Thursday, June 2, 2005

"Book From The Sky"

Reader David Stone emails:

Dear Tian,

Thank you for producing your wonderful blog "Hanzismatter". I check it daily.

As someone who reads modern (simplified) Chinese, I am also annoyed and puzzled by people who chose to tattoo Chinese characters on their body without a clear understanding of what the characters mean or what they should look like. Americans like to laugh at people in China and Japan for wearing silly "Engrish" t-shirts and the like, but at least people there aren't stupid enough to tattoo the crap on their own living skin.

In order to end the ugly trend of embarrassing Chinese tattoos, I suggest that we look to Xu Bing, a graphic/fine artist from China and creator of "Tianshu" ("A Book From Heaven/Sky"). "Tianshu" is a piece of art consisting of thousands of faux "characters" that are made up of various elements of Chinese characters, but don't actually exist as part of the written language. Xu apparently created wooden block type for the characters by hand, and printed them is a manner suggesting ancient religious texts.

My proposal is that someone ask Xu Bing to make a catalogue of his fake characters available to the general western public. That way, people can just chose meaningless "characters" at random for their tattoos, allowing themselves to indulge in their stupid trend while sparing the rest of us who can read Chinese from knowing just how bad their judgment is.

I am, of course, being facetious... But it's kind of funny how this work of art relates to what appears on your blog regularly.

Here's a description of "
Tianshu" from an art dealer. Forgive me if I seem pedantic for describing something you are already familiar with.

Thanks for the amusing and interesting blog. Keep up the good work!

-David Stone

Personally I think Xu Bing's pieces are in the same realm as glossolalia (speaking in tongues). They maybe artistic and interesting for some; but to others, they are completely meaningless gibberish.


  1. it's nothing like speaking in tongues. it's words arranged to look like chinese/japanese characters.

  2. Re: "it's words arranged to look like chinese/japanese characters."

    Glossolalia comprises the utterance of what appears (to the casual listener) either as an unknown foreign language, or as simply nonsense syllables; the utterances sometimes occur as part of religious worship (religious glossolalia).

    From a linguistic point of view, the syllables that make up instances of glossolalia typically appear to be unpatterned reorganizations of phonemes from the primary language of the person uttering the syllables; thus, the glossolalia of people from Russia, Britain, and Brazil all sound quite different from each other, but vaguely resemble the Russian, English, and Portuguese languages, respectively. Linguists generally regard most glossalia as lacking any identifiable semantics, syntax, or morphology—i.e., as nonsense and not as language at all.

    Xu Bing's "Book From the Sky" is just the written format of glossalia.

  3. The first anonymous was responding to the words on the cover of the book, which are English letters written to look like Chinese.

  4. While I have not seen the book, might they not be a bit more like the English language joke words dubbed 'snigglets' by Rich Hall? (Google for snigglets for examples).

    There is also the classic poem "The Jabberwocky" which, despite legends of it being from real archaic words, is comprised of gibberish words that are placed within otherwise correct sentences.

  5. Thanks to the anonymous tip, I have since then posted the correct photos from "book from the sky".

  6. actually, i quite like the whole idea behind 天書. i've also mentioned here before that some of these people's tattoos reminded me of that art piece. it's nice to kno i'm not the only one.

    another interesting script that looks vaguely chinese is the tangut script, which is no longer in use. people should get tattoos in that!

  7. Just a note: if you pick up any halfway decent book about tattoo culture in Japan, you will see that there ARE plenty of people who DO get Engrish tattooed on their bodies.

    I don't know about China or other Asian countries.

  8. Re: "there ARE plenty of people who DO get Engrish tattooed on their bodies",

    Do you have the book's title or photos to backup your claim? I am sure everyone would love to see some of these.

  9. I've definitely seen people (well - 3 or 4) in China with English tattoos, but didn't get close enough to see what they said.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this. I'm a fan of Xu's stuff; if only I had the money to buy a copy of Tianshu! (Must say, though, the translation of 天书 as "Book from the Sky" kind of irritates me. Can't think of a better one at the moment, though "It's All Greek to Me" could be funny, and slightly more accurate.)

  10. I think that's a good-looking book, even if it is just hanzi tossed into a blender.

  11. Andy wrote:
    "another interesting script that looks vaguely chinese is the tangut script, which is no longer in use."

    The Jurchen script looks even more like Chinese.

  12. Xu Bing's Tianshu is a work of intelligent art which pays homage to the art and technology of (Chinese) typography; it does so in a very playful way which should command respect for the artist's devotion to the work.

