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Abstract

In addition to writing with the brush and ink, scholars in late imperial China engraved their words onto cups and chairs, exotic animal horns and walking sticks, ink-cakes, slabs of stone, and finely crafted musical instruments. When they did so, they turned to a literary form named the “inscription” (ming): often an epigram in free verse, unbound by rules of prosody or meter. This dissertation develops a method for reading the literary inscription in the late imperial period, parsing its distinctive approach to the imbrication of human and inanimate object, yet it also serves as an extended reflection on the question of why this unique practice has so often been overlooked. My study focuses specifically on transformations in the literary inscription of things during the sixteenth century, a moment when the relationship between the written character and its physical substrates was at once disturbed and creatively remodeled. I trace these perturbations through an extensive collection of inscriptions and extant inscribed artifacts attributed to Wang Daokun (1525–1593) – the scion of a Huizhou merchant lineage, Vice Minister of War, and a leading proponent of literary archaism. Through Wang’s wide-ranging collaborations with pawnbrokers, carvers, and entrepreneurial manufacturers, the inscriptive epigram was repurposed as a mechanism for sophisticated forms of branding. My project measures the impact of these developments on approaches to the ethics of writing, recovering an extended competition between scholars and artisans over the authority to mark durable surfaces with script. Attending to a diverse set of material substrates – from lacquered ink tablets to imported rhinoceros horns – I move beyond the pages of the book to show how small and often trivial decorative objects participated in the making and remaking of literature. In examining the interplay between a poet’s inscriptions and other sets of artisanal markings, I explore how physical practices of engraving objects redefined the parameters of the “literary” as a field of activity in late imperial China. Following the trajectories of marked artifacts as they usurp and artfully manipulate human personae, I read the inscription as a medium through which things gain a voice.

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