A Radical Reading of Chinese Characters

Mon, October 4, 2010

How does one read? Does literacy play an irreplaceable role in reading? Can one read and appreciate a novel written in Chinese characters if s/he does not understand the language?  To answer the last question: One can, if one reads Chinese characters as abstract art.

Known also as “square words” (fangkuai zi), all conceivable Chinese characters are contained and ordered with an invisible square. The squareness of Chinese characters, the visible grid to which Chinese characters confine themselves, also works in an abstract fashion especially in light of Kasimir Malevich’s famous Black Square and Red Square (1915), a linkage this talk illuminates.

Reading Chinese characters radically means attending to the pictographic origins of Chinese characters, namely their roots (bushou), while strategically challenging established conventions of scripting and signification (square). This duality of (up)rooting and squaring resides pertinently in the word “radical”: the root of radish; and by extension,  (re)forming a basis.

From an interdisciplinary perspective, this talk considers the readability of a variety of Chinese writings—from traditional calligraphy, contemporary (concrete) poetry, to modern-day fiction. From roots to squares in calligraphy as well as in mathematics, this talk radicalizes the subtle connection between Chinese characters and abstract painting, and proposes a new way of reading that depends not as much on literacy as intuition.

The talk will be held on October 29th, from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. in the Meyerson Conference Room, WCH 4.118. A reception for the event will begin at 3:00 p.m.


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