By Rebecca Catching, originally published in China Now, the British Council platform for the arts and creative industries in China in 2019
The Ancient Foundations of Book Art Culture
China’s longstanding romance with the book began in 868AD with the printing of the Diamond Sutra—often cited as the first printed book in the world. From this moment onwards, book learning became a central part of the identity and the legitimacy of China’s cultural elite through the civil service examinations.[i] This identity, however, was not confined to the mere consumption of words, rather it was the triumvirate of “painting, poetry, and calligraphy,” the knowledge and mastery of each art form would bestow a sense cultural status upon the learned individual. Known as the “Three Perfections” in the 8th Century, this marriage of image and text became enshrined as an important element of artistic practice.[ii]
China’s ancient painting culture not only fused image and word—as is the case in modern artist books featuring illustrations, words, texts, photographs, and other ephemera—but employed a variety of types of canvases: oval silk fans, folded paper fans, standing screen paintings, hand scrolls, (which would be rolled out sequentially like a book), and albums of paintings bound together in an accordion-fold technique: thus it seems that China already possessed a variety of forms and tools which could be re-incorporated into contemporary book art.
Late Modern Artist Books in China
As we can see, a kind of proto-artist book culture was an established part of Chinese artistic practice long before the emergence of book art in America in the 1960s. Chinese artists who made “artist books” in the format which we understand in the West, were conscious of this earlier tradition. For instance, in speaking of his Cultural Revolution Sketchbooks, which were displayed in Wu Hong’s 2006 exhibition “Shu: Reinventing Books in Contemporary Art” at the China Institute in New York, Sichuan-born artist Gu Xiong expressed the desire to re-paint them as a handscroll so that his sketches of political study sessions, the back-breaking labour of grinding soybeans, and the numerous “big character posters,” would unfurl in a chronological manner from left to right.[iii] Gu’s sketches of life in the countryside were his way of carving out personal space within the utopian framework of the Cultural Revolution and this impulse to speak outside the system of official discourse is a common thread in self-publishing in China and elsewhere.
Returning to “Shu,” this book-themed exhibition curated by renowned art historian Wu Hung, we can also find works by Gu Wenda and Xu Bing, two artists who engaged with the ancient culture of text and bookmaking with their works in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, though their work might be described as falling within the realm of “book objects” rather than artist books per se. Gu Wenda sought to re-invent the basic materials of bookmaking, engaging with storied ink and paper studios in China to make ink out of human hair (“ink alchemy”), and “xuan” paper infused with tea leaves (“tea alchemy”)—seeking to re-create the accouterments of the scholar’s studio. Meanwhile, Xu Bing experimented with the book-like forms of Chinese painting, processed them through a contemporary filter, producing albums which looked like folded waves of paper on the floor in his seminal work, “Book from the Sky.” The book employed a variety of fonts sourced from rare Chinese books, subverting their forms so the content was illegible[iv]—thus challenging the authority of language and of books which had held such sway over Chinese society[v] from The 24 Filial Exemplars, which taught children how to be filial, to Mao’s Little Red Book, (Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung) which taught citizens how to become good communists.[vi]
China’s First Artist Zine
While Xu was launching a conceptual critique of the form of the book and its revered status in Chinese society, he was also actively using the book form to construct new narratives, to bypass the system through a series of three zines—The Black Cover Book, The White Cover Book and the Grey Cover Book, produced in collaboration with Ai Weiwei, and curator Feng Boyi from 1994-1997. These zines contained interviews with artists and their works and translations of Western texts—the goal of which was to help the Chinese artists to communicate with each other and strengthen the local art ecology, outside of the influence of foreign curators, in the Post-Tiananmen aftermath, writes critic Xia Li.[vii] The zines possessed a certain anti-government sentiment and Feng Boyi received warnings from the Public Security Bureau for these transgressive actions. Like artists in the West who sought to escape various systems of vetting and distribution through publishing and distributing their own books, this need was perhaps even more pronounced in China where there are strict restrictions on ISBN numbers (ISBN numbers which required both connections to obtain and necessitated several rounds of censorship prior to publication). In today’s self-publishing circles, small print runs tend to be overlooked, but as the self-publishing industry grows, there will likely be more attempts at regulation.
An Awkward Positioning
Straddling the territories of art, literature, and design, book art has often struggled to gain academic legitimacy writes critic Li Suchao:
Like the rest of the art system in China, the publishing ecology has been impacted by the climate of censorship and also the yet-to-be-realized state of the art form, and there are not too many individuals engaged in this field in China. Those who do engage tend to be clustered in the big cities, with limited dissemination of their work, working in the fields of the art design, literature, and the creative industries. It is rare to see any critical analysis of “artists books.” This art form which acts as a vehicle for the processing of the thoughts of artists occupies an awkward position as “a book, yet not a book” as “art but not art.” Artists books are very difficult to define, suffering from the identity crisis from the standpoint of aesthetics, artistic value, or academic research, though despite its development in the last ten years has not received the same kind of recognition as other art forms.[viii]
The Artist Book Landscape: Understanding Regional Ecologies
But in the past decade, China has seen a virtual explosion of self-publishing culture taking myriads of different forms. There are the conceptual artist’s books, which tend to be more academic sometimes with somewhat opaque meanings. Others are tapping into the dark humor of comic culture, whilst some are more like zines offering a visual manifestation the issues pertinent to a particular community or issue (for instance, looking inwards at the art ecology or the challenges of LBGTQ life in China). Yet a lot of the self-publishing output transcends these niche communities appealing to mainstream markets, producing cute and quirky design products, focusing on illustration, paper folding or form. But regardless of where these offerings fall on the spectrum, a formidable infrastructure has sprung up around them including numerous conferences, publishers, organizations, bookshops, galleries, and online stores. Perhaps the best opportunity for UK stakeholders to understand the breadth and depth of this scene is through the participation in one of Greater China’s three successful art book fairs. So far, the UK has seen relatively little representation in these fairs compared to other countries in East Asia and North America, but we are seeing the beginnings of something with book art purveyors such as Mack (London, Unfold Shanghai 2019), Hato Press (London, Booked, Hong Kong 2019), and Point of Interest London / Seoul, (abC Art Book Fair, 2018), and Sesame Drawing Club × Wait and Roll and Lu William’s Grrrl Zine Library at AbC in 2019, which featured LBGTQ content—including titles such as “So you’ve realised you’re cis and you don’t want to be a jerk” in 2019. Still, the comparative scarcity of UK publishers, artists, and bookstores indicates that there is still plenty of room for UK artists and art book publishers to act as ambassadors for UK book art culture.
The self-publishing scene in Beijing has been shaped by a number of influences. On one hand, it is home to a thriving gallery ecosystem bolstered by a strong academic presence with the Central Academy of Fine Arts and also has bragging rights to being the first artist zine published by Xu Bing, Feng Boyi and Ai Weiwei. At the same time, there is also a strong pull towards the more populist end of self-publishing with a thriving atmosphere of irreverence which supports a number of zines and comics.
In contrast to the more serious, older generation of artists—Xu Bing, Geng Jianyi and photographer Jiang Zhi—Beijing’s indie “manhuajia” 漫画家,or comic book artists, are not afraid to get a bit silly, frivolous or even mundane. They also do not shy away from the numbing realities of everyday life and or depicting the lives of common people. Artists such as Wang Shuo (adopting the eyebrow-raising moniker of Anusman), are an example of the crossover between art and comics which is beginning to occur. Anusman’s story is unique in that his work is as at home in the hands of comic book nerds and as it in the white-cube space of contemporary art. He graduated from the Tsinghua University Academy of Art and Design, then went to do an MA in France in comics at the European School of Visual Arts in Angouleme. Following that, he returned to the Central Academy of Fine Arts to write a gloriously-illustrated Ph.D. thesis on performativity and storytelling within the development of comics. He now teaches comics at CAFA and works with Tabula Rasa—a gallery in Beijing that has the audacity to show illustration and outsider art. His recent exhibition “Mr. Men—Anusman’s One Year” at Tabula Rasa tells the story of a somewhat hapless older man, Mr. Men (men means door), as he gets jostled around by the waves of modernity, riding his mobike, buying crabs at the market or listening to his friends talk endlessly about real estate—(something of a permanent soundtrack in social discourse since the early 2000s). The comic shows how Mr. Men tries to carve out his own path throughout the heaving waves of change, playing both the everyman and also the outsider.
A self-described “sullen artist type,” Beijing comic artist Yang Cong is no stranger to being an outsider. His gorgeously-illustrated graphic novels discuss themes such as body image, depression, and lethargy in a language with is both accessible and sometimes even crude. His work is described by curator Brent Litman as dark and anti-authoritarian with inklings of Robert Crumb.[ix]
There seems to be a groundswell for comics in Beijing at the moment, with Tabula Rasa (a gallery in 798), Yan Shu (a store and hub for indie comic nerds), and most importantly the Special Comix Anthology, which has been a major proselytizer of comic book culture (see images here). Special Comix is both raw and exquisitely illustrated, an award-winning comic book anthology which would be a key resource for anyone trying to understand the comic scene in China. Its contents are extremely varied from the dark and thoughtful illustration-driven comics to the more accessible narrative-driven work. Each edition has a different editor with a hand-picked theme, promoting the hand-drawn styles of the artists over the mainstream Marvel monotony, according to critic Yin Yijiun. In the early 2000s, local manhuajia were already sharing their work on online chat-rooms or printing and distributing their comics by hand, but Special Comix really helped the movement to gel,[x] as has the online dissemination of comics through sites such as Taobao and on the comics platform Kaikuan Manhua. For instance, Yin writes that “For issue five [of Special Comics], the editors were able to use e-commerce platforms to sell over 1,000 copies in a pre-order run. But this is still a tiny number, especially compared with the 10 million daily users of Chinese comic app Kuaikan Manhua.”[xi] This should be of interest to UK stakeholders who could tap Kuaikan Manhua’s potential for distributing UK graphic novels and comics.
Cultures of the Margins: Beijing Zines
Beijing’s zine culture is slowly beginning to ferment, and the alternative distribution methods have allowed it to present some narratives which are contradictory to mainstream publications. For instance, Hutong Farewell Zine, catalogs both disappearing and bricked-off “hutongs,” while Hole in the Wall and artist ZhangChi (Aikan Space), both have use colorful illustrations to archive some of the city’s most unremarkable residents, lounging in the grey Hutongs of Beijing or selling vegetables. [xii] These zines are like love letters to China’s rich street life and folk culture, and by placing this culture on paper, the zinesters are elevating it to another plane. 吃的reallywant accomplishes this on the level of food. The zine, produced by two Beijing women Dagua and Shanshan, is singularly dedicated to the religion of Beijing street food, executed in a nostalgic 80s-90s style, to illustrate topics such as “taxi driver eateries,” and or the foodways of particular families and particular neighborhoods. [xiii]
By contrast, the magazine Missionary focuses on an on the only recently-visible LBGTQ community. Produced by events platform DaddyGreenBASEMENT, the zine has tackled topics such as the nationalistic discourse surrounding masculinity, in particular, the word 娘 “niang,” which in this context translates as “feminine” or “sissy.” (Party organs have condemned a group of male celebrities for their effeminate looks, saying that they would prevent China from becoming a strong and powerful country.) As its name implies, Missionary, takes an irreverent attitude, as seen in a photo-collage labeled Tian’an Men (italics mine), which combines multiple images of a stylish young man juxtaposed with images of the iconic Soviet-era lamps of Tiananmen square, now festooned with CCTV cameras.[xiv]
Dreamer FTY and abC Art Book in China Fair
Dreamer FTY in Beijing is similar to Bananafish in Shanghai. It has its offices in 798 which include a store, residency and lounge, a brand of stationary (dreamgoods),which produces beautiful marbled stationery and coasters and a number of art books (dreampress) including a very popular series on the theme of the rose, which this flower beyond the realm of romantic cliché.
Started in 2007, the organization launched the abC book fair in 2015 in an effort to promote the self-publishing scene and it seems to have wholly embraced self-publishing ethos. Even its website reads like an art book, (though sometimes at the expense of navigability). The fair is held in both Shanghai and Beijing and offers everything from “wenqing” or youth-focused merchandize brands produced by local design studios to, to design-forward music publishers including Space Fruity Records (from the iconic Beijing vinyl shop and music venue Fruity Space), Maybe Mars, Qii Snacks Records and hipster German record label Planet Giegling. abC also features more cerebral contents as well—for instance, “The Little Modernology Classroom” employs the theories of Wajiro Kon and Kenkichi Yoshida, to use design, archeology, ethnography, and fashion to create a blueprint for the rebuilding of Tokyo following the earthquake and fire in 1923. The fair presented both original Modernology books and new creations from Chinese designers inspired by the thoughts of the movement. “Mapping of Books on Modernology” included “Xicang Market” by the designers Local (Bendi本地), which won the Asia Design Prize for its visual record of hand-drawn signs, goods and oral histories from Xi’an’s famous Xicang market and “Laxyna” by the comic book artist and Urban China editor Filipa Jurchenjia 南蔻, reflecting on the various forms of modernity existing in Southeast Asia. At 162 exhibitors, abC is the largest in total scale offering an excellent view of the China self-publishing world. It is less international than UNFOLD, but nonetheless still hosts exhibitors such as Northing, and Spector Books, La Maison Z, edcat.net, Sugary Dog, and Little Mountain Press.
Shanghai & Yangtze River Delta
The Delta region is home to the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and thus there are a number of artists producing artists books. It is also home to two of China’s oldest artist bookstores and publishers Jiazazhi and Bananafish which launched their own art book fair in 2018.
