Thomas KellyDec 23, 2023
The Inscription of Things
Writing and Materiality in Early Modern China
Columbia University Press 2023
Why would an inkstone have a poem inscribed on it? Early modern Chinese writers did not limit themselves to working with brushes and ink, and their texts were not confined to woodblock-printed books or the boundaries of the paper page. Poets carved lines of verse onto cups, ladles, animal horns, seashells, walking sticks, boxes, fans, daggers, teapots, and musical instruments. Calligraphers left messages on the implements ordinarily used for writing on paper. These inscriptions—terse compositions in verse or epigrammatic prose—relate in complex ways to the objects on which they are written.
Thomas Kelly develops a new account of the relationship between Chinese literature and material culture by examining inscribed objects from the late Ming and early to mid-Qing dynasties. He considers how the literary qualities of inscriptions interact with the visual and physical properties of the things that bear them. Kelly argues that inscribing an object became a means for authors to grapple with the materiality and technologies of writing. Facing profound social upheavals, from volatility in the marketplace to the violence of dynastic transition, writers turned to inscriptions to reflect on their investments in and dependence on the permanence of the written word. Shedding new light on cultures of writing in early modern China, The Inscription of Things: Writing and Materiality in Early Modern China (Columbia UP, 2023) broadens understandings of the links between the literary and the material.
Huijun Mai is an Assistant Professor in Medieval Chinese Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.