Writing on things

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If someone is investigating texts, they can concentrate on the subject / content / style / linguistic nature of the writing.  Increasingly, however, scholars have begun to concentrate on the objects and materials on which the writing takes place.  From this, they tease out all sorts of interesting information about the social, political, and economic aspects of the texts.  A new book on this topic is Thomas Kelly's The Inscription of Things:  Writing and Materiality in Early Modern China (New York:  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 broadens understandings of the links between the literary and the material.

Another instance of this genre of scholarly writing is Xiuyuan Mi's University of Pennsylvania dissertation, "Reinventing Poetry: Popular Audiences and Polyphonic Space During the Song-Jin-Yuan Transition (1050-1300)", but for a period nearly a millennium earlier.  See especially chapter 2, in which she looks at inscriptions on ceramic pillows.  The questions she raises about why poets / artists would inscribe their work on something so seemingly unlikely and quixotic as a rock-hard pillow are fascinating, albeit extraintuitive.


Selected readings

[Thanks to John Rohsenow]


  1. Chris Button said,

    April 6, 2024 @ 7:07 am

    A friend of mine used to affectionately refer to Burmese writing (which they could not read) as "hole-punch script" because its circular shapes looked to them like a series of hole punches.

    Its familiar circular shape today is significantly, albeit not entirely, a result of its less-circular inscriptional forms later being written on tearable palm leaves.

    As a side note, it is depressing how much inscriptional Burmese has been neglected by Tibeto-Burman specialists working on comparative historical phonology. As a result, there a lots of wonky proposals and misled conclusions about Old Burmese and how it fits into the linguistic picture of the region. There are some great studies on inscriptional Burmese (even a published dictionary and an unpublished, yet easily accessible online, lexicon), but they are mostly ignored.

    In some ways, the situation is similar to oracle-bone inscriptions and Old Chinese. Why on earth do the two fields largely exist in ignorance of each other? Although, there are at least far more publications on oracle-bones than publications on inscriptional Burmese. So, ignorance is even less of an excuse in that regard,

  2. Nhan Hong said,

    April 6, 2024 @ 7:07 am

    There's a non material for writing. People have written with their fingers into the air to remember characters in learning Chinese. I myself saw this in front of my eyes.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2024 @ 7:56 am

    @Nhan Hong

    Countless are the times I've seen people writing Chinese characters in the air to tell which of dozens of homophones they might be referring to. They say, "You know, it's this one, and then their index finger goes flailing through the air." It never works, because there are no points of reference from one stroke to the next or between one component and the next, plus they are writing backward with regard to the person to whom they are trying to describe the character.

    It works a bit better writing sinoglyphs in the air if the drawer and the viewer stand facing the same direction — but not much.

    Writing characters with your finger works a lot better if you do it on a surface — your palm, a table, a car hood, whatever, but it's still far from ideal, because the movements are ephemeral.

  4. Stephen Jones said,

    April 6, 2024 @ 8:47 am

    So glad to see Victor discuss this! i've always felt ashamed that i can't latch onto these air characters…They seem pretty good at understanding each other, though?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2024 @ 9:52 pm

    An upcoming Zoom talk by Jan Stuart relevant to this topic:

    "Beyond Paper: Writing on Chinese Ceramics"


  6. Stephen Jones said,

    April 18, 2024 @ 11:36 pm

    Victor's post inspired me to add a few vignettes of my own, as well as a clip from Patrice Fava's film on Daoist ritual in Hunan, where he brilliantly renders visible the talismans depicted in the air by the priest at the altar!

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