Despite its cheeky title, which means “fake magazine” this Ningbo-based photo publisher, bookshop and library has been active since 2009, producing original photobooks and participating in photography festivals around Asia. The well-respected niche photography publisher[xv], carries work by Liu Wei, Ta Ke, Yang Yuanyuan, and Su Wen and also resident expatriate photographers such as Thomas Sauvin. Sauvin’s Till Death Do Us Part is a book disguised as a package of Double Happiness cigarettes—double happiness being the character representative of marital bliss and also a popular brand. When you remove the red, cigarette-package cover, the book within looks like a phalanx of cigarettes, and the photographs inside explore the role of cigarettes within Chinese marital ritual. (see it here). Jiazazhi has also published Kurt Tong’s “Combing for Ice and Jade,” which offers another view on marriage, with Tong exploring the history of his grandmother who was a “self-combed” woman, i.e. a woman who chose a vow of celibacy over the prospect of an arranged marriage, yet styled their hair in the manner of married women. The book’s title refers to the Hall of Ice and Jade, which was the name of the pension these “self-combed” women who retired to in Shunde (Southern China), after years living independently working in local factories.
Taking its name from the JD Salinger short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” this store, publisher, risograph printing facility, zine-making workshop, and organizer of the Unfold book fair in Shanghai has been quite an important catalyst in the scene. Bananafish, the child of Su Fei and Guan Yu, began as a blog on Douban about book publishing and bookstores in 2008. Bananafish was somewhat nomadic in its early years as Su and Guan tried out different locations in China, moving between physical and online stores as they tried to figure out the best business model.[xvi] Today it has flourished into a physical store importing artists books from around the world and participating in the global art book scene. On workshop days, the store is rammed with enthusiastic students gathering around tables, with different kinds of paper, glue, and markers, using the workshop’s risograph printers to produce zines in a limited amount of colors. The space also has external partners hosting mini-zine fests in Muji, collaborating closely with Jiazazhi, and also Swiss artist book publisher Nieves.
UNFOLD Shanghai Art Book Fair
This three-day artist book and zine extravaganza, organized by Bananafish and Jiazazhi, maximise the international connections of these two organizations with an over 93 exhibitors including outfits from as far away as Buenos Aires, (Editions El Fuerte), Dooogs (Berlin), and Calypso Press (Columbia, Chile). It has a strong Asia focus with over thirty exhibitors from Japan (mypaperpigeon, Dooks and crevasse), 24 exhibitors from Seoul (Corners and Heizin O, SUPERSALADSTUFF and Bird Pit), 20-odd publishers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao and Singapore, and roughly about 80 exhibitors from China including bonbonédition, Cat Mover Studio, Modes Vu, and Local and galleries such as m97, BANK and Shanghai Power Station of Art. With over 93 publishers and over 11,000 visitors, the fair is an unqualified success. Compared to other fairs in China, it has the largest number of international participants.
The event which situates itself in the m50 art district is spread through different buildings, and it is common to see crowds of page-flippers snaking through the complex, lining up in the rain just to get their hands on this hot merchandise. Besides design, photography, comics, independent magazines, independent bookshops, paper works, and other visually-oriented products, the fair hosts an Etsy-style crafts market and a number of talks and programmes. Artists such as the Shanghai-based Cat Mover Studio (Xinmei Liu ) presented her whimsical, Burgers and Sandwiches; the book is wrapped up like a burger and bound in one corner with a toothpick flag and like a burger its sole aim the generation of pure delight. Tao Benyuan and APOORZOO embody this same sense joy and whimsy with their work “I Don’t Want to Put on Clothes,” 不要穿衣服 with caricatured calligraphy and watercolor-pink bodies—a lazy ode to the steaming Chinese summers. One of the most interesting initiatives was a kind of amateur urbanist walking tour of the Suzhou Creek 苏州河·河滨寻城记 where participants meandered along the banks of the creek, lead by amateur archeologists, urbanists and researchers providing different angles on this critical waterway.
