A Book from the Sky (Tianshu 天書), edition no. 49/100

Xu Bing (1955 - )
A Book from the Sky (Tianshu 天書), edition no. 49/100
China, Modern period
ca. 1987-1991
Printed books and box
Wood, Ink on paper
Books: 45.9 x 29.9 cm. each; box: 48.9 x 33.2 x 10.2 cm.
Purchase of the East Asian Studies Program; Princeton University Art Museum, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund; and the P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art


Book from the Sky is composed of some 4,000 invented characters that have the appearance of Chinese characters but are totally unreadable. The woodblock printed characters are printed in four fascicles with thread-stitched binding, blue paper covers, and ink and paper titleslips. The fascicles are housed in a wood box with joined at corners, and pegged at the top and bottom with wood dowels. An installation of several books and printed rolls of paper suspended from the ceiling were first exhibited in the 1989 China/Avant-Garde exhibition in Beijing, which has become linked to the tragic June Fourth student demonstration at Tiananmen Square. The books represent a reaction to the history of writing, calligraphy, and book culture in China. In an essay for the Book from the Sky exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum in 2003, Jerome Silbergeld writes that "Xu Bing's 'writing' (or non-writing) might be considered an 'abuse of language,' a reminder of how language has already been abused by those in control of it, and as a strike against those who have violated the written word through modern political propaganda."

Published References & Reproductions

Jerome Silbergeld, gallery handout for the exhibition Book from the Sky: A Work by Xu Bing, at PUAM, Feb. 15–May 18, 2002.

"Collaboration," Princeton University Art Museum Newsletter (Winter 2003), p. 11 illus.

Jerome Silbergeld and Dora C. Y. Ching, eds., Persistence/ Transformation: Text as Image in the Art of Xu Bing (Princeton, 2006).

Further Readings

Britta Erickson, "Mistrust of Language and the Book from the Sky" in her Words Without Meaning, Meaning Without Words: The Art of Xu Bing (Seattle: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and University of Washington Press, 2001), pp. 33–45.

"Book from the Sky: a work by Xu Bing"
PUAM, February 15-May 18 (extended to July 14), 2002