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Power of expression -- one man and his experiment with Chinese characters
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Add one stoke to the top of the Chinese character "man", you get a new "character" meaning a man with independent thinking. Unite "poison" and "gas", you get a "character part" meaning "pollution". Join "love" and other character parts, you get "characters" meaning different love: love based on money, self-centered love or love from the bottom of your heart.

These are the "new characters" developed by Jiao Yingqi, a Chinese contemporary artist, who won fame for his "artist warehouse" in Beijing to boost art experiments in the late 1990s. 51-year-old Jiao lives a reclusive life in a workshop converted from vaulted grain warehouses in suburban Beijing. He has developed nearly 300 characters in about 30 series from 1994 on.

"Ideas to create new characters come from my own experiences. I have an urge to express, but could not find characters powerful enough to do that," says Jiao with black-rimmed spectacles.

The new "characters" add modern factors into the written language system, articulating the new situations people are facing with such as pollution, Internet culture and gene technology.

Ugly sides of society were also revealed. For example, the intellectuals were divided into intellectuals that harm others, bookworm intellectuals, enslaved intellectuals and intellectuals of different schools. "I was persecuted by some intellectuals and observed a lot more. That's the experiences I want to express," Jiao says.

"Characters can carry your own feelings. If you have some special feelings, create a character to show that. Define it and then it's done. That's the basic rights of every character user," says Jiao, "It's another problem whether others will accept it or not."

An ancient writing system with ideogrammatic and pictographic elements, Chinese characters use one character instead of one word as the basic unit to express something. The characters evolved from oracle bone inscriptions to traditional and simplified characters in 5,000 years. Now the biggest Chinese dictionary, Zhonghua Cihai, keeps about 86,000 characters with about 6,000 active and about 3,000 in common use.

Though revered by users for thousands of years, the characters also faced life-or-death threats in history, for example, outcries to replace characters with Pinyin, an alphabet-based phonetic system, in the early 1900s. Lu Xun, father of modern Chinese literature, once said, without ridding characters, China will die as a result. Modern Chinese are frequently caught in the tug-of-war to use traditional or simplified characters.

Jiao believes Chinese characters are energetic. "It's just the users ourselves who isolated the characters from renewing themselves."

New expressions are booming nowadays.

The Internet has been churning out new expressions. For example, lei, meaning thunderbolt, is used as a verb to show people are astonished by something unexpected or ridiculous; zhai, meaning house, is used as an adjective to indicate people who enjoy staying at home for most of the time; han, meaning sweat, is used as a verb to show people are so astonished that they are sweating.

Some archaic characters are excavated. For example, Jiong, originally meaning brightness, is used to show "awkwardness" as it looks like an awkward man's face. Mei, meaning Chinese plum flower, is used to indicate "very dumb" as it consists of two characters meaning dumb.

"It shows people have great demand to express their feelings, but they can't find enough (language) to do that. Some use foreign languages," Jiao says.

"The booming new expressions make a striking contrast to the stagnant state of Chinese characters: little new characters appeared. You can't express your feelings in a concise way."

"For example, how can you refer to the 'passive' partner in a gay couple? You would say the part who plays woman in the gay couple but he is a man?" Jiao says.

Jiao stresses, "Chinese characters are closely related with living experiences." For example, there were special characters to indicate "two rivers join together", "one river divides into two", "white horse with black dots" and "many horses running together".

"It shows the ancient Chinese lived closely with water and horses in the agricultural society. They wanted to express the scene, so they created a character to do that."

But few use such archaic characters now as the scenes are no longer close to life, Jiao says.

"Experiences have changed now. The characters should grow to reflect life more accurately."

"Character quality impacts spiritual quality. No exaggeration. You and I talk, we can meet at the point we meant with appropriate characters, otherwise we can't do that... Thinking relies on characters."

Local township government asked Jiao to paint his works on a billboard near the village he lived in, Yinjiafu in Dasungezhuang Township in Shunyi District. He chose "characters" that indicate pollution: people who caused pollution and people suffering from pollution.

"Villagers passing by would ask each other what they mean. When they know the characters and the meaning, they have got the information to protect the environment at least," Jiao says.

The National Language And Character Working Committee, the official department to manage standard Chinese characters, does not support the action. "As public symbols, Chinese characters are the result of almost 5,000 years of cultural deposit. Without cultural deposit, the new characters can hardly be accepted...but it's fine if they are just art works," says a worker with the committee who declined to be named, "His works have nothing to do with our work."

Zhu Qingsheng, an art critic and fine arts professor in Peking University, says the "new characters" is a piece of art works and has nothing to do with language modification."

"He is using characters to question modern people's living situation.Deep rooted in Chinese culture, the works targets Chinese character users. Most Chinese contemporary artists are using an international way to express, but they target foreign audience."

"Jiao has been focusing on the real problems Chinese are facing. His works is hard to understand at first, but art history has its own logic: to make it accepted by more audience is one dimension, to push back the frontier in art is another."

Jiao did not finish his middle school when the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) began. He picked up his education in China Central Academy of Fine Arts and taught at the school for about ten years. He is now a professor with the China Art Academy.

Jiao often criticizes Chinese contemporary art, "Most are copying with little originality."

"A culture's vitality relies on not how much ancient culture it has but how much individual creativity it has. Any culture growth follows a trajectory from individual creation, to small-circle fashion, then accepted by the mainstream and eventually becomes folk customs or traditional art," Jiao says.

"Good works come from unique feelings and then you have to find a new way to express it. If you borrow another's way, it proves you do not have your unique feelings. For example, if people say, oh, that's Van Gogh, you are not expressing your feelings, you are expressing Van Gogh's."

"I enjoy seeking the unique feelings, experimenting with it and completing the expression. It's a pleasure for me," Jiao says.

(Xinhua News Agency March 14, 2009)

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