something I would pursue single-mindedly and with absolute dedication. But at the same time, I had to fi nish my Masters Project for my degree. So in July of the following year, after the Masters exhibition, I immediately got started on my ‘book.’ 

As to the making of this book I had several ideas that were very clear at the outset: 

1) This book would not perform the essential functions of a book; it would be empty of all content, and yet it would very much look like a book. 

2) The way of making the book through to its completion, would have to entail an authentic process proper to book making. 

3) In every detail, it would have to be precisely and rigorously executed. 

I believe that the fate of this work was determined by the attitude I adopted during the process of making it. Through art we can become what we pretend to be, and can thereby aspire to inconceivable states. An “honest and sincere attitude” permeates this work. Such an attitude is part and parcel of the language and materials of art.

I certainly hope this work will not be seen as having been made by an unschooled person, but that it was made in accordance with learning. Decisions concerning every detail had been thought through; the book was being made by someone who was not expert. This is especially apparent since, all along, I have regarded learning with the awe of someone who can neither enter nor escape it. The more the work reflected this, the more I hoped it would seem to be authoritative, with the style of a Song period edition, in full formal attire, and as such able to assume the guise and give a proper sense of culture. Faced with the book, one should be breathless, reverent; one should wash one’s hands or get out the white gloves. As for its execution, it must be hand printed from hand carved type. Customarily, whatever was printed was formal and required conscientious treatment; it was a matter or principle. Since I studied woodcut printmaking, I know the power of printing multiple copies. As for the typeface, I gave a lot of thought to using a Song style typeface. The Song style is also called the “Offi cial style.” Generally, it was used for important documents and serious matters. It is the least indicative of emotion, the most forthright typeface. 

No sooner were these basics clear, I began to ready the work. The fi rst thing I did was to immerse myself in the Beijing (Peking) University Library Chinese Rare Books Collection in order to clarify my understanding of thread-bound books. Through a work connection of my mother’s, I got myself introduced to the head of the Section who asked me: “What kind of books do you want?” 

“I’d like to see the oldest books, and also the large format books.” 

“There are so many of those, how is the attendant supposed to choose?” 

Earlier, I had bought a series from the Cultural Relics Press, An Illustrated Catalogue of Chinese Woodblock Editions, so I managed to mention a few titles, but perhaps these were not among the oldest or large-format books. He brought me to the attendant and said: “This is Teacher Yang’s son. Let him see whatever he wants.” He could certainly tell that I had no clue, and it seemed as though I wanted to see everything. Once the books were brought, I feigned knowledge of bibliography in order to seem like a scholar with a clear direction to his research. With an earnest, serious air, I turned pages and took notes as though I were no different from the other scholars present, except that I went from one book to the other much faster. 

Several days passed, but how was it that I still could not find the Song style books I had imagined? In any case, none of the books from the Song were in the ‘Song style’ (songti) typeface, but in a ‘Regular style’ (kaiti). It isn’t until the Ming period that you begin to find the Song style typeface. My own analysis was that when it came to earlier woodblock printed books, the authors or scribes would give their manuscripts to the carvers, who would carve them in accordance with the character forms of the manuscripts they were given. The carver wouldn’t deviate from the original; that was his job. Afterwards, as book production fl ourished, in order to make his work quicker and more effi cient, the carvers began to work their knives with turns that were easier to execute and forms of the characters they cut coalesced as what became known as the Song style typeface. 

This typeface was not devised by a single person, but evolved from the Song period through the Ming. As such, you could say that it was “made in heaven.” [1] In Taiwan, the Song style typeface is known as the ‘Ming style’ (mingti) — which perhaps is more accurate. It is called Ming because it was not until the Ming period that it became a finished style. 

Song style characters are a crystallization of the Chinese aesthetic experience. Whenever I look at the Song style characters in books produced by the Shuiyun yuwu of the Yongzheng period [2]  or in the Qing, Qianlong period [3] imperial editions, I find myself quite paralyzed before them. If anything in the world, once seen, should forever remain in the mind’s eye, then it must be great.


