City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Drawing with sight and sound

Written in



I thought the following was an interesting observation by director Ang Lee (from the January 2008 edition of Sight & Sound magazine). Interesting in relation to the idea of an almost synaesthetic approach to visual representation via information-dense icons &c.:

Nick James: There’s a beautiful little book by Donald Richie that explains Japanese aesthetics. I wish there was an equivalent for the Chinese.

Ang Lee: There’s a huge difference between people who use phonetics for language transcription and those who use characters, as in China. The Chinese system is more like movies, like montage, like drawing with sight and sound. The shape itself means something, so when you see the word it resonates in your head. When the Chinese see Lust, Caution in characters with the comma in between it has a shocking vibe.

(Incidentally, I’d suggest that there is a good book on Chinese aesthetics by François Juillen, called In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics, as well as the catalogue to the extraordinary ‘China: The Three Emperors’ exhibition. And I suspect a better book on some specific aspects of Japanese aesthetics than Richie’s, alongside numerous architectural texts, would be Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. Any other recommendations for either?)

(That issue of Sight & Sound also features an excellent essay on the hyper-specific genre of 1930s British movies set on foreign trains: "For The Lady Vanishes, Alfred Hitchcock invented a quirkily archetypal version of the English abroad with a steam train, light banter, cricket obsessives, tweedy spies and phallic symbols", by Graham Fuller. I note also that two noir classics of a decade or so later, Night and the City and Cry of the City, have been properly released on DVD by the BFI, though see also the Criterion edition of Night and the City)

Sight & Sound: Cruel Intentions: Ang Lee


3 responses to “Drawing with sight and sound”

  1. Paul Mison Avatar

    A month or two ago I read Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Vs The Goddess, which proposes (amongst other things) that the shift from early (phonetic/pictorial) writing to the alphabet (by the Hebrews and Greeks) led to a change in the way people and societies think, making them more left-brained (and hence more linear, less pictorial, and more patriarchal).
    There’s actually a great deal in the book to unpack, so I’d say it’s well worth seeking out, even if you find you don’t agree with all his ideas. He doesn’t cover Chinese nor Japanese writing much, though, which did feel like a bit of an omission.


  2. Paul Schütze Avatar

    Actually the Richie book is excellent and where Tanaziki’s is perhaps an elegant rant it is wide ranging in a way probably impossible for a Japanese writing at the same time. Juilian’s book is remarkable and should be read in conjunction with The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China which devotes some space specifically to writing and calligraphy.
    I read Shlain’s book and was completely perplexed by the omission of either Chinese or Japanese traditions. Like discussing the language of contemporary cinema and neglecting to mention the evolution of the music video. Very poor.


  3. Avatar

    As a longtime Japanese speaker/reader, I’ve wondered about this without successfully finding an answer to the symbolic/phonetic language divide.
    Just last week in the New Yorker, Caleb Crain wrote about the effect on culture of the decrease in reading [which is being supplanted by television]. Based on cognitive development researchers’ work, he looked at the premise that reading is not a natural/evolved human activity, and that it’s different neurologically from watching something unfold.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: