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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Non-Human Voices in Chinese Literature
1: Zhang Dai and the Voice of the Remnant Thing
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Harvard University, United States
This paper asks when and why household things begin to speak in early Qing literature. I focus in particular on how the renowned essayist Zhang Dai (1597–?1684) casts “objects from the former dynasty” (qianchao yiwu) as protagonists in his responses to the dynastic transition, approaching his family’s possessions as interlocutors. In a largely neglected sequence entitled “Inscriptions for Twenty-Eight Friends,” Zhang identifies with household objects as victims of human violence, asking what lessons they might impart amid profound political upheaval. Across this sequence, things—unsettling the positions of “you” and “I”—start to deliver admonitions, inviting critical judgments of the men who once owned them. I argue that in the face of political restrictions on what human voices might say, early Qing writers turned to things to vent frustrations with man-made catastrophes. Zhang Dai’s claim of friendship with things shows how “remnant subjects” (yimin) moved beyond preoccupations with the “self” to critique and rectify human failings. In doing so, Zhang’s inscriptions cultivate a renewed sense of ethical responsibility towards the material fragments of the past.