For my work, I could not use the standard Regular style typeface because it derives from an individual writer’s style. Style is a kind of information with a content that would be contrary to the criterion of “emptiness” in Book from the Sky. So I decided on a slightly compressed Song style typeface. The mild compression evokes the feel of Han ‘Clerical style’ calligraphy,[4]  but only slightly so. A slight feeling of the sort is enough. But the typography alludes to Song editions. Song books have few columns per page, the characters are large and dense, their ‘fi sh tails’ are higher up, [5] and the printed area of the leaves are full. I continually modulated these elements until I found them to be in suitable relation for the book. 

My period of immersion in the library engendered in me an interest in the study of old editions. There was even a brief period where my instincts became really good. If someone put an old book before me, I could correctly date it, rather like an accomplished fortune-teller. 

As an amateur bibliophile, I did have my own ‘discoveries’ and views. When I could tell at a glance which books were printed with moveable type, and which were printed from blocks, I was surprised to discover as follows: although the Chinese invented moveable type, they did not really put it into standard practice in the printing industry. My own view on the matter is that moveable type really does not go so well with the system of Chinese writing, but it goes very well with phonetic alphabets. Europe, therefore, quickly adopted this technology. To typeset in Chinese, one must select the right characters from amongst thousands, and doing so, means wasting a lot of effort. Besides that, the typesetter must be literate for the process to work. Even then, it is difficult to avoid errors. Proof-reading is another step. There the fear is that if the proof-reader should miss a single character, the whole section must be redone. But the most important reason is a determination of the market. In printing by moveable type, setting, proof-reading, revision, and disassembly of the chase for further use, must all be done page by page, and is time-consuming. 

The advantage of block printing is that one can save a set of blocks for an entire book. If you want to put out a book tomorrow, today, a hundred workers with a hundred blocks, all working together, can manage it in the time, and do so without error. The final point has to do with the practice of my own work. To carve so many pieces of usable type accurately is nearly impossible. This is something that only those who have tried it can truly understand. It is the reason that Christer von der Burg, a founder of Hanshan Tang Books (London), upon learning that a Book from the Sky was produced in moveable type, exclaimed with surprise: “You’re a genius!” But I think that, if anything, my experience with moveable type makes it more accurate to say that I have been a “model worker.” In either case, I had no choice but to use moveable type. Otherwise, I would never have been able to finish this book in my lifetime. 

I began to prepare the pieces of wood from which I would carve the moveable type, checking and re-checking the dimensions. I found a handsaw and some pear wood for woodblock printing, and, in my dormitory, I set to work. I was anxious to get started, and was too impatient to find a place with an electric saw. Merely to think of doing such a work was of no use; I had to do it. Only then would I draw closer to a final result. 

But no sooner did I start work than problems arose. The greatest difficulty of the entire process is the biggest problem of printing with moveable type, and I have no idea how people in the past figured it out. The problem is that it is extremely difficult to cut all six faces of each piece of type in such a way that they are all at perfect right angles to each other. To the eye, it may appear that the angles are true. But once set in the block, the surfaces are not level. So I used sandpaper in order to sand them flat. But once I disassembled a finished set block and then reset it, the pieces of type were no longer level. So I would sand again, all to no avail. In fact whether the face that bears the character is level or not is determined by the other five faces of a piece of type. For days, sawdust was flying all over my little room. I worked with great effort, looking forward to the moment when I would fi nally be able to take up my knife to carve the characters. But once I had dutifully sanded every single piece of type, I found that I still had the same problem. Now I understood what the problem was. Each piece of type might now be exactly square — each of the six faces relative to the others — but there was no way of being sure the any one of the faces was right. Finding myself at a loss, all I could do was to put the problem off until it came time to print. I had to begin carving the characters as soon as possible. 

Although I had studied woodblock printing, the only type we studied was modern Western-style printing, which is quite a different matter from traditional Chinese woodblock printing. Wishing to understand these techniques, all I could think of was to go to Rongbaozhai [6] and find a master carver. I had an intermediary who could introduce me, and the engraver suggested we meet at his house rather than at the workshop. We met in the afternoon and what most impressed me was that the carver and his wife took only twenty minutes to prepare and cook us a meal of dumplings. I remain full of admiration for the ingenuity and dexterity of craftspeople. For my family from the South, deciding to make one meal of dumplings is a matter that requires a series of discussions, dividing tasks amongst the entire family, and then a day of labour before we finally eat. The most I got out of that day was to know that the carver could not help me. This is because printing books and printing images from woodcuts are two different things. The knife used is same however and this sort of carver’s knife was not available on the market. So the master agreed to lend me a knife of his for me to take home so that I could make one myself. In the North, one cannot find master carvers of books, so I had to fi gure out a way for myself. 

