La grande muraille

Year: 1991

Author: Lu Xun (1881 - 1936)

Artist: Shirley Sharoff (*1936)

Publisher: Shirley Sharoff

Shirley Sharoff, La grande muraille (1991)

Shirley Sharoff was born in New York, and has been living in Paris since 1961; she worked in Beijing for a year in 1987-1988 at the Central Institute of Finance and Banking as an English teacher. After her stay there, she produced La grande muraille: the Great Wall of China.

She worked on the design of La grande muraille with typographer François Da Ros. Different-sized lengths of paper are glued together to form a roll nearly seven metres long. Instead of being folded like an accordion, theconcertina book'spaper is folded in a spiral. Sharoff calls this a 'forme en escargot' (snail-shell). In order for the texts to be read, the book first must be rolled out. According to the artist, when stood up straight and viewed from above, it forms a wall of paper thatresembles the labyrinth inside the Ancient Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) outsideBeijing. Erosion was one of the main themes that Sharoff used for this book.


The Arches paper used for this edition has been decorated with a printed pattern that verges on the abstract. It is based on a manuscript that has been photocopied several times in succession, which has made it illegible. This pattern of minuscule figures has also been used to decorate the slipcase. A second 'manuscript' in this edition is a text by Lu Xun, which was rendered as calligraphy by Zhu Jie and was subsequently reproduced.


The Chinese writer Lu Xun strongly championed the innovation of Chinese literature. He wrote a short essay (1925/26) as an indictment against unbending, traditional thought patterns amongst his peers who – paradoxically – referred to themselves as 'modern'. This text is not only about the actual Great Wall of China, but also about the wall as a symbol of the ancient Chinese traditions. It has been printed – in Zhu Jie's ideograms – on both sides of the concertina book. English and French translations have been added to the Chinese text, set in the Athenaeum typeface. It is striking that the translations are not always in synch with the original text, which results in an alienating, contrasting effect. Besides Lu Xun's trilingual essay, this edition also contains short English texts by Sharoff's Chinese students. These are fragments of autobiographical notes on lack of freedom and on tradition, like for example youth without childhood, growing up under Mao, the image of foreigners in books and television programmes. Sharoff refers to these personal texts as 'new bricks'. These bricks seem to have been loosely placed inside the wall as a comment on the wall's diminishing solidity and its transitory nature. (It also brings to mind the labourers who, according to myth, were interred inside the wall.) Lu Xun's voice of protest has been inscribed with calligraphic figures. He described the wall, which offers no defence against invaders, as a relic. He felt hemmed in by it and resisted its permanent restoration: 'When shall we stop reinforcing the Great Wall with new bricks?' It would be better to let it erode…

Texture of bricks

La grande muraille contains eight copper engravings by Shirley Sharoff. The etchings are divided into four or five pieces, their textures mirroring that of bricks. The first four etchings were printed in one colour, first in blue, then in terracotta, brown and purple. The form of the etchings was based on the Great Wall's entry gates. The last four etchings are polychrome: combinations of two different shades, like purple and brown. According to Sharoff, they were parts of the wall that had broken off and were later re-used in other buildings. Sharoff therefore depicts the wall first as an indestructible building, and then as a monument that is slowly being worn down. The etchings therefore support Lu Xun's vision.

Images and films of the KB copy

For an exploration of the KB copy, see Robert Bolick's blog on 'Books on Books': 'Bookmarking Book Art, Learning to readShiley Sharoff's "La grande muraille"' (17 June 2018).

Bibliographical description

Description: La grande muraille = The great wall = Changchang / Lu Xun ; [8 gravures orig. de] Shirley Sharoff ; [version française réalisée par Michelle Loi ; texte de Lu Xun calligraphié par Zhu Jie]. – [Paris] : [Shirley Sharoff], 1991. – Leporello (35 folio's) ; 25×13 cm

Printer: François Da Ros (tekst) René Tazé (etsen)

Edition: 85 copies

This copy: Number 13 of 75 on Arches apprêté, without suite

Typeface: Athenaeum

Note: Concertina book in altuglas (acrylic glass) cover, with slipcase by Bernard Duval. Signed by the artist. With prospectus.

Bibliography: Bénézit 12-732

Shelfmark: KW Koopm L 508


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