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China Humanities Seminar featuring Kaijun Chen – Materiality is Uncertainty: Furniture, Hairpins and Fireworks in Jin Ping Mei

October 24, 2022 @ 4:00 pm 6:00 pm

Speaker: Kaijun Chen, Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Studies, Brown University

This project responds to a candid question I had while reading Jin Ping Mei. The novel is packed with luxurious things, but why do the characters show little attachment to them? This lack of attachment refers to both the alienable qualities of material possessions and the lack of any emotional investment in the novel’s abundance of things. This tendency stands in contrast to the metaphorized artifacts wrapped in layers of poetic references that we often encounter in odes on things and novels such as The Story of Stone, where material things bear intense lyrical expression and carry moral symbolism.

I will analyze three categories of things represented in text and in illustration to uncover a pervasive sense of uncertainty manifested by things in the novel. Furniture, especially beds, showcase shifting claims of ownership and volatile prices. Gold and silver accessories, particularly hairpins, as (false) proof of amorous commitment, exhibit inconstant material forms and truth values. Fireworks, in their short-lived performances, simultaneously anchor and distract attention, and redefine luxurious things as ephemeral happenings.

Kaijun Chen is Assistant Professor of late imperial Chinese literature and material culture at the Department of East Asian studies at Brown University. His research focuses on the manufacture of ceramics at court and the circulation of handicraft knowledge from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century. He has published articles on craft and literature and the trade of luxury goods in Arts of Asia, Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, and Reviews, and National Palace Bi-monthly, etc. His book Porcelain for the Emperor: Manufacture and Technocracy in Qing China (January 2023) examines the Qing court’s institutionalization of technical expertise in the context of its cultural industry during the eighteenth century. Before joining Brown, he worked at the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and the Frick Collection.

This is a hybrid event, which may be attended in person or via Zoom.


October 24, 2022
4:00 pm – 6:00 pm


Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies


Common Room, 2 Divinity Ave.

2 Divinity Ave.
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138 United States

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