The complexity of language is often studied by linguists, theorists, literary scholars and the like. It’s rare to see the visual parameters of a dialect brought to life in the visual realm – which is why Chinese-born and New York-based artist Zoe Cui’s new project Women in Chinese Characters is so special. As a designer with a multicultural background, Zoe was first inspired to create the project because of her passion for cross-cultural communication, language studies, typography and feminist design. “Being a young Chinese woman myself, I was deeply troubled by the pervasive issues of misogyny and gender stereotypes that continue to plague Chinese society,” Zoe tells It’s Nice That on the exhibition. “Therefore, I wanted to use design as an approach to address these issues and bring them to the international platform using visuals as a bridge.”
The exhibition itself details all the female ‘radical’ characters of Chinese, which is 477 in total. Each is presented awash in deep reds, blacks and whites. “A radical is a structural part of a Chinese character, which functions as the semantic indicator,” Zoe explains. “The female radical is used in characters associated with femininity, such as mother (妈) and she(她), but most of the female radical characters have either negative or stereotypical connotations, such as envy(嫉妒), slave(奴), evil(奸), whore(妓).” Interestingly, Zoe points out to us that there is no ‘male radical’ in Chinese, and rather the counterpart of the ‘female radical’ is the ‘human radical’, “which I found particularly problematic”, she says. Within the exhibition, characters highlighted in red are biased, and the ones in black are neutral words. “By taking the concept of language from the auditory realm into a visual space, the exhibition makes it impossible to visually ignore these cultural problems,” Zoe explains. “The audience don’t necessarily have to understand Chinese, the colour ratio is like a data visualisation which speaks for itself.”
As a cross-cultural communication project, Zoe largely hopes the exhibition encourages visitors from different cultural backgrounds to reflect critically on their own cultural assumptions and biases. “Sometimes I see issues that Chinese native speakers never would have noticed, such as the misogynistic nature in the daily use of the characters,” she says, relating back to her own experience. “Thus, I decided to examine the Chinese language from a third person perspective, and discuss how the language itself is perpetuating gender bias in Chinese society.”
Presented in a stunning array of various mediums (motion graphic video, a publication and a visual space), the exhibition is wholly immersive. There are writings of 20 young Chinese women on display and by “amplifying the voices of Chinese women”, Zoe says, “the exhibition aims to promote greater understanding and empathy for the challenges faced by women in Chinese society”. Ultimately, the exhibition is not simply about showcasing the radical characters of the language. Instead, it’s all about how Zoe’s visualisation of the said language can invite audiences to establish a connection to the real women of China today.
Yu (Zoe) Cui: Women in Chinese Characters (Copyright © Yu [Zoe] Cui, 2023)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. They were part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.