November 16, 2022
Thomas Kelly
Harvard University
The Matter of Inscription in Early Modern China
4 30 pm
202 Jones Hall
Cosponsored by the East Asian Studies Program

In addition to writing on paper with a brush and ink, seventeenth-century Chinese poets and calligraphers carved their words onto a wide range of objects, from vessels and weapons to musical instruments and desktop tools. Why did leading literary figures work to revivify this ancient form of writing upon things precisely when it was no longer seen as a reliable strategy with which to ensure longevity or to guard against material decay? Working with a selection of artifacts from the late Ming and early Qing, this talk considers how inscription came to constitute a form of literary thought uniquely attuned to the material contingencies and technical preconditions of writing. By carving inscriptions that query the meaning of durability, early modern poets and calligraphers interrogated, and worked to overcome, rigid dichotomies between solidity and evanescence, immutable essence and metamorphosis. Rejecting the fixity and closure that writing on a hard surface ought to evoke, they turned to inscription to name and possess the contradictions of the age.