China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Bemoaning the laborious construction of Chinese characters, China’s greatest modern writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) suggested that writing characters is nothing but drawing pictures. A staunch promoter of vernacular Chinese, Lu Xun also partook in the vigorous Chinese script reform in the Republican period (1911-1949). Playing with the script is an important part of the Chinese scholarly tradition. Generations of intellectuals have possessed a sense of ownership over the script which was always evolving over the course of Chinese history. In the modern period, many saw the complexity of the Chinese script as a major culprit for the nation’s perceived backwardness. The impractical and arbitrary Chinese writing system created linguistic barriers that prevented the circulation of modern thoughts and the communication with the rest of the world. Departing from previous formal manipulations of the Chinese writing by way of calligraphy and seal-carving, Lu Xun sought a more modern and global means to help transform Chinese writing. More specifically, while language reformers relied on the introduction of roman alphabets and systematic simplifications to modernize the script, Lu Xun aimed to transform the script from within by unleashing the distinct graphic potential of the Chinese writing following Japanese design examples. Lu Xun thus turned the limited pictographic nature of the script on its head during a period that dismissed Chinese writing’s pictographic myth. Unique in the world as a design vocabulary, the Chinese characters provided a powerful means to nationalizing and localizing design that is unavailable to most cultures of design in modernity.