Pearl River Delta
Though the PRD may not have its own dedicated fair, self-publishing is still quietly bubbling away within the studios of the PRD with zines such as Yuet Nam越南—published by artists Lin Aojie and Zhu Jianlin, featuring reviews and artist’s works and Fongfo 冯火月刊, the self-deprecating zine produced by several artists out of the Guangdong Art Academy beginning in 2013.[xvii] Fengfo is an attempt to examine the symbiotic relationship which exists between the art and media economies and includes content such as the satirical advertisement: “How to quickly become editor-in-chief of a periodical,” which advises that one must be: “young, unemployed, preferably a pulp literature lover, and ideally an artist … [who] solicits submissions from friends,” adding that “the title of the publication must be bold, conveying confidence in its success.”[xviii]
Artist’s Books: Vitamin Creative Space
Since its early days, Vitamin Creative Space has been an active promoter of artist’s books. One of the gallery’s founders, Hu Fang, is an author and a critic and thus, there is a natural inclination to unite words and images. Vitamin’s books are available through Printed Matter and Art Metropole and include titles such as Xu Tan’s “Keywords,” an ongoing research project which involves a series of interviews with farmers, workers, and everyday citizens. From these dialogues, Xu extracts a number of “Key” words—to create a kind of lexicon of their daily experience one which differs greatly from state-sponsored narratives and slogans. In fact, the Vitamin Space ethos seems interested in using the mundane and the every day as a springboard for more philosophical explorations. For instance, a series of works by Hu Fang address the roots of life in the agricultural zone of Guangzhou, where the gallery’s HQ, the Mirrored Garden complex is now located. Through his writing (Towards a Non-intentional Space), Hu transports these more “earthly concerns” into questions about architecture and into the more lofty realms of Chinese philosophy,[xix] dancing between the concept “nature,” and built environments to examine the man-made nature of reality. His work echoes the work of another Vitamin artist, Cao Fei whose book I Watch that Worlds Pass By explores notions of reality and vitality, and multiple universes through sketches, stills, and storyboards pertaining to her three video works RMB City, La Town and Haze and Fog.
Compared to other regions of China, Hong Kong’s self-publishing has had the benefit of developing in a climate of relative political openness. This allowed it to create a strong following for comics and a well-developed market for limited edition art books.
In January 2019, Hong Kong’s publishing activities coalesced at Booked, a new art book fair held at Tai Kwun Contemporary, the art gallery within the renovated old police station, jail and court complex. Booked featured everything from comics, to zines to the Queer Reads Library, to the Filipino radical design collective Hardworking Goodlooking. It featured plenty of photo books and limited edition art books, some selling for tens of thousands of Euros. The market for art books and limited edition books is perhaps more formalized than elsewhere and the fair featured major players of the art world including Galerie Perrotin and David Zwirner, along with local institutions such as Hanart TZ, Para-Site and Empty Gallery.
Hong Kong Photo Book Publishers
The fair featured an unusually large number of photobook publishers, such as Brownie Publishing which showcases Hong Kong talent, with street photographers, portraitists and including work such as “Trek” by Lap Ki CHAN (Anatomist) and CHAN Dick (Photographer)—a series of textured still lifes and landscapes in the style of Edward Weston—their main subjects being human tissues and bones. Soft D Press took a more holistic approach towards the corporeal, (taking a hint from Taschen) with a focus on nudes and bodies even two issues on Shibari in Hong Kong, (SP Book 1: First Time Shibari by Simon C). Meanwhile, other book publishers focused more on the landscape. For instance, the Salt Yard, examined home interiors and urban exteriors, with Dustin Shum’s Themeless Parks, a collection of neglected urban landscapes including a derelict park with panda-shaped boats sunken into an algae-green pond, or an empty field with the corpse of an airplane fuselage lying in the grass. Shum’s work challenges the overarching narratives about China’s meteoric rise while Benny Lam turns his lens Hong Kong’s own problems in Trapped, depicting quarters which are so-cramped that the toilet, stove, and bed occupy the same cramped room.
Archiving and Promoting Self-Publishing Culture
Self-publishing has historically been an important outlet for marginalized voices and the Queer Reads Library (QRL) provides a platform for the voices of LBGTQ people in the conservative milieu of Hong Kong. The founders of QRL, Kaitlin Chan and Beatrix Pang, were catalyzed by a decision from the Hong Kong Public Libraries to remove children’s books with same-sex parents from public view.[xx] The QRL contains a vast array of material including Xiaoming Xiong’s History of Homosexuality in China, by historian and gay rights activist, Ng Siuming 吴小明 (a.k.a. Samshasha,) and Edward Lam on Love, thoughts and illustrations on the topic of relationships by one of Hong Kong’s first openly-gay cultural figures, a theatre director and scholar.
Though activist in nature, QRL also acts as an archive of material, in the same vein as Asia Art Archive, albeit with a vastly smaller collection. Similar in function is the ZINECOOP, a Hong Kong zine collective, which has a small collection and a more mobile format. It supports zine culture, through book-making workshops, publishing their own zine—about the process of creating zines of course!—and “tabling” at many of the top art book fairs zine conferences in Asia. (For a good list of Zine events and fairs in Asia see the projects and events section of their website https://zinecoop.org/#projects). The work they feature tends to be illustration lead, and less radical in its message, but still possessing the kind of dark wit, and skewed perspectives we have come to expect from the world of zines and comics.
