Studio Work / To Be
Pronounced shì in Mandarin, the Chinese character 是 is made up of two parts: 日 refers to the sun, and 正 means ‘proper’ or ‘correct’. 是 itself can mean ‘yes’, but its primary meaning is ‘to be’.
In its Standard (K’ai-shu) script form, 是 is written with nine brush strokes. This is in contrast to its English counterparts like ‘am’, ‘is’, and ‘are’—all of which are written with a minimal number of letters. To me, this speaks poetically to the importance of this Chinese character—and the fundamental existential concept that underlies it.
As a child, 是 was one of the first Chinese characters I learnt to write. This makes sense because it is, by virtue of its meaning, a common character that appears in most sentences. In fact, it appears to be the third most common Chinese character according to this source.
Unlike its counterpart in other languages, 是 is gender-neutral and can be used in conjunction with subjects that are either singular or plural. It is also free of the constraints of time: you can use it for past tense, present tense, future tense, and every other tense in between.
In other words, 是 is both inclusive and timeless in every way.
When I began this journey as a visual artist, To Be was the first painting that I completed, using black acrylic paint on cotton canvas. As I painted it, I had in mind something that I had written back in 2013: ‘We weep because we love. We love because we are.’
As I reflect on this now, I’m pleased that To Be was my first.
After all, to be is the prelude to everything. Before we think, do, say, love, or hope, we must first…be.
The same day we hung up that first painting in our living room, my mother visited us in the afternoon. She took off her shoes, came inside, walked down the corridor, and immediately noticed the painting. She turned around to look at me and asked me a question in Cantonese that made me smile:
‘Ho Yee, do you know that’s the Chinese character 是?’
‘To Be’ will be released as a series in spring. If you would like to be notified, please subscribe to the newsletter. If you have any questions, please email me at email@example.com or leave a comment below.