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天書; Tianshu (Book from the Sky)

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (object)

    • 天書; Tianshu (Book from the Sky)
  • Description

    Four printed book volumes made as a set. Ink on paper, blue paper covers and thread binding. All contained in a walnut box.

  • Producer name

  • Date

    • 1988 (circa)
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 45.9 centimetres (covers (each volume closed))
    • Width: 30 centimetres (covers)
    • Depth: 2 centimetres (Closed)
    • Width: 52 centimetres (Open at double page)
    • Height: 10.2 centimetres (box)
    • Width: 33.6 centimetres (box)
    • Depth: 49.2 centimetres (box)
  • Curator's comments

    The British Museum has a set of four hand-printed books that come in a walnut box, which are known by the name "Book from the Sky," which also applies to the art installations Xu Bing has created using printed volumes like these. The first display of "Book from the Sky" was in Beijing in 1988. Printed volumes and sheets of printed paper were placed in large number on the floor and suspended from the ceiling of the room.

    The volumes are composed of 4000 invented characters that cannot be decoded. The artist believes that writing is the ‘essence of culture’. The deep frustration viewers feel upon realizing that they cannot read the text highlights the great importance and weight given to written communication by most cultures, which is certainly true of China. Xu Bing's subversion of writing alerts us to its extraordinary power, and the flip side of this is the danger inherent in distorting, manipulating, or eliminating original meaning from the written word. This rejection of readble characters exemplifies the stance of the Avant-Garde calligraphers who emerged after China's Cultural Revolution.

    Born into a literary family in Sichuan province, and growing up mostly in Beijing, Xu was forced in the social movement known as the Cultural Revolution, to move from his home and work in an agricultural commune. He later returned to Beijing to study printmaking at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) earning a BA in 1981, and staying on as faculty, and earning an MFA in 1987. In 1990 he moved to the United States, settling a few years later in New York City. In 2008 he returned to China (still keeping a studio in NY) to serve as the Vice-president of CAFA.


  • Bibliography

    • Spears 2009 bibliographic details
    • von Spee 2010 cat. no. 95 bibliographic details
    • Wang 2012a pp.106-107, fig.8 bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display

  • Exhibition history


    2015 – 2016 4 Dec – 29 May, National Museum of Singapore, ‘Treasures of the World’s Cultures’
    2010 May-Sep, BM, Dept of Asia, The Printed Image in China

    2012 5th May -29th July, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ‘The Printed Image in China’

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Department


  • Registration number


Book, woodblock print. Ink on paper, in wooden box. Four volumes. Entitled. 88/100.

Book, woodblock print. Ink on paper, in wooden box. Four volumes. Entitled. 88/100.

Reproduced by permission of the artist. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Image description



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