I decided to create four thousand invented characters because there are approximately four thousand real characters in common usage — which is to say that anyone who knows more than four thousand characters is considered an intellectual. The biggest constraint I imposed was that the invented characters should, as far as possible, resemble real characters without actually being real Chinese characters. Their structure should accord with the internal patterns of Chinese characters: in terms of density of strokes and frequency of occurrence, they should appear, on the page, to be real characters. I referred to the Kangxi Dictionary and devised a parallel table for the creation of my characters following the dictionary’s stroke-order sequence. The dictionary I used was one my father had brought from our hometown. In our family, it was the only object from the past that had been passed down to the present day. The dictionary bore a seal with the name Xu Zhengzhen, so it defi nitely belonged to one of our ancestors.


The key step to make these characters seem like ‘themselves’ was to take advantage of the essence of Chinese characters. Chinese characters are expressions made up of radicals that symbolize the world’s basic constituents. If I juxtaposed the symbol for ‘mountain’ with the symbol for ‘water,’ then you would say that the resulting character expresses something in nature. If I juxtaposed the character for ‘labour’ with a ‘knife’ radical, then you certainly would know that such a character denoted something man-made. This would allow you to believe above all that such a character should surely exist. It is rather like seeing someone whose face is familiar, but you can’t remember the name. This made my invented characters seem more like real characters than other real but long dead characters. 

Now it was still too soon to begin carving. To transfer the forms of the characters onto each piece of raw type was also a step in the procedure. The traditional means was fi rst to affi x the inscribed surface of the paper to a piece of type, wait for it to dry, then dampen the paper and use the thumb to rub away the top layer of paper pulp until it was thin and transparent as a cicada’s wing, and you could clearly see the black image (in reverse) of the 56 character. The carver would then work around the character through the thin paper, ensuring accuracy. But I did not follow this orthodox method; I thought it was too bothersome. I needn’t do it because I was the only one working on a limited number of characters that I myself would write and I myself would carve. In my case, the person who did the carving was the same as the person doing the inscription, so there wasn’t an issue of having faithfully to reproduce another’s manuscript, and carving became a process of adjustment. My writing has some aspects of Regular style script, but once rendered with the knife, it naturally assumed the appearance of the Song style typeface. It was as if the carving of the book was an abbreviated rendition of the development of typefaces from Song to Ming. 

I came up with my own method: I would add salt to the liquid ink and use it to write on tracing paper. Once it was dry, I would affi x the written character to the piece of type, and then add a bit more water. The salt would absorb the water and dissolve the ink. Then I would apply pressure, and the character script would be transferred to the piece of type in reverse. Printing would reveal the obverse. 

All this preparatory work was like a ritual before making a stage entrance. Now, finally, I could begin to carve. This was a most joyous occasion. At that time, with the exception of teaching drawing classes at the Central Academy of Fine Art, I stopped almost all other activities in favour of my own work in my little room: the process of beginning to carve characters. In fact I liked this sort of skilled handiwork that takes time but not much mental effort. Simply taking pleasure in satisfying the basics and counting what accumulates. When I managed to carve two more characters than the previous day, adding to the total, this would afford me a feeling of accomplishment. I was noticeably drawing nearer to my goal. In comparison with attending endless cultural discussions, this feeling was far superior. If you take part in too many of those sorts of activities, it begins to seem as though there is nothing left of your own originality. 

The core proposition of human life is to ‘get through it,’ which is to say the ability to determine how one spends one’s time. 

