I was teaching a course on writing systems in Chicago, and funding from a small grant allowed me to limit the class size. So we loaded into a van and visited museums in the area that house unique script artifacts. I also arranged for guest scholars and curators to talk to us about specific writing systems. One place on our itinerary was a museum at the University of Chicago, were we admired some rare Chinese “oracle bones.” These are bovine scapulae and tortoise plastrons carved with the earliest forms of Chinese writing.
The graduate student curator assigned to talk to us about the oracle bones was smart and conscientious. When asked “Doesn’t the Field Museum have any of these?” he sneered, “Oh no, those are ridiculous fakes,” which for me was the most interesting thing he said. What he didn’t know about is my quest to find appropriated and pseudo writing. The counterfeit oracle bones I eventually photographed at the Field Museum of Natural History are now among my prized items. My students have also contributed great finds to my growing collection: a pair of Wisconsin socks woven with fabricated Egyptian hieroglyphics (lots of birds!), a coin purse with gibberish Chinese characters embroidered on it, and a gorgeous azure silk-screened T-Shirt with an upside down Japanese poem.
My project on nonlinguistic uses of borrowed script and pseudo script has been interesting because it complicates any simple notions about appropriation. I’m finding that scripts from other languages are borrowed or approximated not only to defraud, as in the fake oracle bones case, but also for symbolic, aesthetic, indexical, decorative, iconographic and satirical purposes. Many writers have already ranted about the popularity of Chinese character tattoos, and how often these have been botched in their application. [Character goofs here.] I asked some of my students who had ill-considered tattoos if they cared that the writing was, well, mangled? Nope, most didn’t think it mattered since they can’t read it in any case, it just “looks cool.” This cool factor (or Orientalist exoticization) is condemned when young people do it, but for some reason the running, meaningless Japanese katakana syllabary, presented in columns of reverse mirror-image flowing green lines in The Matrix films, was not similarly subjected to negative censure.
It is easy for us to snicker at occasions when we see people playing with writing they can’t read, but Chinese artists themselves do it when they create nonexistent graphs for aesthetic and intellectual reasons. The artist Xu Bing, for example, made up thousands of unreadable characters and printed them in ersatz books and on yards of white cloth draped from the ceiling, confounding and greatly irritating his audiences. There are also, of course, numerous examples of script used in religious or cultural settings in which people are unable to read or pronounce it, but nevertheless, such writing has great symbolic value. Siddham script can’t be read by most Japanese but nevertheless it adorns much Japan-made Buddhist art. Fake oracle bones, bogus Mayan glyphs, and other types of unreadable writing have no value to epigraphers, but they tell us about the concerns, understandings and assumptions current among the people who make or consume them.