    There's some important differences between this, glossolalia, and you and your homies getting "power" tatooed on your bicep:

    Depending on your viewpoint, glossolalia is either spontaneous, or clever deception. Tianshu is neither spontaneous nor deceptive.

    As for you and your homies at the mall - the emphasis in Tianshu is on the beauty of the script and the medium, not the "coolness" of having some character (and its associated meaning) on your dumb arse.


    I believe there are a few good examples in the book called "刺青 IREZUMI" too.

    Tattoos are still a lot less acceptable in Japan than they are in, say, the US, but the idea that there are no young, tattoo-getting people in Japan whose love for the visual effect of English surpasses their actual understanding of it is ridiculous.

    If you want to say that MORE English speakers get Asian-language tattoos they don't understand than vice versa, I'll agree. But if you want to argue that this particular foolishness is somehow peculiar to English speakers, you're wrong.

  14. I am the person who originally sent the email to Tian about _Tianshu_

    In reponse to "anonymous'" assertion that some Japanese people do tatoo "Engrish" on themselves, I have to say that I am in no position to deny this is true.

    However, the two links given are not an example of "Engrish". The first one "TAKAHIRO I Swear I Will Always Love you" is written in perfectly good English that makes sense in the context.

    The other one looks like a copy of an engraving from a pre-18th century European or American book. I can't read what the captions say, but since it seems to come from an archaic source and we don't know why the person chose it, it would be wrong to judge it an example of "Engrish".

    I based my statement on the fact that I lived in China several years and never saw an "Engrish" tatoo on anyone (although I admit I didn't often hang out with the kind of people likely to get a tatoo), and I have never seen an example of an Engrish tatoo on a Japanese person.

    When I said that people in East Asia don't tatoo Engrish on themselves, that means that this problem does not seem to exist as a widespread trend. If a significant number of people are getting Engrish tatoos, then by all means, post some decent examples.


  15. Speaking of glossolalia: My kid brother, when he was small, used to run around shouting nonsense for fun (we're 100% ethnic Chinese but only speak English, classic bananas). One day at church this lady came up to my dad and went, "Wah, Pastor, your son can speak Cantonese." My dad was ROTFL.


  16. Look, I'm not going to go out and buy a book and scan it so that I can prove to you something that is patently, obviously true (young people make bad decisions in Japan too)

    "I swear to always Love you" sets my native English speaker sense atingle. The miscapitalisation and odd intrasentence placement of "always" is at least as bad as the missing strokes that get ridiculed here. The other guy has "FAKE SLAVE", "#1MANHUNTER" etc. tattooed on him, and again I find these weird as a native speaker. (He also has Chinese characters on him, as do a lot of Japanese people with tattoos -- another HM myth disproved.)

    China and Japan are both in East Asia but are very different societies. You don't see me making pronouncements about people in China, do you? And wherever you live, if you don't hang out with the kind of people who are likely to get tattoos, and don't (presumably) read tattoo magazines, then of course you aren't going to see many tattoos, bad or otherwise. If our wonderful host Tian limited himself to commenting on tattoos he had seen on people in person, I doubt this site would have more than a handful of entries.

    Anyway, like I said, believe it or don't. It really doesn't bother me.

  17. To Mr. "I'm not going to go out and buy a book and scan it so that I can prove to you something that is patently, obviously true (young people make bad decisions in Japan too)"

    You did "talk the talk", but we would like to see you "walk the walk".

    Otherwise, anyone can make a claim.

  18. First time posting; been lurking for a while.

    The comments on the resemblance to the Jurchen/Manchu script were dead on; that was my first thought when I saw it, too. Then I looked closer and noticed that a couple of them appeared to be just poorly written approximations of actual Chinese characters with strokes missing.

    I like this Tianshu a lot; it's an elegant and visual representation of how people tend to play with language.

  19. To Mr. "I'm not going to go out and buy a book and scan it so that I can prove to you something that is patently, obviously true (young people make bad decisions in Japan too)"

    You did "talk the talk", but we would like to see you "walk the walk".

    Yes, anonymous, because you're not the only person whose self-esteem depends on winning trivial arguments with nameless internet denizens. I'm sure he'll go right out and spend a couple of days looking for sources (to be cited in MLA format or Chicago style -- your call! State your preference in another unnecessarily adversarial comment!), just for you.

    Otherwise, anyone can make a claim.

