Xu Bing’s ‘Phoenix’ fills a football-field-sized room at Mass MoCA.
Xu Bing’s ‘Phoenix’ fills a football-field-sized room at Mass MoCA. (Courtesy of Mass MoCA)

Do contemporary Chinese poets create new pictographs the way e.e. cummings created new words?

Curator Susan Cross and I looked at each other, on a spring afternoon not yet mudluscious spring afternoon, and we wondered. We were standing under Xu Bing's "Phoenix" birds, talking about his calligraphy. Mass MoCA will open an exhibit of his "Square Word Calligraphy" and other works in honor of his visit this weekend. In "Square Words," he has invented characters that look like Chinese script, that English speakers can read.

Turning a word into a pictogram sounds to me like turning a word into a short poem, illustrating its meaning. If I could think an English word into one character, how would the word change?

A chance encounter earlier that week helped me to understand how a Chinese character evolves. At the Bookstore in Lenox, I had run across David Hinton's "Hunger Mountain: a Field Guide to Mind and Landscape." Hinton, a longtime translator of Chinese poetry, writes that the Chinese graph for sincerity is made up of one stroke like a side view of a person walking and a stack of strokes like a stack of books, meaning words rising out of a mouth. Together, they imply that "if we are sincere, our outer thoughts are the same as our inner thoughts."

I hadn't known: A Chinese character is made of shapes. Each shape comes from a natural image, sound, movement. And the shapes combine or come apart to suggest new ideas.

So -- do Chinese writers today evolve new characters?

Do you know a Chinese poet I can ask?