Book of Bianwen

Artist: Chen Chieh-Jen
installation, object, video | 2014

Literary historians usually divide the history of Chinese narrative novel into four stages: first, records of the strange (zhiguai) and of men (zhiren) during Wei, Jin, and Northern and Southern dynasties (220–589); second, Tang dynasty (618–907) stories of the marvelous (chuanqi); third, vernacular stories (huaben) from Song dynasty (960–1279); fourth, novels in chapters (zhanghui) from Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. Tang dynasty was key to the emergence of huaben vernacular stories: at the time, classical Chinese prose (wenyan) was popular among the literati class, and in reaction, a new vernacular style – transformation text (bianwen) – took hold among the populace. Bianwen was created to spread Buddhist teachings to the layman. Monks preached Buddhist stories using narration and song, in a way simple enough for ordinary people to understand. These popular lectures (sujiang) in writing were called bianwen. The form became immensely popular and gradually shed its Buddhist tones, transforming into vernacular art forms – folk literature, opera and story-singing (shuochang) – that reflect Chinese social realities. Yet, bianwen only became known in China in 1907, when English scholar Aurel Stein, French sinologist Paul Pelliot and others illegally bought Buddhist manuscripts and documents found by Daoist priest Wang Yuanlu hidden in the Sutra Cave at Dunhuang Grottoes. This discovery gave literary historians a better understanding of why huaben novellas became popular during Song, and the origins of numerous singing and storytelling forms. Chen Chieh-jen’s Transformation Text is a creative reimagining of bianwen. Not only has he extended the significance of bianwen into contemporary art by transforming, translating and rewriting contemporary realities via audio-visual narrative; in keeping with the nature of bianwen, he has also formed a collection of his audio-visual creation over the last decade by reassembling blueprints of social production, photographic records, symbolic objects and texts, video clips, and a temporary movie theatre as a three dimensional spatial book with six chapters: 1. History of the Production of Folk Culture; 2. Labour History; 3. Ridding “The New Cold War”; 4. Temporary Communities; 5. Social University; 6. Self-reliance.


The 10th Shanghai Biennale - Social Factory | 2014.11.23 - 2015.03.31 | Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum(Shanghai, China)