    And some people have at least got the stones to sign their names to things. Can you people please get Blogger accounts, or append signatures to the end of posts? It's really irritating to try to keep all the 'anonymouses' straight: "That's the one who's an asshole, and that's the one who...well, he's an asshole too. That one's OK, if it's who I'm thinking of, but then again, he might be that asshole from a few posts back. Dammit!"

  20. re: anon, who may or not be the same anon from another post

    "(He also has Chinese characters on him, as do a lot of Japanese people with tattoos -- another HM myth disproved.)"

    i think it makes more sense for japanese people to tattoo chinese characters on themselves, because, well, japanese people use chinese characters when they write. i'm pretty sure most of the people in japan who get chinese characters tattoos kno exactly what they say.

    regardless, tho, i was unaware that hanzismatter had asserted that japanese people don't get kanji tattoos, or that asian people don't get tattoos some people think are stupid. the focus of the site is the misuse of chinese characters in the west, after all.

  21. I would be surprised if people in Japan got tattoos in English, because the people who get tattoos in Japan are mostly yakuza, with a strong nationalist ideology.

    That said, I think it's unfair to make the argument that Japanese people are smarter/less imperialist/cooler/whatever because at least they don't get stupid English tattos, because gangsters ARE pretty much the only people who get tattoos in Japan. If Japanese college girls DID get tattoos, I'm sure some of them would be stupid English ones.

  22. Also, it must be said, the Yakuza have a lock on the tattoo coolness.

  23. Why does "David" feel the need to hate people getting Chinese tattoos so much? A bit of cultural snobbery perhaps? After all if people didn't get that sort of thing, there wouldn't be much point to this blog. And if it upsets David, I'm sure he's free to ignore it.

    -Andy 2001 (a different Andy)

  24. Re: Rhymes With Scrabble's comments
    "the people who get tattoos in Japan are mostly yakuza, with a strong nationalist ideology."
    "gangsters ARE pretty much the only people who get tattoos in Japan."

    Sorry dude,
    your info's about 20 years out of date. Lots of Japanese youths ARE getting tattoos these days, and there is a clear difference between the yakuza irezumi刺青 (Usually elaborate flower patterns on the upper torso with rampant dragons and such) and Western-style tattoos(written as タトゥー.)

  25. Let me make two things clear: I never said there is anything wrong with Westerners getting Chinese or Kanji character tatoos, as long as they know the language well enough not to misuse it, or do extensive research first. When I said that Japanese and Chinese people don't get "crap" (referring to "Engrish") tatooed on themselves, I implied that it is stupid for Westerners to get stupid (meaningless or offensive) or improperly written Chinese character tatoos.

    Also, I never implied that Japanese people are immune to being stupid or uncool. I just pointed out that I haven't seen any Japanese or Chinese people with ENGRISH (with an "r", dammit) tatoos. Just to put this in context, I never saw an Engrish tatoos on any Chinese people during the several years I lived in the mainland, whereas in the past couple of years I have been in U.S., I have seen well over a dozen f'ed up Chinese character tatoos (as opposed to perfectly sensible and well-written ones, which I have seen also) on strangers I happened to see walking about in public. Since in both cases I am talking mostly about random strangers, I think it is a fair comparison. I am not saying Chinese people necessarily have better judgement than Americans, simply that one particular form of stupidity doesn't manifest itself nearly as much over there.

    Someone says that Japanese people sometimes get Engrish tatoos. OK, I can believe that; perhaps I shouldn't have ventured to talk about Japanese people when I have not traveled extensively in Japan. Still, I'm betting that if I lived in Japan I wouldn't run into Engrish tatoo wearers all the time while shopping for groceries or eating out.

    "But that's because people in Japan and China don't get a lot of tatoos" people have said. That is exactly my point. The fact that people there don't get a lot of tatoos period means they are much less likely to semi-permanently brand themselves with their own stupidity.

    This is the last time I am going to post about this. If someone can show somehow that bad Engrish tatoos are rampant in Japan, I will concede this point to them.

  26. I'm happy to wear engrish shirts, and would possibly consider getting an engrish tattoo, as long as it was short.

  27. I am a tattoo artist. I have seen misspellings and terrible grammar in almost every language, including english. Caveat emptor, people.

    If anyone who does Chinese calligraphy would like to help save the tattooed masses from getting terrible tattoos, check out

  28. "...allowing themselves to indulge in their stupid trend..."


    "...although I admit I didn't often hang out with the kind of people likely to get a tatoo..."

    Sounds to me like you're implying that tattooed people are somehow inferior to the rest of the species. Good thing you can read simplified Chinese. Otherwise, I might have called you an ignoramus.