The Hong Kong Comic Scene
Comics in Hong Kong have developed slowly over the course of decades and critic Jason Li believes that it is now one of the most robust comic scenes in the world,[xxi] with key artists such as Chihoi, whose comics have been translated into a number of languages, helping to pave the way for younger artists. Chihoi’s work is like “reading someone else’s dreams,” or “smudged emotions,” according to Christian Gasser. “[He] is a poet of the quotidian, of life’s minutia, of little gestures, of silences.”[xxii] We see this poetry in his rendering of a distinctly Hong Kong moment—the tsunami of bodies exiting the subway, flowing into one giant liquid form, with the text bubble “sorry,” emerging from the mouth of each and every harried and oppressed commuter.
Chihoi’s influence extends beyond the success of his own work; he is the editor of Long Long Road – 25 Years of Independent Comics in Hong Kong—an anthology including artist work samples and interviews which attempts to chronicle Hong Kong’s comic history. In addition, he has created a distribution platform in nos:books, founded with artist Son Ni which publishes and distributes books, multiples, and illustrations.
For those interested to trace some of the more recent developments in the Hong Kong comic landscape, Pingpong Comics, a collective and comic book anthology, attempts to map out the trajectories of Hong Kong’s young comic book artists. “This new generation,” writes Jason Li, “follows in the footsteps of alternative comics artists like Chihoi 智海 and Siuhak 小克, who grew in fame after the turn of the millennium; if Ping Pong is any indication, they are even more experimental than their predecessors.”[xxiii] He notes that the anthology has recently made a turn more towards illustration in its fourth volume “Field Guide,” which reads . . . well which reads like a field guide, its pages cataloguing an array of objects in a systematic fashion including beach trash and flotsam leftover from a typhoon (a frequent Hong Kong occurrence[xxiv]). The launch of Field Guide was accompanied by an exhibition at the bookstore Kubrick—another Hong Kong institution which supports the local self-publishing scene with a programme of talks and touring exhibitions.
The Craft of Art Books—Hong Kong
Representing a completely different tradition of self-publishing, one which focuses on form and craft over narrative, is Tiana Wong, maker of miniature books, president of the Hong Kong Miniature Books Association, chief editor of Mini-press and creator of the zine Eggwich. Tiana has an impressive wealth of book-making knowledge from the formal perspective having studied with the Japanese book-binders Yo Yamazaki, Ayai Nishio, and Miyako Akai, even venturing to Puli Taiwan to learn the craft of traditional paper making. Her works reflect a distinct influence of origami and other paper-folding techniques. Most of her creations are pocket-sized and though the idea of miniature books might seem a bit twee, it’s hard not to become infatuated with the joy and whimsy contained within their inch-wide pages. Some can even be worn as necklaces and one even assumes the boxy shape of a coffin with a small body inside—the book unfolding accordion-style in coffin-like shapes.[xxv] Another unique element of Tiana’s work is her ingeniously-analog distribution method. Her zine Eggwich which can be bought through bubble-gum machines placed throughout the city. The 4.5 cm wide books are placed in small plastic capsules; each is hand-made and each has a different subject. When the reader inserts a coin, the machine randomly produces a small capsule of delight.[xxvi]
As we can see,
the culture of self-publishing in China seems to fulfill a number of different
roles, from the exploration of form, to encouraging young people to engage in
self-expression, to forging communities out of disparate constellations of
outsiders, to radical organizing and finally to challenging the authoritative
nature of the book itself. With four very active publishing ecologies in Beijing,
Shanghai, the PRD and Hong Kong, with key actors such as abC, UNFOLD and
Booked, Jiazazhi, Bananafish, Dreamer FTY, Vitamin Creative Space, Kubrick,
Special Comics, Tabula Rasa, and Ping Pong Comics, from Xu Bing to Chihoi,
there is a well-developed infrastructure for everything from obscure music
publications to best-selling indie comics, all which has become even more
accessible through online platforms providing a level of access to distribution
that the first American zinesters in the 1960s could never have dreamed of. The
rise of self-publishing culture also nicely coincides nicely with government
initiatives to strengthen the creative industries and encourage private
entrepreneurship amongst youth, and there is no doubt that many will transform
their talents into viable brands and careers. Furthermore, we can see that today
just as much as it was true during the times of the literati scholars,
self-publishing culture is an integral part of the identity of both the cultural
elite and emerging design-forward youth culture, who use self-publishing as a
way to find friends, sharpen their skills, and transmit their thoughts to the
[i] McDermott, Joseph, A Social History of the Chinese Book: Books and Literati Culture in Late Imperial China (Understanding China: New Viewpoints on History and Culture, Hong Kong University Press, 2006, p. 11.
