A Book from the Sky

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Title page of Book from the Sky, in pseudo-Chinese characters. The characters “天書” do not appear anywhere in the book.

A Book from the Sky (simplified Chinese: 天书; traditional Chinese: 天書; pinyin: Tiānshū) is the title of a book produced by Chinese artist Xu Bing in the style of fine editions from the Song and Ming dynasties, but filled entirely with meaningless glyphs designed to resemble traditional Chinese characters. The book, which consists of four volumes totaling 604 pages, was printed in a single print run of 126 copies between 1987 and 1991,[1]:61 and was first publicly exhibited in October 1988, in Beijing's China Art Gallery.[2]

The work was originally titled Mirror to Analyze the World: The Century’s Final Volume (simplified Chinese: 析世鉴-世纪末卷; traditional Chinese: 析世鍳-世紀末卷; pinyin: Xī shì jiàn—Shìjì mòjuǎn), a title which “evokes the trope of the book as jian 鍳 or mirror in the venerable tradition of imperial historiography”.[3] However, the artist eventually felt that this title was “cumbersome” and “heavily influenced by Western forms and the current cultural climate”,[1]:57 and decided to adopt the name that was already in popular use, Tiānshū. In Chinese, the term tiān shū (“divine writing”) originally referred to certain kinds of religious texts, but is now used to mean “gibberish”; it has thus been suggested that Nonsense Writing would be a more appropriate translation of the title.[4]

The book is composed using a set of 4,000 characters, as this is roughly the number of characters in common usage in modern written Mandarin. These characters were designed on the basis of the Kangxi radicals, so that “in terms of density of strokes and frequency of occurrence, they…appear, on the page, to be real characters“.[1]:55 In addition to these, page and fascicle numbers were indicated using tally marks based on the Chinese character 正.[1]:60–61

The characters were carved into individual pieces of movable type made from pear wood,[1]:54 in a style slightly squatter than that of Song typefaces.[1]:53 Initially, Xu himself typeset sample pages, and took them for printing to a factory in the village of Hányíng (simplified Chinese: 韩营; traditional Chinese: 韓營), in Cǎiyù township (Chinese: 采育).[1]:46,58 (This was one of the last remaining traditional printing factories in China, which after the Cultural Revolution mainly produced state-sponsored reprints of classical texts using pre-Revolution woodblocks.[1]:59) Later, workers at the factory typeset the pages by referring to a “model book” prepared by Xu, which contained symbols such as ↓★○☒❖ that had been placed in a one-to-one correspondence with his 4,000 pseudo-Chinese characters.[1]:61

Initial reactions to Book from the Sky were critical: traditionalists described it as “ghosts building walls” (simplified Chinese: 鬼打墙; traditional Chinese: 鬼打牆; pinyin: guǐ dǎ qiáng), i.e., obfuscation for the sake of obfuscation,[1]:63 whereas “New Wave” artists found it too traditional and academic. Nevertheless, it attracted a broad audience, including not only artists but also professors and editors, some of whom would visit the exhibition repeatedly in an attempt to find even a single real Chinese character.[1]:58

The work resulted in Xu losing favour with the communist government of the People's Republic of China[citation needed] and being vilified by some official critics as a "bourgeois liberal".[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Xu Bing, Drew Hammond (translator) (2009). "The Making of Book from the Sky". In Spears, Katherine. Tianshu: Passages in the Making of a Book. London: Quaritch. pp. 51–63. 
  2. ^ Spears 2009, p. 163.
  3. ^ Liu 2009, p. 67.
  4. ^ Wu Hung (1994). "A ‘Ghost Rebellion’: Notes on Xu Bing’s ‘Nonsense Writing’ and Other Works". Public Culture 6 (2): 411–418. 


  • Liu, Lydia H. (2009). "The Non-Book, or the Play of the Sign". In Spears, Katherine. Tianshu: Passages in the Making of a Book. London: Quaritch. pp. 65–79. 
  • Spears, Katherine, ed. (2009). Tianshu: Passages in the Making of a Book. London: Quaritch. ISBN 0-9550852-9-2. 

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