Thomas Kelly

Assistant Professor of Pre-Modern Chinese Literature


I am a scholar of Chinese literature. My current research explores the relationship between the literary imagination and the act and materials of writing in the late imperial period.

My first book examines the lives of inscribed objects in early modern China, investigating practices of engraving literature onto solid things. I consider the paradox that seventeenth-century poets and calligraphers, amid rampant commodification and the destruction of inter-dynastic war, confronted fears of being dominated by, or reduced to things, by writing upon the surfaces of objects.

I am in the early stages of a new book-length project that explores the interplay between collections of ephemera and literature in the late imperial period. This study shows how ephemeral papers (handbills, flyers, adverts, tickets, receipts) at once haunt and came to define the ways novels, short stories, and plays conceive of their own durability. I demonstrate how ephemeral papers infiltrate well-known literary works, shaping new visions of quotidian sociality and time.

I am also currently completing a project entitled The Lives of Artists in Early Modern China based on annotated translations of Zhou Lianggong’s (1612–1672) two masterworks, Biographies of Seal Carvers and Records of Paintings I Have Seen.

I received my PhD from the University of Chicago in 2017 and BA from the University of Oxford in 2009. Before joining Harvard, I was a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. I am currently serving as the President of the Society for Ming Studies.

Selected Publications

Recent Articles and Publications

  • Kelly, Thomas. “The Inscription of Remnant Things: Zhang Dai’s “Twenty-Eight Friends”.” Late Imperial China 42, no. 1 (2021): 1-43. 
  • Kelly, Thomas. “Riddles in Jin Ping Mei.” Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture 8, no. 2 (2021): 341-370.
  • “The Death of an Artisan: Su Shi and Inkmaking,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (2020).
  • “Paper Trails: Fang Yongbin (1542-1608) and the Material Culture of Calligraphy,” Journal of Chinese History 中國歷史學刊, 3,2 (July 2019), Special Issue on Material Cultures.
  • “Putting on a Play in an Underworld Courtroom: the “Mingpan” (Ingernal Judgement) Scene in Tang Xianzu’s Mudan ting (Peony Pavilion), “CHINOPERL: Journal of Chinese Oral and Performing Literature 32.2 (December 2013): 131-155.
  • “Design by the Book: Chinese Ritual Objects and the Sanli tu, written by François Louis” East Asian Publishing and Society, 8, 1 (2018): 99-103.