Conduct an exercise in cross-cultural communication while exploring the language-inspired work of Chinese American artist Xu Bing. Students also will learn about animation by creating a flip book.
Language Arts (from the National Council of Teachers of English)
- K-12.9 Multicultural Understanding: Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
- K.-12.12 Applying Language Skills: Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Visual Art (from the National Art Education Association)
- Content Standard 1: Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes
- Content Standard 6: Making connections between visual arts and other arts
History (from the National Center for History in the Schools)
- Topic 4, Standard 7: The history of peoples of many cultures around the world
- Students will learn about the work of Chinese American artist Xu Bing.
- Students will learn about animation by creating a flipbook.
8.5" x 11" sketch paper
2" x 2" card-stock cards (16 per student)
Drawing tools in an assortment of colors
Xu Bing's Monkeys Grasp for the Moon: photograph 1 (PDF), photograph 2 (PDF), photograph 3 (PDF) (or click here for an interactive version)
"Monkey" English by Xu Bing (PDF)
"Monkey" Japanese by Xu Bing (PDF)
"Monkey" Chinese by Xu Bing (PDF)
"Monkey" Arabic by Xu Bing (PDF)
Xu Bing (born 1955) left his homeland of China in 1990 to live in the United States. He is very interested in cross-cultural communication. His artwork almost always involves words, letters, or some other form of written language.
Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, at the Arthur M. Sacker Gallery, was inspired by a Buddhist folktale. It is an installation of word shapes, each one a representation of the word monkey, rendered in more than a dozen languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and English.
The words resemble monkeys with long tails and arms that link together. The linked monkeys stretch more than eighty feet, from the skylight to the gallery’s lowest floor, where the final monkey hangs poised above a still pool, hoping to catch the moon.
One day, a group of monkeys were playing in the trees. Suddenly, one monkey looked down into a well and saw the reflection of the moon in the water. He became worried that the moon had fallen, so he called his friends to help him to get the moon out of the well.
The monkeys linked themselves together with their arms and tails until they formed a long chain. When the monkey at the bottom of the chain reached into the water to grasp the moon, he was startled. The water rippled. There was no moon to grasp!
Watching this, another monkey looked up into the sky and saw the moon there. The monkeys realized that the moon had not fallen into the water at all. The moon in the well was just an illusion.
- Introduce students to the art of Xu Bing using the information provided above and what is found at www.xubing.com.
- Have students read the folktale.
- Distribute copies of the reproducibles of Xu Bing’s installation Monkeys Grasp for the Moon or view the artwork at www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/online/xubing/default.html. Provide students with the background information above.
- Ask the students why the artist depicted the tale in this way. Discuss his interest in cross-cultural communication and how it comes across in this work.
- Have students get into small groups or pairs and give each a copy of the English version of Xu Bing's "Monkey" word shape. Ask them to examine the image and to try identifying and labeling the letters of the word. They should also look for any embellishments to the letters and consider what these might represent.
- As a class, discuss each group's discoveries. (There may not be agreement about where each letter appears.)
- Have students return to the small groups and provide each student with sketch paper and a pencil. Give the groups time to brainstorm on how they might develop a word or single letter into an image. A review of some of the following picture books might help launch their ideas.
- Alphabatics by Suse MacDonald
- Gone Wild by David McLimans
- The Graphic Alphabet by David Pelletier
- The Hidden Alphabet by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
- The Z Was Zapped: A Play in Twenty-Six Acts by Chris Van Allsburg
- Z Goes Home by Jon Agee
Give students a brief introduction to animation. For example: In animation, still pictures seem to become moving pictures when a series of images rapidly flash before the eye. A flipbook is a simple animation technique. It is a booklet containing images that, when quickly thumbed through, appear animated. Individual drawings in a flipbook are called cells.
- Have each student fold a piece of 8.5" x 11" sketch paper in half four times, making sixteen sections. Each section will be a cell of a flipbook.
- Referring to their sketches from Part One, students will draw the sequence of their letter’s evolution in the sixteen cells of the paper.
- After the evolution has been translated into sixteen parts, students will make the final drawings on individual 2” x 2” cards. The drawings should be placed closer to the right edge of the card so that the images don’t get lost when the cards are bound on the left.
- After the cards have been bound, have the class share the flipbooks for everyone to enjoy.
Scan the students’ work or have them draw digitally. Then create a movie (instead of a flipbook) using iMovie, PhotoStory, or Moviemaker.
Give students the short essay “Xu Bing: Language and Culture” (see end of lesson). Have them research and report on other times in history when languages—and therefore cultures—have been altered. They can consider deliberate language alterations (such as the reeducation of Native Americans) or those that have developed organically.
Xu Bing: Language and Culture
The artist Xu Bing, born in 1955 in China, came to the United States in 1990. He began his career in China, but his artwork was not well received by the government. In his work, he experiments with language in many forms to express our struggle with communication.
As a teenager in China during its Cultural Revolution, Xu Bing experienced the emotional and social upheavals that marked that time. In 1974, he was removed from his “reactionary” parents in Beijing and sent to the provinces to work in a small farming commune as a part of the “rustication” program. His forced participation in the revolution led him to reexamine all he had known, from the meaning and appearance of Chinese characters to the purpose of the Great Wall of China and the value of art and culture. Of his experience he says:
Members of my generation were never truly educated in orthodox Chinese culture. Much of what we learned was remolded by Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Mao hoped to create a new culture that dispensed with the old but at the same time was not Western. This sort of change formed an extremely important part of our cultural background. It influenced our modes of thinking and even speaking. Mao’s transformation of culture was meant to “touch people to their very soul.” Most deeply rooted was his transformation of language, because the Chinese language directly influences the methods of thinking and understanding of all Chinese people. . . .
When each member of the Chinese cultural community first begins his or her education, he or she must spend years memorizing thousands of characters. This process is a sort of ceremony in homage to the culture, and it leaves all Chinese with an extreme sense of respect for the “written word.” My generation, however, was irreparably affected by the campaign to simplify characters. This remolding of my earliest memories—the promulgation of new character after new character, the abandonment of old characters that I had already mastered, the transformation of new characters and their eventual demise, the revival of old characters—shadowed my earliest education and left me confused about the fundamental conceptions of culture.
(Source: Brita Erickson, Xu Bing, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The Art of Xu Bing: Words Without Meaning, Meaning Without Words. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 2001.)
For additional teaching resources visit www.SmithsonianEducation.org