When a fine blade cuts into a fresh wooden surface, each cut is a decision. This is one sort of dialogue with matter that only we can share. Since what you confront is devoid of content, it cannot interfere with you. Your mind wanders unrestricted, free of superfluous thoughts. Seated there, the atmosphere is rich enough without music. Noise from the hallways is filtered out. Many thought that I was doing hard labour, but I quite enjoyed the sense of retreat into myself, this cloistered nobility. While others were lining up to buy groceries or having fun; and while the intellectual world was reading feverishly and loved to be seen at seminars, I was hastening to carve characters that even I could not read. 

Once I had carved a little over two thousand characters, I began test printing. In October, the National Art Museum of China scheduled a show of my work. As a young artist, I didn’t want to waste the opportunity. I also welcomed the chance to put my ideas and actions to the test. 

The first thing was to print the long scrolls, so I made a type pallet in the appropriate size, gleefully choosing the characters that looked right and setting them. I used the most basic methods: a few lengths of hemp rope and a short stick that I turned a few times to hold the type tightly in the chase. I knew that printing water-based ink was not easy. It takes a certain technical skill to strike the print at a precise moment when the ink goes from wet to dry. Moreover, with such a big printing surface, using a water-based print would have been impossible at my ‘level.’ So I printed with my familiar oilbased ink. When the roller blackened my new block of type, it was like a ‘violation’ from which there was no going back.


When I lifted the fi rst sheet with my assistant, Bao Quan, it was quite a disappointment — even worse than I had imagined. It looked like dirty old fl oorboards. An impression is so sensitive! Every subtle detail is magnifi ed. And the more tightly I bound the block, the more uneven the type would become. Since glass forms the fl attest surface, I found a thick piece and set the racked characters upon it with a layer of hot adhesive that I went over with my roller, in order to fi ll the gaps that had caused the uneven character heights. Once the adhesive was cool and hard, we turned the rack over and reapplied the ink. Although this method was tedious, it worked. By day, Bao Quan and I printed one block after another; and by night, I continued to carve characters. The carving was a respite. 

When the Xu Bing Exhibition of Printmaking Art opened, I deliberately specified ‘printmaking art’ because my aim was to emphasize that printmaking as art was an aspect of this work’s significance. Its earliest title was Mirror to Analyze the World: the Century’s Final Volume. At the time, I must have been pondering rather “profound” issues to have come up with such a cumbersome title. Although the work itself conveys the steadfastness of Chinese culture, the title, on the other hand, was heavily influenced by Western forms and the current cultural climate. Later people referred to the work as Book from the Sky, so I decided to adopt this as a title. 

In the exhibition hall, I created a ‘word space.’ The public found itself surrounded by an endless stream of erroneous characters that they were compelled to accept as fact. A sense of the perverse made them have their doubts: How is this not quite right? They wondered if it wasn’t their own problem. I placed these ‘absurd’ characters as though they were objects of worship in a temple. They did retain a certain dignity. They were no longer tools that the mundane world abused. Three long scrolls hung down from the centre of the exhibition hall. Below were different forms of ‘classical books,’  some thread-bound, some butterfly-bound; there was even a Dictionary Scroll (nonsense characters explaining other nonsense characters). There was also a Chinese-English Parallel Text with unreadable English. All these were my experiments for the final form of the book I was to make. 

Unexpectedly, the exhibition attracted many people from outside the art world. My art seemed to leave intellectuals rather uncomfortable. Some old professors and editors would return repeatedly as though the show had made them obsessive-compulsives. They tried hard to fi nd a single real character in the piece. Perhaps this was because to enter such a space was so contrary to their lives’ work. 

When people began talking about Book from the Sky, I was dumbstruck. I had a kind of sense of loss. My ‘retreat within a self-imposed, cloistered nobility’ was diluted by the masses. Traditionalists criticized the work as too avantgarde, as ‘ghosts building walls’ [7] art, by which they meant that this sort of art and artist had problems. ‘New Wave’ artists regarded Book from the Sky as too traditional, too academic. I had no interest in debate. All I could think of was the book yet to be realized. After more than a year of attempts, the sort of book that it should be had become clear. Now I could really begin. 