[ii] Discussing the work of artist Wang Meng, scholar Brigitta Augustin describes how the individual meanings of text and image were mutually reinforcing. “Wang Meng’s fan painting . . . [presents] an early example of the innovative dualism of ‘painted poem’ and ‘written painting’ in which picture and poem are mutually dependent in style and content. The pictorial component can and should be read as part of Wang’s poem . . . eventually, painting poem and calligraphy became integrated, at times to the point where each one breathed the sense of the others and was essential to the spiritual meaning of the work as a whole.”
[iii] Excerpt from, Shu: Reinventing Books in Contemporary Chinese Art, (exhibition catalog), an exhibition curated by Wu Hung
[v] Gu’s Stone Steles series also explores this authority of the text, the steles being stone tablets carved with important historical stories and dictates largely used to inform the commoners of the importance various authority figures.
[vi] Books have strong persuasive power and can cause much more damage than a paper cut, writes critic Yeung Yang in his essay on semi-autonomous zine publishing. The arrival of durable paper centuries ago was seen as a threat to the royal courts. Any paper bearing messages [were] to be burnt immediately after being read. Books were not preferred forms of documentation but feared for their permanence.
[vii] Xia, Li, “A KIND OF TRUE LIVING: THE ART OF AI WEIWEI” 活着并真实着：艾未未的艺术,” artforum.cn, 2007, (last accessed May 19 https://artforum.com.cn/inprint/200706/pagenum=3/43#)
[viii] Li, Suchao, “Feature: The Art of Books—Contemporary Artists’s Books in China, “Zhuanti| ‘shu’ zhiyishu—zhongguo dangdai yishujiashu’”, “专题 | 《”书“之艺术-中国当代艺术家书》” 1933 Contemporary Public WeChat Account, 1933当代艺术空间, August 7, 2015, (last accessed May 20, 2019 https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s?__biz=MzAwNTAyNzE2Nw==&mid=207890275&idx=2&sn=a21958f996d859fe5b47300120812ec3&chksm=12b2635325c5ea45623b4d01d5ad9e64597af3596f5bbf0a86bf44aaba63db544a6c5f0661c4&mpshare=1&scene=1&srcid=0516DmXm3VFHNG0spGUfygGU#rd)
[ix] Loney, Abrams, “China’s Underground Comic Scene Debuts at the Outsider Art Fair: Here the Curator Describes His Journey into the Clandestine Subculture,” artspace.com, January 17, 2019. (last accessed May 31st https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/qa/chinas-underground-comic-scene-debuts-at-the-outsider-art-fair-here-the-curator-describes-his-55892)
[x] Loney, Abrams, “China’s Underground Comic Scene Debuts at the Outsider Art Fair: Here the Curator Describes His Journey into the Clandestine Subculture,” artspace.com, January 17, 2019. (last accessed May 31st https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/qa/chinas-underground-comic-scene-debuts-at-the-outsider-art-fair-here-the-curator-describes-his-55892)
[xi] Yin, Yijun, “The Underground Artists Giving China Comic Relief,” Sixth Tone, June 5, 2015, (last accessed June 7, 2019, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1002404/the-underground-artists-giving-china-comic-relief)
[xii] “Using the Products of Publishing to Open Up the Possibilities of the City,”[translation mine]“yong chubanwu dakai chengshi de kenengxing: 2019abC beijing yishu shu zhan,” “用出版物打开城市的可能性 | 2019abC北京艺术书展” abC official WeChat account, May 20, 2019 (last accessed May 23, 2019
[xiii]Heather, “A Zine Produced by Two Girls from Beijing Intimately Captures the Food Ecology of Beijing,” [translation mine], “Zhe liang bejing nuahai’er zuo le ben zui jie diqi de meishi zazhi,”“这俩北京女孩儿做了本最接地气的美食杂志,” vice.cn, December 23, 2018, (last accessed June 8, 2019, http://www.vice.cn/read/these-two-Beijing-girls-made-the-most-down-to-earth-gourmet-zine)
[xiv] Sun, Emma, “New Beijing Missionary Mag Goes Deep on LBGT Culture in China, “radichina.com, January 16, 2019, (last accessed June 3, 2019, https://radiichina.com/new-beijing-mag-missionary-goes-deep-on-lgbtq-culture-in-china/
[xv] Aimee Lin, “Exploring the Possibilities of Publishing,” “tantao chuban kenengxing,” “探讨出版的可能性, “www.goethe.de, 2015 (last accessed May 31, 2019, https://www.goethe.de/ins/cn/zh/kul/mag/20615883.html)
