Some Unique Properties of the Jiance

The jiance, developed in seventh century China, is a clear example of the influence of the form of a book on its content.These early books were made from strips of bamboo which, once filled with text, were tied together to form a mat which could be rolled up for storage and portability (Borsuk 25). These strips were too narrow to fit more than one character horizontally, so they were written from top to bottom (26). Ideographic characters also took on a vertical orientation, with, for example, animals depicted on their hindlegs (27). The narrow ‘page’ space influenced not only the characters but the style of writing, which was necessarily laconic (Wu). Concise diction and the direction of writing and reading were direct results of the jiance’s construction.

As an artist, I also found the form of the jiance intriguing because of the unique possibilities it holds for illustration. The side-by-side arrangement of the strips and the page-like boundaries between them might be treated as a multi-page sketchbook spread—where the facing recto and verso pages are treated as a continuous surface—or exploited to create a polyptych work of multiple related images. The restricted space of each strip also presents a field for experimentation: an artist could draw vertical subjects or draw in miniature, s/he could work up a narrow strip of a subject, cropping the rest from the frame made by the strip, or play with distortion to fit entire subjects on a single ‘page.’

A triptych painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. The strips of a jiance might be illustrated in a similar fashion, with each strip treated as its own panel.
A miniature painting by artist Karen Libecap. An incredibly detailed illustration can be produced in a small space (the painting above is 1.25 inches square), comparable to that available on the narrow strips of the jiance. These early Chinese books might make an interesting substrate for a collection of miniature art.

In addition to the restricted space, the jiance is also unique in its audibility. An often-overlooked property of books—a property which might be easily manipulated in the jiance—is the sound they make. When you turn the page of a typical book, it scrapes against its neighbours, you hear your finger slide against it, sometimes it buckles or crackles, and we don’t usually notice these noises or consider them as purposeful contributions to the experience of a book. I imagine the traditional jiance, being made from bamboo slats, would rattle as it was unrolled, but an artist might experiment with different materials to produce different sounds. What about using metal or glass to mimic wind-chimes? Or maybe a variety of materials in one book?

The sound of the book and its capacity for illustration are aspects an artist might experiment with using not only the jiance, but any form of book. I think these are two areas (there are probably more) of which contemporary books are not usually conscious; how the sound of a book might add to its content, or in what ways the form of a book can be used to create illustrations are questions not usually asked of the common book. I don’t mean to say that every book ought to be illustrated, or noisome, but there is an opportunity open to play with those facets if they might contribute to the book as an artwork.

Works Cited

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. The MIT Press, 2018, pp. 25-28.

Gallen-Kallela, Akseli. Aino Myth. 1891. Tampereen Taidemuseo, Tampere. Wikimedia Commons, Accessed Sep 2021.

Libecap, Karen. Elk. N.d. Karen Libecap, Accessed Sep 2021.

Wu, K. T. “The Chinese Book: Its Evolution and Development,” T’ien Hsia Monthly, vol. 3, no. 1, 1936, pp. 25-33,

4 thoughts on “Some Unique Properties of the Jiance”

  1. I am very intrigued by your idea of the book as audible! Usually, if I think of what I “hear” from a book, I consider the text, but never the book object itself, with its pages, spine, etc. all contributing to the audible experience. Audibility adds yet another layer of complexity to the book, once again questioning our comfortable conventions of what a book “is,” “can be,” and “should be.” The jiance is especially interesting because it adds art to this mix as well.

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  2. Some really wonderful connections and reflections here, Oli. I love how you use the jiance to speculate about the sensory dimension of the book as object–not just visual, not just tactile, but aural. When it’s time for your book object assignment, I hope you’ll have the time to entertain some of these possibilities (metal or glass, to mimic wind chimes!)

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  3. Great observations!
    The material certainly brings an aspect to the book as object conception. The small pieces of artwork or panels could easily illustrate a story or stimulate thought about our ideas, and the bamboo book would certainly have its own influence on how these conceptions might be presented. Further, I had not thought about the audible qualities of book material. I certainly can bring to mind the sound of flipping through pages of our modern codex at several speeds, lightly ripping a page accidentally, or the dropping of a book onto a table. How much does this influence my experience as a reader is difficult to assess, but it brings to the front the possibilities for artists taking this aspect to their advantage.

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  4. I also found jiance to be one of the book’s most interesting and earliest forms. I like how you discuss the unique possibilities that this book form holds for illustration. Personally, I found it interesting how traditional Chinese writing, which was inscribed from top to bottom with a column of single characters, and text which continued to the left, arose directly from the books’ materiality. I think this writing form also models a unique type of illustration in itself.

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