Artists Books
Penny Nii, Pic-To-Word
Penny Nii, Pic-To-Word
Penny Nii, Pic-To-Word
Penny Nii, Pic-To-Word

I have been collecting ancient pictographs and ideograms from Chinese and Japanese sources for many years. I used some of the collection to make a small book. The hieroglyphs and ancient ideograms appear on the right-hand pages. On the left-hand pages are the corresponding images of the objects or concepts, together with the ideograms in use today. Some simple versions, printed in red, were used on cast bronze objects.

The book can be viewed by turning the pages; or by pulling the pages to become a flat, linear piece; or by standing the book up with the pages arranged in various ways.

Hieroglyphs to Ideograms

Chinese writing, also adopted by the Japanese who labeled it kanji, has its roots in hieroglyphs from about 4000 years ago. Hieroglyphs, or pictographs (picto: picture and graph: writing),represent what the objects look like, so fish was  and moon was .  Over time the pictures began to convey abstract ideas and concepts beyond just a simple representation of objects. Called ideograms, the concepts were usually made up of multiple hieroglyphs. For example, , a combination of sun and moon, represented the concept ‘illumination’.

About 3000 years ago, during the Shang dynasty, the writing was systematized. By this time the ideograms had become more abstract – from  to , for example. Inscriptions found from this period show two distinct writing styles that developed in parallel. One style, found on flat bones and tortoise shells, is called the Bone style or Oracle bone style. After shamans posed questions to deities, bones were thrown into a fire. The cracklings on the bones were interpreted and the interpretation etched on the bones. The other style of inscriptions, called the Metal style, is found on ceremonial bronze vessels used for ancestor worship. The writing was first carved on clay or wax then cast.

Why the two styles? The materials on which words are inscribed and the implements used to inscribe them have a great influence on the appearance of writing. The stones and chisels used by the Romans did not encourage flowing lines and graceful curves but the papyrus and reed used by the Egyptians did. The Bone style is linear and with sharp angles, a style easy to etch with crude implements on hard bones and shells. (See the front cover for some examples.)  Since bronze casts were first molded in clay, the Metal style is more solid and curvaceous. (See the back cover.)

Pic-to-Word is about ancient writings in the Bone and the Metal styles. What about writings with the brush, calligraphy, for which the Chinese and the Japanese are famous?

Based on images on pottery chards from 5000 years ago, it is evident the brush was in use from a very early time. But there is no further evidence of brush usage until 2000 years later. It is known that the text written on the oracle bones and bronzes were written with a brush before being etched or cast.  But it was not until the invention of paper, in 49 A.D., that brush writing came to the fore. Paper was less expensive and took less labor to produce. Soon writing became not just a means of communication, but an art form, calligraphy. The forms of the ideograms became as important as their meaning.

The standard style of ideogram used in the modern press is based on a writing style using the brush. For example, in the ideogram for ‘moon,’ 月, we can see the left stroke begins with the brush being pushed down. The same stroke ends with the gradual lifting of the brush that tapers to the left.  In this book I use a non-standard, informal style that I think matches the ancient writing styles better.  So in this book ‘moon’ is written 月.


I have always been fascinated with the ancient writing styles and their evolution into modern kanji.  One day I found a book on the subject in a used bookstore in Tokyo. I can’t quite read the archaic writing, but I did decipher that it was published in 1925 and says “not for sale”. The title of the book is Characters and Their Foundation, and I think the author’s name is Katsushiro Rihei.  (The pronunciations of ideograms in Japanese names are very ambiguous often leading to embarrassing situations.) The ideograms were scanned from this book.

Other sources are: The 26 Lettersby Oscar Ogg for multi-cultural story of written characters; an issue of a Chinese book/magazine about the aesthetic foundations of Chinese ideograms; and Playing with Ancient Characters, a craft book (in Japanese) by Kouro Fukasawa. I also found an informative article in a website

Penny Nii
October 2003, San Francisco

3″h x 4″w when closed
3″h x 20″w when opened.

Pictographs, Chinese/Japanese ideograms, drawings. A small informational booklet about the Bone and the Metal styles of ancient Chinese writing.

A variation on accordion/concertina structure. When opened fully, the pages form a wall.

Gocco prints.



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