    If someone chooses to tattoo something they don't fully comprehend, I see them as the same people who have contempt for tattoos altogether.

    And David, the correct spelling is "tattoo" not "tatoo."

    Don't you know that all your base are belong to us?

    Mr. V

  29. Where's the cultural sensitivity on this blog? I find it very hard to understand how people coming to this blog for the very dislike of such misuses of culture can then go on talking like such cows.

    First off. Yes, Japanese kids make as poor choices on not only English, but "old school" American tattoo symbologies as Americans make with kanji and Japanese symbols Browse through any issue of Tattoo Tribal or TATTOO STYLE ([link]) and you will find bad Engrish tattoos. If you want on the streets in Japan you will find bad Engrish tattoos. It will happen.

    Why do I not have photographic proof for this? There's an easy answer to this, and that is that BME and similar forms of "show your tattoo" websites have not caught on in Japan in the way they have in other places. Most of the kids I know in Japan with large amounts of tattooing do not fit into the demographic there [yet] who are also addicted to the internet. And why am I going to say "Hey, wait a second, that bad tattoo of yours, yeah. Let me take a photo of THAT one."

    Second, NO, most Japanese who get tattoos are not fucking Yakuza! The idea of "one piece" tattooing is quite popular right now in Japan, with many men and women getting "one piece" (one design, or flash) in discreet areas. There are enough of these tattoo enthusiasts to support multiple publications on tattooing and a ridiculous number of tattoo shops.

    Of course, like in the US, visibility of tattoos is normally the more extreme wearer of tattoos. In Japan this would be the Yakuza because of cult films, but even before Yakuza wore tattoos other members of Japanese society wore them. And let's not forget the Ainu and their significant tattooing.

    If you want real solid proof that there are people in Japan who get tattooed, pick up one of those magazines. I'm not going to be a pirate and take business away from my friends. An unfortunate thing with the media perception that tattooed people are bad people is that my heavily and visibly tattooed friends in Japan, being associated with yakuza, can't find work outside of either entertainment or quasi-legal industries. So I'd reccomend you pick up the magazines and give them some income.

  30. Tangut and Jurchen script were both based on Chinese writing, since they were people that lived on the borders of the Chinese empire. The Tangut script was modelled on Chinese in the sense that characters have both semantic and phonetic elements, but wasn't specifically designed to look like Chinese aesthetically. Jurchen on the other hand looks exactly like Chinese in construction, although only some of the characters actually exist AS Chinese.

  31. I have done a lot of work with Xu Bing over the years, and it is indeed fascinating how he deals with the 'sacred' written language of Chinese (representing, among other things, dominance of class, masculinity, education, money etc. achieved through language) by destroying its integrity [my words]. In his words, it's like reassembling cut-up photographs of your friends and family, so you recognize individual parts but you cannot manage to put the whole character together into one 'readable' object. I am always interested to see how Chinese people who see it for the first time start to extract meaning, before they realize the concept.

    The poster was right about the title. Tian Shu is reasonably interpreted as a book from the heavens, but it has two implications in Chinese: 1) a text of Einsteinian complexity which could only be read by a few of the most serious scholars; 2) a nonsense text, as if for kids.

    I got to know Xu because I conceived of extending his conceptual art piece with sound. His elaborate scheme (I could post more on this later) includes a dictionary (words are defined with more imaginary characters), a concordance, and of course the beautiful production, as if of a genuinely sacred text. But finally, no one can say what it is; it has no sound. So I decided to create the sound. What could it sound like? Well, how about celloplaying! So I created the rules for 'pronouncing' these characters on the cello. I would give performances (this was all back in 2000/2001, in Seattle, San Francisco, and all over China) where I would 'read' pages from the book, often for hours at a time.

    A couple of weeks ago, Xu and I talked about making a comeback and revisiting that piece.


    here's some proof that people in china are getting "engrish" tattoos. kids are the same all over the world.

  33. is a satire website, similar to The Onion. Not all their stories are true, many of them are made up.

    If you spend a few mintues read their "Press Room" section, you would know that.

  34. In regards to David Stone's comments: What is up with the generalizations? We.. Them? This may come as a surprise, but not everyone who writes/is Chinese shares your point of view.

    Oh, by the way, that's great that you read modern [simplified] Chinese. You sure are smart. Wanna be.

  35. I perplexed at the vitriol directed at my namesake, David S, for making a simple observation.

  36. Isn't the fourth character from the right on the bottom of the "p10" image just 天. Granted the top stroke being longer makes it Japanese not standard Chinese, but still...