The Sinograph in Digital Language Art


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date1 Dec 2022


Developments in technology have generated wide-ranging opportunities for reading and manipulating language in the digital environment. The possibilities afforded by these technologies have been applied in a wide variety of commercial products, and have furthermore been explored by artists, writers, and coders who work with text. How, though, can this crucially important field of contemporary art best be studied? Over the past two decades, several models and theories have emerged as productive tools for studying digital text. These can be distinguished by their focus: on semiotic analysis (Simanowski 2011), on formal textual properties (Aarseth 1997; Wardrip-Fruin 2008; Seiça 2012), or on some combination of the two (Hayles 2008; Strehovec 2010). For example, Simanowski (2011) examines the function of alphabets in text-based interactive installations and differentiates works into alphabetic (literary) or post-alphabetic (non-literary) types according to the semantic values of their letters. Aarseth (1997), on the other hand, focuses on the formal properties of textual artifacts. He postulates the existence of “scriptons” and “textons”, the former being written signs that audiences can read, and the latter representing textual data units processed by the software.

By applying different models to sinograph-based works, this dissertation will locate the affordances of sinographs for making digital language art. It will also examine if existing theories can fully address the specificities of digital sinographs: the system of sinographic writing is not a synthesis of a limited set of standardized letters, and, as a logographic system, sinographs may still retain semantic values at the subcharacter-level in the form of character components or strokes. These factors could affect the division of alphabetic and post-alphabetic works by Simanowski, or the separation of texton and scripton by Aarseth. In the field of literary studies, some research has already been done on sinographic works, such as examining the affordances of the sinograph in visual poems (Bruno 2012), applying Aarseth’s model to non-digital Chinese literature (T. K. Lee 2015b, 2017), and scrutinizing a specific form of sinographic presentation like digital calligraphy (Yeh 2011). However, a rigorous study focusing on non-alphabetic, sinograph-based, digital language art is still pending.

This thesis attempts to address that important gap in the research, investigating the unique affordances of sinographs – whether simplified or traditional Chinese, or Japanese kanji – in digital language art, and producing a list of those affordances, showing how sinographs can be made use of in this genre. I achieve this by closely examining the formal structure, representation, and interpretation of the sinograph in existing works according to the following methodology. Firstly, I examine where the focus of attention in the work is located, whether on the character or subcharacter-level, or both. Secondly, I analyze the interpretative affordances. Do they derive from perceptible semantic meaning in the materials? Are they drawn instead from non-literary, visual or aural, factors? Are there other meaning-making possibilities that emerge, for example via interaction? Lastly, I consider whether the specificities of the work are unique to the sinographic language in which it was authored, or if similarities are shared with alphabet-based counterparts.

Through this examination, I explore the following questions. What are the conditions of possibility for perceiving, appropriating, reading, and interpreting the dynamic characters of sinographic digital language art? What are the digital specificities of the sinograph and how do they influence both artists and readers in the creation and reception of works? How do artists create such works using the affordances unique to this non-alphabetical writing system? The answers to these queries will add to the body of work on sinographs in digital language art and aid in their further understanding and use.