In checking the format, I found that the earlier set of characters was three millimetres too big, so I decided to redo the set. The fact is that I liked carving. When I heard about a factory that had a new set of imported woodworking equipment, reputedly the most advanced and accurate to within a tenth of a millimetre, I went to try it. Since my small characters were about the size of the tip of a little finger, inaccuracies would occur at the point where the saw would enter or exit the blocks of type. I had no choice but to select the pieces I could use, then add some finishing work until they were basically usable. I made over two thousand pieces in one go, much faster than the first batch. This go took a little less than a year. 

Since this book had to be done seriously, I could not continue with such an inauthentic method as oil-based ink, so I ran around searching for institutions that had to do with thread-bound books. Through an introduction from the Zhonghua Book Company, I found a printing factory specializing in traditional books, and located in Hanying, a village in Caiyu township, Daxing county. I brought with me a new chase of type that still had the smell of fresh wood. It turned out that to fi nd Hanying village was not at all convenient. I had to take a long distance bus, then rent a bicycle and ride for two hours. The director of the factory was a country fellow called Ren, and he was fl anked by a couple of men who looked like they were the master printers, and seemed to be protective of the factory director. I took out my chase of type to show them. One of the printers picked it up and said: “What’s this?” “I carved them myself,” I said, “They’re all unreadable characters; it’s an idea for an art project.” He said, “What can you do with that?” “It’s art,” I said, “Let’s print one and then see.” I was eager to see the result of what the printer could get from the chase that I had carved and set. The printer went off with the chase. In moments, he came back a changed man: his eyes were shining and his lips kept repeating: “This job’s printed! This job’s printed!” Behind him several workers followed. The director stood up. I noticed the extreme clarity of the page. Its brilliance got everyone excited. The director spoke up: “Did you carve these?” “Yes,” I said, and the director let out an audible sigh. Later I came to know this sound well as his trademark. Whenever he felt moved, he would let out that sigh. It sounded once more and he said: “How d’you want this job?” He accepted! My work ‘moved the Almighty!’ They definitely had never before printed such a clear sheet — today no one actually carves pieces of wooden type. They only have blocks from antiquity that have been worn down by repeated use, and have become indistinct. Even with the most skilled printer, you cannot achieve a good result from such an old block. Today, you could print your entire life and never have the chance to make a good fi rst proof. In the past, printing from a new block was a big event that would demand the use of red ink for the proof. At the time, I didn’t know this. Otherwise, there would have been fi ve sets of Book from the Sky in red ink. 

This area had a tradition of printing that dates from before the Chinese Revolution (1949). Since the post-Cultural Revolution period, whenever the state would plan a reprint edition of some classical thread-bound texts, it would go through the Zhonghua Book Company to locate the old blocks, and then have this small factory do the printing. When I visited, they were doing an edition of The Buddhist Canon (Da Zang Jing). These blocks had always been stored in the Yunju Temple in the Fangshan district of Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution, the Prime Minister ordered them placed under heavy guard for their protection. I went to see them there, a black mountain of them, densely stacked in the midst of the main hall of the temple, each about the size of a study desk, about the same thickness as a brick, and carved on both sides. A man from the factory said that, “To deliver all the blocks from the Buddhist Canon took over a month’s time and forty trucks. To deliver the printed sets takes only one.” Thereafter whenever anyone would praise Book from the Sky as a project of spectacular effect, I would think, in comparison with the ancients, how can my little work count for anything? Modern people really have no patience at all. 

At that time, the entire factory had been working on the Buddhist Canon series for two years, and the plan called for an additional three years to completion. Who would have believed the man in charge of such a vast and complex undertaking was a peasant from Hanying village, Factory Director Ren? The diverse page numbering, version numbers, blocks full of missing characters, missing pages — all these he considered and handled on his own. At times I would think that if he had been educated, how extraordinary would he have become then? (Hard to say.) I learned a lot from him. With the exception that he himself could not carve or print, he knew so much about the production of thread-bound books. Since that fi rst day we printed the proof, my own prestige was established, and the director immediately took me around the factory. On the way, he sighed repeatedly, reminding workers of every detail, all of which derived from his knowledge of the printing trade. In passing, he would throw open a sheet from a stack of damp paper and feel it with his fi ngers before returning it to the stack, speaking under his breath with a sigh, “Paper fears the wind.” It seemed that with too much damp, rice paper could catch cold. From my meagre understanding of Chinese paper, I knew what he was talking about. Whether or not paper is affected by the wind has to do with the paper’s degree of dampness. The dampness also affects the sheen and luminosity of inks’ colour, and whether a page, once dry, is uniformly fl exible. It has to do with whether or not a job is well done. 

