Xu Tan (徐坦)



 “Eight”, Collectivism, “Sub-beliefs”

“Eight” has been a popular lucky number in China for the past twenty years or so. But the reason for this popularity isn’t rooted in tradition. (The eight this essay refers to is different from the traditional eight Chinese characters, in different combinations, indicating the time of the birth of a person). Instead, it came from a much more recent source. In the 1980s, along with the opening up of the Chinese economy, the Cantonese, especially in Hong Kong culture began to assert a strong influence on mainland China. Since the Chinese character for “eight” in both Mandarin and Cantonese have a pronunciation similar to that of the Chinese character for “fortune”, with a vowel “a”, Hong Kong people believe “eight” represents “fortune”, implying development and prosperity, hence it is a lucky number. Gradually, the belief in “eight“ influenced people in different regions and classes in China. I think, in general, the Chinese speaking nation values development.

Thus, “eight” was transformed from an ordinary number to a lucky number bearing both ideology and collective belief. For instance, it’s been chosen by the central government to be the time for the Olympic Games opening ceremony (8:08PM, August 8, 2008). This example at least proves that phonetics alone can change people’s beliefs, and valid reasoning isn’t essential in establishing a belief of what’s lucky. I call this kind of belief “sub-beliefs.” Since they are a kind of collective consciousness, their production, distribution and acceptance (no matter whether they come from the top down or the bottom up) seems to be especially efficient in a social environment that values collectivism.

In Chinese, the word “yi shi” (perception, consciousness) exists only in the modern Chinese language. The two characters forming this word, “yi”(will,meaning, intention) and shi(awareness, understanding,mind), exist in traditional Chinese, both have Buddhist origins. When modern Chinese took shape in the early Twentieth Century, those two characters were put together to form the word “yi shi”. This Chinese word is usually translated as “consciousness” in English. In fact, it’s the other way around. The Chinese word can be seen as a word specifically created to translate the English word “consciousness”.

I believe that the meaning of “yi shi” has evolved in many different ways in the past 100 years. Here are some examples. In the phase “yi shi dao”, “yi shi” is a verb, meaning “be conscious of”, “be aware of” and “realize”. In the phases “si xiang yi shi” and “yi shi xing tai” (both should be translated as “ideology”), “yi shi” addresses mental activities, with a relatively strong implication of conceptual practices. In the phase “zi wo yi shi” (self perception), “yi shi” is irrational, implying how a person perceives himself or herself as a human being. Such perception is prior to any analysis. Used in the phases “qian yi shi” (subconsciousness), or “xia yi shi” (unconsciousness), it refers to the irrational parts of the mind or the overall consciousness. Compared with the “physical world”, “yi shi” is something that comes before reasoning, addresses overall human awareness and mental functions, also includes collective activities with common beliefs. Simply put, it means the combination of its two components, “yi” and “shi”.

Using language in a social situations brings changes in the acceptance of words. I believe the Chinese language has changed tremendously. After being used for a century, the Chinese word “yi shi” departed from the its original meaning, “consciousness”. Athough consciousness can still be translated as “yi shi”, a better translation would be “zhi jue”, instead of “yi shi” according to the modern meaning of both words. Although the original formation of the word was fundamentally Chinese with Buddhist influence, in the past 60-70 years, the word “yi shi” has always been popular, and was repeatedly used in various Chinese social situations. Its domain had been transfered from spiritual pursuits, to general mental activities and ideologies. Some believe this change was the result of contamination generated by previous ideological movements. We have to admit it’s a historical truth.

As an artist who’s always observing the development of Western “conceptual art”. I’ve been contemplating the significance of “concept” or “notion” for Chinese.

It’s been my understanding that in the Western world, modern linguistic investigation attempts to use language to speak of “correct ideas”, establish concepts, build up knowledge, continuously expand the effable parts of our mental activities. Materials acquired though perception and senses are broken down, analyzed, captured, deliberated upon and proven, in order to build up correct ideas. Conceptual activities are fundamental for such mental practice. Conceptual art, in turn, is the expansion of this culture.

First, I’ve always admire this great mental practice. On the other hand, I think what we usually call “Oriental way of thinking” (including Buddhism’s perception and mentality) was distinctly different. The latter doesn’t break down a question and submit it to detailed investigation. Instead, It addresses totality, views matters in a holistic and fluid fashion, while respecting the ineffable parts of consciousness. The traditional Chinese approach to mentality and perception consistently addresses an extreme uniformity of the various components of human perception and mentality. In modern Chinese, the word “yi shi” represents the synergy of both conceptual and perceptual elements that presides over human awareness. As far as I know, the English word “consciousness” roughly resembles the meaning of “yi shi” in modern Chinese, though it’s too vague. Maybe the function of “presiding over” isn’t too significant in Western mentality.

However, I believe that today, this mentality of “presiding over” has its significance.

