A Universal Icon Language(?) – Visual (Mandarin) Chinese

Mandarin, Chinese, is my weight on my shoulders…the language I wish I knew inside out, the dialect I wish I could speak without a second thought. Instead it is a side-line…a difficulty…a “know enough to get by” rather than engage in academic or professional speak. When I’m post-PhD land, this is my next endurance task and a life-long contract. I will sign it, to learn, to embrace, to do my best through my verbal and written success and failure – I will learn a fluency in Mandarin, Chinese. Recently, I have come across many different visual reinterpretations and (re)presentations of Mandarin, Chinese…a want by artists and designers to turn it into a visual language accessible to non-Chinese contexts, explicitly the West.

As part of Beijing Design Week 2014 was ‘an exercise about simplifying contradictions of this world – rich/poor, east/west, public/private and then/now’ by LAVA Beijing of the global firm, LAVA Design. After looking more in depth into their design process for clients, their necessity to communicate properly and clearly through visual, semiotic and verbal means, LAVA Beijing thought it would be interesting to see if they could start a dialogue by using ‘clear visual communication in a more abstract way’ by changing the graphic design landscape of the Beijing hutongs – ‘creating a visual system to express complex cultural nuances, which could be understood by Chinese and Westerners alike.’ Called ‘In a Simplified World 在简化世界里’ it was,

‘Inspired by Chinese everyday characters, some of which that shows a clear image of where they derive from, we took it upon ourselves to catch today’s world in clear visuals. Working with as little strokes as possible, we tried to capture abstractions into symbols. The themes we made symbols for are quite large so we looked for multiple ways of visualising them each. Some funny, some explanatory, some abstract. We hope they would start a dialogue about the meaning of these words. We then took our symbols to the streets of Dashilar and applied them temporarily with hutong-inspired materials. These are the photos that you will find in this booklet. This is the beginning of a research in which we are looking for ways to apply designed symbols in Dashilar in a modest way. Not telling people what to think or do, but instead start a conversation about it.’ – LAVA Beijing

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Céline Lamée, a designer with LAVA Beijing, stated ‘Visit the hutong neighborhoods in Beijing and you’ll notice a pervasive design paradox: symbols are everywhere, but not there’s not a logo in sight. Stores “normally just use characters and say what they are: Noodle shop, or hair salon…Signage is straightforward, and, if you can’t read Chinese characters, pretty exclusive. There aren’t many hutongs left in Beijing these days. Many of these traditional neighborhoods, defined by their narrow alleyways and single-story courtyard style houses, have been razed to make way for high rises and slick new modern office buildings. Naturally, the residents of the remaining hutongs want to carefully preserve their streets, even as western influences. There’s a cultural tug-of-war at play.’

LAVA Beijing saw this ‘tension as an opportunity for opening channels of discussion’ using Chinese characters as a starting point in an attempt to make them understandable in Western languages.

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Western influences—like bigger cars and new restaurants—are slowly creeping in, so many of the symbol pairings describe east versus west, like this bowl of rice and chopsticks next to a hamburger.

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Another tension is between the “rich” (left) and “poor” (right).

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“Then” and “now.”

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‘In a Simplified World 在简化世界里’ comprises 96 symbols, which ‘all revolve around the cultural themes irking the hutongs’. Contradictions of east-west, rich-poor, old-new where pairs of symbols rely on the same graphic elements such as a circle or a straight line. For instance, a rectangle with two circles atop it symbolizes a wallet, for ‘rich,’ while the same rectangle with falling circles signals ‘poor.’ Some icons lean on familiar iconography: an outline of Hello Kitty’s face pairs with Playboy Bunny ears as a play on east and west.

‘In a Simplified World 在简化世界里 is more of an conceptual exercise, than a finished product. “We made these super abstract symbols to let people start a dialogue about how to use the area together.”’ – Céline Lamée

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“Then” and “now.”

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Symbol pairings for “public” and “private.”

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There’s also a tension in the hutongs between public and private. In these neighborhoods, it’s normal for residents of different households to use communal bathrooms—something Westerners wouldn’t do. “Public,” on the left, and “private,” on the right.

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“Rich” and “poor.”

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“East” and “west.”

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Naturally, technology plays a large role in the hutong changes. “Then,” on the left, and “now,” on the right.