Once I had gone around, I discovered that Mr. Ren was a very kind person. He arranged for two woman workers, who he said were “meticulous,” to be occupied solely with my book. One of them had the surname Bian. Because it was such an unusual name, I remembered it. The other had a common family name, so I cannot think of it. These two young ladies, once they started to print, were at work for two years. Since that time, I would go there once or twice a week, and if necessary, I would stay overnight. 

Once we started to print, I had to decide on every detail, and could not indulge in endless deliberation. If there were any aspects that could not be decided, I would brush them aside. This time the book would turn out as it was, and next time, given enough time, I would make a better edition. As long as I had no time for excessive deliberation, I would take this sort of view, which was really a kind of symptom of obsessive perfectionism. 

This book that cannot be called ‘a book,’ had all the logical rigor and structure of a real book: an order for the fascicles, page numbers, title, general table of contents, tables of contents for the separate volumes, overall prefaces, prefaces for each volume, afterword, notes, upper marginal notes, punctuation, finial marks, etc. This very ‘contentlessness’ was replete with secret signs of “content”. After searching and searching, I picked out three ‘characters’ that seemed to me most to resemble real Chinese characters and used them as a general title. In accordance with convention, titles appear on the volume covers and, at the fold of each leaf there are, in order, volume titles, and, at the very bottom a ‘character’ indicative of the carver. The fascicle numbers and page numbers were rendered with tally marks based on the character “正” (zheng). But, alternatively, in Book from the Sky the following tally mark denotes five: 囗; and six is 囗. Do numbers have content? Divorced from a context and reference, they are abstract. In this book, such numbers strictly “manage” the beginnings, the order, and the range of this heap of ‘characters,’ rendering the ordered parts even more of an empty cavern. The ordering runs throughout the set of fascicles. If you search according to the page number in the contents, you can locate the chapter title you want in the correct fascicle. This degree of rigor allows the reader to have a sense of physical rhythms that corresponds with the experience of leafing through a book. 

In order that the workers could set the type according to this structure, I marked the reverse side of every character to note its “content” on the obverse side. In accordance with actual fascicle numbers and page numbers, I made a corresponding model book. The model was full of marks  and many other kinds of symbols. It looked like four fascicles on scientifi c or mathematical notation. (In fact, it is a book translated into code that forms a parallel to Book from the Sky.) The workers didn’t need to know the content of the obverse side. They only had to work in accordance with the symbols before them as a guide, and set each character in its proper place. In this way, the entire edition was printed. 

During that period, the two woman workers would set the type and print, page by page. And, page by page, I would make adjustments, stopping only when the actual printing had to begin. Sometimes, even to change a minor detail, I would travel all the way to the factory. Each time I would go, I would pass a small bridge on my bicycle, then down a straight road lined with trees on one side. When I saw a yard with several rows of single-storey buildings, I would know I was almost there. The colour of the trees went from light to deep green, then changed to yellow and deep yellow, and then became black and white. Finally they returned to a light green. Since all around was open land, the change of colours was most evident, and would remind you of the passage of time. 

Book from the Sky had a total edition of one hundred twenty sets, of six hundred and four pages each. Each was placed in a custom walnut-wood box, individually made by an old carpenter from the hometown of my student, Lin Hai: Manshikou village, near old Handan in the Taihang range of Shandong province. The details of these procedures delayed the completion of the series until the fall of 1991. In July of 1990, I went to the United States, and, at the time, I was not sure when I would return. Before I departed, a bound sample had already come out. The last things I decided were the colour of the cover, the ‘six eyelet thread-binding’ and some other details. 

