Riddles in Jin Ping Mei
Thomas Kelly. 11/2021. “Riddles in Jin Ping Mei .” Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture, 8, 2, Pp. 341–370. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Jin Ping Mei cihua 金瓶梅詞話 (Plum in the Golden Vase) displays an unprecedented interest in breaking apart and reassembling the components of words. This essay asks where the Cihua edition's fascination with character manipulation (a procedure the author refers to as chaibai daozi 拆白道字) comes from and how it relates to literary riddles that precede and follow this landmark sixteenth-century novel. Jin Ping Mei cihua enlarges the presentation and associations of riddles in fiction through its engagement with contemporaneous theatrical literature and the entertainment culture of the brothel. Later commentators, notably Zhang Zhupo 張竹坡 (1670–1698), reorganize the game sequences within which bouts of character manipulation are embedded for the purposes of narrative prolepsis and character development, advocating an approach to reading enigmas as portents that influenced late imperial novelists. In doing so, however, they efface the Cihua's unruly celebration of contingency, the novel's seductive insinuation that it might be written otherwise.
The Inscription of Remnant Things: Zhang Dai’s “Twenty-Eight Friends”
Thomas Kelly. 6/2021. “The Inscription of Remnant Things: Zhang Dai’s “Twenty-Eight Friends”.” Late Imperial China, 42, 1, Pp. 1-43. Publisher's VersionAbstract
This essay investigates literary approaches to objects in the wake of dynastic transition by examining Zhang Dai’s (1597–?1684) inscriptions on his family’s possessions. Zhang exploits the formal conventions of inscription (ming)—“praise” and “admonition”—to reconcile the imperatives of remembrance with pointed moral judgments, working to redeem Ming practices of connoisseurship, while assessing their imbrication in the destruction of inter-dynastic war. In doing so, he reimagines the literary conceit of “friendship” with things. Late Ming collectors had personified objects as “friends” to model an empathetic understanding for, or eccentric obsession with their belongings. Zhang Dai reconsiders the implications of this posture amid the ruins of the fallen dynasty, casting the object as a witness to historical trauma, one that observes and critiques the failings of its human custodians.
The Death of an Artisan: Su Shi and Ink Making
Thomas Kelly. 12/2020. “The Death of an Artisan: Su Shi and Ink Making.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 80, 2, Pp. 315–346. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Su Shi’s endorsement of an enigmatic artisan named Pan Gu as “the Ink Immortal” adumbrates the Chinese cultural valorization of ink production during and after the Song period. I parse the poet’s two-part effort to transform ink making into a legitimate field of scholarly endeavor in order to defend poets’ autonomy. In Su Shi’s view, such autonomy depends on controlling the tools that sustain literary self-expression. Resisting the passive position of a consumer, Su first identifies with and then comes to impersonate the artisan’s productive body. This pose was, however, predicated on Su’s struggle to influence the marketing of ink through verse and innovative strategies of inscription. After Su Shi, an inkstick was no longer simply a tool for the production of literature but a venue where distinctions between writing and craft could be transformed—a contested subject and substrate of literary art.


Paper Trails: Fang Yongbin and the Material Culture of Calligraphy
Thomas Kelly. 7/2019. “Paper Trails: Fang Yongbin and the Material Culture of Calligraphy.” Journal of Chinese History (Special Issue: History of Material Culture), 3, 2, Pp. 325–362. Publisher's Version
Design by the Book: Chinese Ritual Objects and the Sanli tu, written by François Louis
Thomas Kelly. 4/5/2018. “Design by the Book: Chinese Ritual Objects and the Sanli tu, written by François Louis.” East Asian Publishing and Society , 8, 1, Pp. 99–103. Publisher's Version
Putting on a Play in an Underworld Courtroom: the “Mingpan” (Infernal Judgment) Scene in Tang Xianzu’s Mudan ting (Peony Pavilion)
Thomas Kelly. 12/2013. “Putting on a Play in an Underworld Courtroom: the “Mingpan” (Infernal Judgment) Scene in Tang Xianzu’s Mudan ting (Peony Pavilion).” CHINOPERL: Journal of Chinese Oral and Performing Literature , 32, 2, Pp. 131–155. Publisher's Version