Xu Bing – Book From the Sky and Book From the Ground – Jiamu Cao

Xu Bing – Book From the Sky and Book From the Ground: Conflicts and Communications of Language

I believe Xu Bing and his works Your Surname Please should be put in the next edition of Graphic Design: A New History. 

Xu Bing has produced many artworks by using especially Chinese, letters and characters as elements. His work interacts with the audience in a special way. In his works A Book From the Sky and Book From the Ground, Xu expressed his understanding of the gap between different languages, and try to use the language of design making a new way of communication.

According to Leon vandermeersch’ s  The Origin and Characteristics of Chinese, Chinese letters have the features of ideogram. It can be understood that every part of the Chinese character is a simplified icon.

Xu split the strokes of Chinese characters then regroup them together, then uses the wood board to print huge works and a series of books called A Book From the Sky. In these books, Xu Bing carefully typesets and makes them look like real books-a classical old Chinese book, and all the characters in the books look like real Chinese characters, which symbolized knowledge and authority. However, once started reading, audiences would find that they can not understand any of them, even if Chinese is their mother language.


Inner Page of The Book From the Sky, 1987-1991

This series of books forced audiences (especially those who understand Chinese) to use their previous experience to interpret the meaning of the text. But in the end, nothing was found. Xu Bing used this strong contraction, clearly convey the gaps in language communication.

As a comparison, The Book From the Ground aimed to make a book that has no word but all the people can understand.


This book uses common design language in modern life, such as stickman, emoji and described a very simple story. Xu Bing believes that no matter who speaks any language, as long as he or she is in modern life, this person will understand what this book is talking about. From the introduction of Xu Bing Retrospective Exhibition, we can know he is seeking “communication without borders”. This reminds people to pay attention to the importance of graphics when designing for the world, and the gap in understanding caused by different culture backgrounds.

Maybe we don’t see his artwork such as Book From the Sky in daily life. Yet Xu Bing showed the importance of design in a new way, reminding people of the issues that should be paid attention to when designing – especially today, a world with globalization and information exchange are more frequent.


Leon vandermeersch’ s  The Origin and Characteristics of Chinese, 1998, August.

Author unknown, “Book From the Sky” “Book From the Ground” Xu Bing Retrospective Exhibitionhttp://humanities.cn/modules/news/view.article.php?31

Xu Bing, “Book From the Sky” ,1987-1991 http://xubing.com/cn/work/details/206?year=1991&type=year#206

Chou Haibo and Zhu li, “Xu Bing’s Art View and Action Logic”, Changjiang Literature and Art No. 4 2018

Different Covers or Rickshaw Boy-Jiamu Cao

Rickshaw Boy, Literal translation is Camel Xiangzi, by Lao She is a novel that was first published in 1937. Describes a tragedy of Chinese rickshaw boy, Xiangzi, who lives in the 1920s Peking, China, an optimistic and hardworking youth ends up being a stealer and betrayer.

Since 1937, Rickshaw Boy has been in print and produced multiple versions, and there are countless artists have designed a cover for it. Unfortunately, due to China’s artistic environment and inattention to artists, most artists’ names were not verifiable.

Rickshaw Boy

First Edition Cover of Rickshaw Boy, 1937, People’s Literature Publishing House

The first edition was published by People’s Literature Publishing House. In 1937, the cover is quite simple and rustic: words from top to bottom are the author’s name, book’s name, and publisher. All the fonts are common and without any art processing. Yet, the publisher’s and  Author’s names were printed in Ming, a serif font was considered more modern and formal; the book’s name was printed in KaiTi, a sans-serif font had a longer history than Ming, giving a traditional feel. In a word, the designer only changed the font and size, to make the reader pay more attention to the book’s name. In contrast to the followed editions, it is extremely concise.

Rickshaw Boy, 1990xiangzi2

Rongsheng Gao, Cover of Rickshaw Boy, 1990

The most recognizable and successful cover of Rickshaw Boy was designed by Rongsheng Gao. Because it depicts all the important elements of the story in the simplest picture. This is also one of the three earliest cover design could be found.

Its main tone is composed of gray and brown. The character in front is doesn’t have much detail, almost made of geometric shapes. However, it is still readable that he is a poor rickshaw boy, in the late Qing Dynasty: the typical hair cut and rickshaw boy’s wearing. His shadow is designed in the shape of a camel, correspond with the title of the novel.  On one hand, the camel symbol of his original kind; on the other hand, the camel hinted at his sin: Xiangzi once stole camels to sell money-this thing was like a shadow that couldn’t be got rid of, and made him downcast. In the lower right corner is a silhouette of the landmark of Beijing – the Forbidden City. The name of the novel is in bold East Asian Gothic typeface, different from Gothic typeface Blackletter, this is a sans-serif font that frequently appeared in the Chinese New Literature Movement. The movement happened in the early and middle of the 1900s, laid the foundation of modern Chinese. Author of Rickshaw Boy, Lao She, was a representative of this movement.

This cover lays down the impression of the original novel.

After 2017,  any publisher has the right to publish this book, which led more artists to start designing covers for the novel. Many people imitated Gao’s style and element Some of the covers even quoted his original work for a second revision:


Artist Unknown, “Cover of Rickshaw Boy”, 2oo8, People’s Literature Publishing House

Artist Unknown, “Cover of Rickshaw Boy”, 2017, Zhejiang Education Publishing Group

Artist Unknown, illustration for Rickshaw Boy, Cited by Writer’s Press in 2018

In addition,  as long as designers use illustrations or photos as part of the design, they were hard to get rid of the idea of “rickshaw”. Gao’s work avoids this, and become a classic.

All in all, as of 2008, Camel Xiangzi, as the second most printed modern literature in China, has provided many artists with creative themes. Also, in China’s unified textbooks and different provincial exams, the cover designed by Rongsheng Gao appeared once and once as an analysis of the social environment at the time. Even though Gao’s original cover is no longer on the market, it was still successfully impressed the audiences.

Work cite:

Zhitian Luo, “Social Function and Social Response of Literary Revolution”, July 2014. http://www.aisixiang.com/data/76358.html

Shu Juan, “‘Back’ of the Cover”, May 31, 2019.https://www.jianshu.com/p/e46d199b37c5

Runhua Wang. “Renhe Depot, Maojiawan Grand Hybrid, White House”,http://www.nssd.org/articles/article_read.aspx?id=7684631