In Things We Trust: The Culture of Collecting and Chinese Literary Modernity

My current book manuscript, derived from my dissertation, is entitled In Things We Trust: The Culture of Collecting and Chinese Literary Modernity. It examines the pivotal role that collectors played in negotiating the tension between literariness (“wen”) and materiality (“wu”) in Chinese literary history, which had different manifestations in the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties, but was intensified by China’s contact with the world in the modern period. The book focuses on a striking but hitherto overlooked pattern in which accomplished writers’ literary innovations formed a symbiosis with collecting ancient artifacts from the very tradition they vowed to abolish. The book exposes the rupture in a literary revolution that valorized the immediacy of expression and transparency of representation over the perceived opaqueness of the classical style. Unwilling to let such a radical vernacularity become crude politicization, these writers retreated to a world of silent ancient objects, whose rich historicity and materiality constituted an intimate language, whereas collecting became a resistance against a violent and hegemonic face of modernity.

This book will closely examine the cultural history of four types of objects: the oracle bones, steles, books, and textiles. It argues that collecting, an undertaking deriving its rationale and agency from premodern times, takes on a polemical, modernist dimension thanks to the changed paradigms of space and time, as well as the modern subject’s sensibilities shaped by dispersal and constellation of objects. “Wen” constitutes the center of “collecting” in theory and practice, be it seen as a text, a graphic inscription, or a work of art. Through a theoretical dialogue with Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, William Morris, John Ruskin, and Victor Segalen, this book will shed new light on how the culture of collecting informed important works by Liu E, Wang Guowei, Lu Xun, Wen Yiduo, Shen Congwen, Guo Moruo, and Ng Kim Chew. It will deepen the understanding of Chinese literature by situating it in the global context of material culture exchanges to reflect the complexity of the field.