The first time I saw a finished Book from the Sky was in Tokyo. It was exactly as I wanted it to be. The cover was a cobalt blue.[8]  The title appeared on the upper left, where it was supposed to be. This position was just right, rather like the way a skilled tailor makes a fine edge for the collar and cuffs. This sort of dignity reveals an underlying respect for humanity. At one and the same time to be ‘wide enough for a horse to pass and narrow enough to block the wind’ is the way the Chinese see the elegance of things. Once the right placement was found, it would be forever unchanged, because there can never be two correct placements. Book from the Sky perpetuated this style. In opening the wooden box, I was just like everyone else. I was attracted by its dignity to the point where, before it, I had the feeling of being a stranger. Like those who, unfamiliar with the process of the book’s making, could never imagine that it might emerge of those several rows of common singlestorey buildings. 

Once Book from the Sky had been exhibited continually around the world to broad critical praise, I just thought of those carved blocks. When I returned to China in 1994, I went back to the factory once to retrieve the blocks, and to see everybody. I would pass a small bridge on my bicycle, then down a straight road lined with trees on one side. When I saw a yard with several rows of single-storey buildings, I would know I was almost there. But the factory gate was padlocked. I was peering inside when a middle-aged woman appeared from behind me and said: “The factory moved to the other side of the village.” There was a boy at her side and she sent him off: “Go find the factory director and tell him somebody’s here!” 

The new factory was not far from the old one, and the factory director was still the same, except that he now walked with some difficulty. He had come from his house, and revealed that something had happened there. It seemed that his youngest daughter had suffered a bout of hysteria. He called out to someone: “Go find young Xu’s blocks, and bring them.” With that, he turned to me and breathed his familiar sigh, “After the move, I’m not sure if they’re still there.” In a while, the same person returned, carrying a rice sack with a bunch of black stuff in it. 

“Empty it out!” 

The contents spilled onto the ground. There were the pieces of type. It looked like a pile of coal briquettes. But upon closer inspection, they really did have characters, with a thick layer of ink stuck to them. They looked as though they had been through a lot, not unlike the antique blocks. One complete chase and a few characters survived, which was enough to leave me quite satisfi ed. As for the model books with the ‘coded’ symbols, they were simply gone and that was that. But it was okay. 

I asked: “What about Miss Bian and the others?” 

“She went off and got married in some village, isn’t that it?” Then his sigh. It seemed as though he were asking somebody else. I wondered, now that she was married, whether she was still leaning over a printing press all day. The factory had changed; the personnel had changed. What could never change were the printed sets of Book from the Sky. 

On the road back, the trees were light green, and I carried a rice sack that was fi lled with something other than rice. In mind, I wasn’t really sure what to think. From 1987 to 1991, what was I like? What did I do? 

I can only say: a person who spent four years of his life making something that says nothing. 

Xu Bing Winter, 2008 

Translated by Drew Hammond


1 In Chinese, as in many languages, the word for sky and the word for heaven are the same. The reader, therefore, may well imagine that the author’s reference to what is here translated as “heaven” evokes a natural association with the title of the work of art that is the subject of the present essay, Book from the Sky. (tr.) 

2 The Western dates of the reign period are 1723-1735. The ‘Water and Mist Fishing Pavilion’ was a printing workshop likely to have been under Imperial patronage. (tr.) 

3 Qianlong’s reign period: 1736-1795 (tr.) 

4 This style dating from the Han period, has no cursive aspect, and is part of the standard repertoire of styles still practiced by calligraphers today. (tr.) 

5 ‘Fish tails’ (yuwei) — untranslatable — are the characteristic fi sh tail-shaped folding marks that are in the centre of the printed impressions of each leaf of a traditional Chinese book and provide folding marks when the leaves are prepared for binding. (tr.) 

6 Founded in 1672, Rongbaozhai is a Beijing antiquities business that comprises a dealership, a workshop, and an auction house. It retains a reputation for the best woodcut printing of images, still executed with traditional methods. (tr.) 

7 A traditional expression that evokes an arbitrary obstacle to frustrate the innocent. The idea was that ghosts would erect walls at night in order that travellers lose their way.(tr.) 

8 The Chinese name of the colour, siqing pizi comprises the word for book cover because it was the traditional colour of books of the Imperial House, esteemed for its simple elegance. The actual colour has a distinctive gloss like silk and ranges from blue to black.(tr.)