[xvi] Su, Fei, “In the end, Bananafish is Not the Small World of Just Two People, or the Dream of Just Two People,”[translation mine] “xiangjiaoyu zuizhong buhui shi lianggeren de shijie, bu hui shi liangge ren de mengxiang,””香蕉鱼最终不会是两个人的世界，不会是两个人的梦想” Bananafish Official Wechat Account (last accessed June 10, 2010 https://freewechat.com/a/MjM5NTMxMDY2NA==/2653504997/1?raw
[xvii] ShivaD, “‘Fengfo’: Young Artists Freely Expressing Themselves”[trans mine] “’Fenghuo: Nianqing yishujia de ziyou chuangzuo,”《冯火》：年轻艺术家的自由创作,” Mauisine Official WeChat account 杂食, published on zhuanlan.zhihu.com, August 18, 2016, (last accessed May 20 https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/22043503)
[xix] Hu Fang, “New Species of Spaces,” e-Flux Journal #11, December 2009, (last accessed May 20, 2019, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/11/61348/new-species-of-spaces/
[xx] By contrast, the Drag Queen Storytime event hosted by Toronto Public Libraries invites drag queens into the library to read stories to children in order to foster tolerance and diversity. (Last accessed June 2, 2019, https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/search.jsp?N=37867&Ns=p_pub_date_sort&Nso=0&Ntt=Drag%20Queen%20Storytime)
[xxi] Li, Jason, “Ping Pong—the collective comics magazine,” Leap, August 16, 2015, (last accessed June 3, 2019 http://www.leapleapleap.com/2015/08/ping-pong-the-collective-comics-magazine/)
[xxii] Gasser, Christian, “Introduction,” in The Library by Chihoi, Conundrum International (publisher website), May 2013, (last accessed June 3, 2019, https://www.conundrumpress.com/new-titles/the-library/)
[xxiii] Li, Jason, “Ping Pong—the Collective Comics magazine,” Leap, August 16, 2015, (last accessed June 3, 2019 http://www.leapleapleap.com/2015/08/ping-pong-the-collective-comics-magazine/)
[xxiv] Li, Jason, “Ping Pong 4: Cataloguing Explorations Through Illustration” 88 Bar (blog), (last accessed May28, 2019 https://88-bar.com/2019/01/ping-pong-4-cataloguing-explorations-through-illustration/)
[xxv] From a promotional video produced by Kubrick for the “Hi, Mini Zine, 4-Cities Touring: Hong Kong Exhibition” in 2018, Facebook, (last accessed May 28, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/housebykubrick/videos/911669395682911/)
[xxvii] There are two notable exhibitions of book art worth mentioning as an addendum for anyone interested in further delving into the topic of book art. 1. “Read/View | Print, and Release,” 1933 Contemporary, Shanghai, curator: Wang Yiquan, 2015. Participating artists and publishers include yuet nam by Lin Aojie and Zhu Jianlin; Fongfo monthly magazine by Fong Wai King, Zhu Jianlin, Ce Yijie; WTF zine by Nathan Zhou; PDF by Lu Pingyuan, Hu Yun, Li Mu, Jiazazhi by Yan You; Pulsasir by Fen Lei; and Bananafish Books by Qing &Wei. This exhibition focused on China’s artist zine culture, and included magazines such as WTF zine丢哪zine—a hand-drawn and photocopied magazine by former art-critic-turned artist Nathan Zhou 奶粉周. The zine includes hand-painted sections so that each copy is unique. [xxvii] Zhou describes the colorful almost naïve magazine as a reaction against utopianism. From exhibition press release, 1933 Contemporary, (last accessed May 20, 2019 http://www.1933contemporary.com/Portal/en-US/Exhibition/Detail/df006bbd-ef63-6f45-2284-bf24acc8bb3f) 2. “Diamond Leaves: The Second Exhibition of Artists’ Books from around the World,” CAFA Art Museum, Beijing, curator, artist Xu Bing and Marshal Webber, directing curator of Brooklyn (artist-run center), 2012, and 2015 Xu Bing, Chris Wainwright, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Head of Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon colleges. These triennials revolve around the dual purpose of showcasing both Chinese and international book art including works from Salvador Dali, to Bruce Nauman, to Dieter Roth, and other milestones in the history of bookmaking. In the 2015 edition, 40% of the books presented were from Chinese artists. The 2015 Exhibition also featured two satellite exhibitions, one focusing on pop-up books and another, “Handmade Book Designs for Nobel Prize-Wining Literature,” showcasing Swish artists. In 2012, the first Triennale included an invitational element showcasing 50 Chinese book works in addition to international collections. The exhibition featured sections on “Ancient Chinese Culture,” “Traditional European Book Culture,” and “Dreamland Bookstore” a mobile bookstore featuring zines from various countries. [xxvii]