Spells for Bad Chinese: Ellipsis Process Blog

This blog post, by Diane Zhou, describes the creative process behind her comic Ellipsis

In 2016-2017, I spent a year living in Beijing. However, my Chinese was/is not that awesome, since I grew up in America and learned it as a foreign language. I blend in until I start speaking, the repeated moment of betrayal inevitably triggering interrogations about my origins. This state of cultural/linguistic purgatory led to the process that I used to create Ellipsis, a comic about a duck egg farmer who gets hit with mystical hail and becomes a deity.

To structure the plot, I used what Orion of Paradise Systems called “OCR Divination.” OCRs (Optical Character Readers) are supposed to be able to read and translate text from photos or live camera input. I tried using one to find my way around Beijing, but I realized that it sometimes doesn’t work that well. Instead, what it does well is find Chinese characters in photos that don’t contain any.

Eventually, I started trying it on random stuff. Here are some examples with photos I took in my parents’ hometowns in May 2017.

The plot of Ellipsis comes from one specific photo. The photo depicts a low glass table between a couch and a TV in my maternal grandparents’ home, with family photos encased under the glass.

Here’s how I performed OCR Divination on this photo:

I wrote down all the characters the OCR found and looked them up. Some of them still made no sense to me. To get a better understanding, I searched them all on Baidu images:

Something about the search results felt latently violent, showing me plump leeches or the effects of giant hail on watermelon patches.

After searching almost every character that the OCR generated for the original photo, I settled on a few that felt more concrete and built the story out of those. A sampling: 雹 (hail),咸 (salty),俪 (husband and wife),蛊 (legendary venomous insect),罱 (net for fishing or dredging in river),脏 (internal organs)。To emphasize the oblique relationship with Chinese language, I also used some of the found characters to structure the page layouts. This way, the characters influence the narrative abstractly, instead of being directly communicated in the text.



The name “OCR Divination” gets at my desire to find significance in the randomness generated by the machine. OCR doesn’t care about my sentimental feelings or diaspora angst, but it can give me a new way to approach them. It allows being bad at Chinese to fuel a generative process rather than being experienced only as inferiority or failure. I’d still like to get better at Chinese though.

You can find more of Diane Zhou's work at her personal website