In Chinese society, if a “correct” idea is accepted as a concept, it becomes “knowledge”. Though we all know knowledge is correct, it doesn’t necessarily command compliance. Instead, it’s usually packed and stored in our mind along with other knowledge. Only the knowledge recognized by our consciousness (including beliefs and sub-beliefs) are significant to our actions. For instance, the majority of Chinese think “freedom” is good. But it’s only fine when seen as “knowledge”, with little significance to our actions.

Addressed here is the idea that conception can’t depart from the general consciousness. It doesn’t exist independently nor does it have an established significance, and it depends on the state of consciousness. Conception, along with perception, become important criteria for observing conscious activities. To observe and express consciousness, both criteria are needed. Thus, Chinese tend to believe that emphasizing the significance of either conception or perception, is an act of mistaking the measurement tool for the object itself. There aren’t pure conceptual nor perceptional activities.

From this perspective, art is neither conceptual nor perceptional. Art belongs to consciousness. There isn’t pure conceptual art nor pure perceptional art. Emphasizing either is problematic.

Normal conceptual practice requires the support of our own biological environment – the basic physical and psychological conditions that make normal thinking possible. For instance, people with mental diseases find their ability to engage in mental practice challenged. Endocrine imbalance, drinking, drug abuse and emotional malfunction all jeopardize normal conceptual practice to a certain extent. Western philosophy represents the effort to eliminate those influences in the pursuit of pure, correct ideas and to establish concepts. As an art practitioner, according to my observation of social linguistic activities, I discovered that it’s nearly impossible to maintain a pure environment for “conceptual” practice by eliminating all “abnormal” physical or psychological influences of people’s consciousness. To coexist with these influences is the reality of consciousness. I.e, conceptual activities exist within consciousness.

There is another element that will influence the possibilities of conceptual practices. We say that academic practice demands a “serious academic attitude”, otherwise it would be invalid. I call it “mental expression”. The current society witnesses increasingly diversified “mental expressions” which influence the stability of conceptual activities.

When people speak, there are different “situations” and “emotions”. With different tones, expressions or the body language of the speaker, the same sentence, the same word, might convey completely different meanings. After the commencement of the “broadcasting era” (1930s) and before the launch of the “television era”(1980s), intonation was the indicator of the changes of social and political circumstances. People deciphered the “intention of the central government” through the tone of broadcasts. In the era of television, language and vision clearly act in synergy to establish and change social consciousness. From the acoustic perspective, intonation is a kind of social sound.

That’s also the reason for my work in the “keyword” project.

Investigating linguistic activities with multimedia is my recent focus. The approach of the “Keyword Project ” seems to be similar to the research and investigation of sociological  and scientific investigation. However, in essence, it’s different from linguistics, anthropology or sociology. For those disciplines, the objective of investigations is to acquire concepts and knowledge. But by asking questions, I am not pursuing a conclusion, but some noticeable “situations of words and phases” in our society. Questions are raised not to reach conclusions, but to start new questions. These “situations of words and phases” may not be “objectively universal”, but they are “noteworthy”. That’s the difference.

During the investigation of the previous Keyword Projects in Chinese speaking communities, I noticed that there is an intense tendency toward collectivism. The importance of common ground, and inter-dependency is addressed, while excessive individualism and independence is condemned. “Beliefs” are generated under mutual influences. Any deviation from mainstream values is opposed. And the notion that the value and interest of the whole is more important than that of an individual or of “justice” , is held high. Patriotism is also a representation of this form of collectivism. Patriotism serves as the overall benchmark of every moral judgement of the society, while “the interest of the nation” overwhelms any other value judgements. If someone has various appalling characteristics but “loves the country”, he/she can still find salvation. While the notions of “individual”, “freedom”, “democracy”, become the most unspeakable ideas. Plus, it’s always been so in the Chinese tradition.

The situation isn’t changing today. For instance, during a “Keywords” activity in Hong Kong,  we acquired a keyword, “herd phenomenon”.

We usually conduct ourselves in society according to certain beliefs that aren’t the result of rational consideration nor of independent thinking, but based on the overall “values” of society, generated during human interaction, and without a requirement of personal validation. That’s “sub-belief”. It’s a “sub” belief because the mass can also assert sufficient influence to make individuals give it up.In the environment that we are living, individual consciousness heavily depends on collective judgment. It’s a kind of value. I think that Chinese artists, consciously or unconsciously, are a part of this collective of “sub-belief”.

                                                                                                                                                      Xu Tan


(All images: Courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space, Text: Vitamin Archive)


[Further reading]


Xu Tan:Dictionary of Keywords, 2008


海报 poster

Xu Tan: Keywords School, Guangzhou, 2008


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Xu Tan: Keywords School – Venice Biennial, 2009


Keywords Cowin Globle (4) Keywords Cowin Globle (3)

Xu Tan: Keywords of Cowin Global, Qingdao, 2010


Social Plants &[20121026-1358444] IMG_2916IMG_9158

Xu Tan: Questions, Soil and “Socio-Botanic”, Guangzhou, 2013