‘In a Simplified World 在简化世界里’ immediately reminded me of two things. The first is the conceptual language ‘Book from the Ground’ produced by renowned Chinese artist Xu BingXu is known for his re-interpretations of Chinese characters, Chinese calligraphy, printed text and visual language through his engagement with installation art in both Chinese and Western contexts. ‘Book from the Ground’ manifested as an idea back in 1999 when Xu started collecting safety manuals from airlines. It started more formally as a project in 2003 using diagrams that are employed as a primary means of communication by creating a novel written in a “language of icons”. He wanted to ‘explain complex matters within minimum words.’ The publication for ‘Book from the Ground’ ‘tells stories through the icons common in our contemporary experience’ where it ‘continues Xu’s longstanding interest in the link between the written symbol and visual communication.’

“Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life. We have also created a “font library” computer program to accompany the book. The user can type English sentences (we are still limited in this way, but the next step will include Chinese and other major languages) and the computer will instantaneously translate them into this language of icons. It can function as a “dictionary,” and in the future it will have practical applications.” – Xu Bing

Xu began to collect and organise logos, icons, and insignia from across the globe, researching symbols as a form of expression employed by the fields of mathematics, chemistry, physics, drafting, musical composition, choreography, and corporate branding, among others, where the Internet and the widespread emergence of a language of computer icons have greatly increased the scale and complexity of the project. He references the French thinker Jean Douet as part of his inspiration, who in 1627 in an essay titled “Proposal to the King for a Universal Script, with Admirable Results, Very Useful to Everyone on Earth” first suggested that Chinese was a potential model for an international language. As Xu states, ‘The word “model” is important here because Douet does not limit this “universal script” to the form of Chinese characters per se. He instead focuses on the universal potential of the system of recognition upon which the Chinese language is based. Today, nearly four hundred years later, human communication has indeed evolved in the direction predicted by Douet. We have come to sense that traditional spoken forms are no longer the most appropriate method for communication, and, in response, great human effort has been concentrated on developing ways to replace traditional written languages with icons and images. For this reason, among others, humankind has entered the age of reading images. The formation of nearly every language relies on two systems: phonetic and visual. Due to the wide range of phonetic systems currently in use throughout the world and the global trend of using evermore standardized goods, in addition to technological innovations such as the growing ease and speed of duplicating and sending visual data, it is thus natural (and necessary) to use images and pictographic icons as a means of communication. In truth, today’s “big village” has reignited the historical process of early linguistic development, beginning again with pictographs.’

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The second project is the new Chinese Mandarin learning style and book called ‘Chineasy’, a new way to “read” Chinese through visual building blocks. Created by ShaoLan with illustrator Noma Bar, ‘Chineasy’ is a visual-based learning system which teaches Chinese characters, simple stories and phrases. This building block system allows learners learn speedily with great fun enjoying Chinese history, classical and pop culture.

‘Whilst the entire Chinese population is learning English, it is time for us to really comprehend this complex economy and society with our own eyes and judgment. Knowing their language is the first baby step but a crucial one. The real agenda behind this project is to bridge the gap between the East and the West…I see the melding of these two cultures, East and West, as being instrumental in creating a more culturally literate world. I also think that the East and West must understand each other in order for global economic growth to be a sustainable future. There is, however, a giant roadblock preventing the East and West from communicating effectively and connecting on a deep, cultural level: the Great Wall of Chinese…I want to give the West a real understand and knowledge so that people can understand China and appreciate Chinese culture via their own eyes rather than layers of packaging, manipulation or loss in translation. Chineasy will become the first step for anyone in the world who wants to understand China, Chinese culture and its language. It is educational, social, cultural and inspirational.’ – ShaoLan

It is questionable in my mind as to whether Chinese should be seen a model for an international language, a “universal script” or “universal language”…even though Mandarin is now the world’s most need to know language. We do seem to communicate less by words, and more by visual images in the form of pictographics, pictograms, symbols, icons, illustrations as they are easier to translate, digest, understand and ultimately consume in our commercial rife culture. We all seem to have less time to communicate, or less spare time to communicate properly…one of my dislikes in life, which I why I invest so much time in letter writing by hand with an ink pen…every single week. What are the relevance of these visual languages in today’s current culture as technology continues to develop? Is there even a need for a formal book (as such) as each of these projects present? The latter question begins to reference the dichotomy (and an ongoing personal research interest) between “real” and “virtual” books and languages…that’s for another blog post. Until then, it is time to continue learning one of the hardest languages in the world…Mandarin Chinese. Wish me luck…wordgirl is going to need it…

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