- The Social Life of Inkstones: Artisans and Scholars in Early Qing China by Dorothy Ko
The entanglements of gender and material culture have been central to the work of Dorothy Ko; this focus is obvious even from her first book, through its engagement with late Ming women and their books, paintings, and embroidery, as well as their writings.1 Her subsequent work deepens this engagement through two works: one is a catalog of a major museum collection, dealing with the culture, material and nonmaterial, of footbinding in the late imperial period.2 But whereas shoes for women's bound feet have long been an object of fascination [End Page 366] and prurience for Western private and institutional collectors—no museum with a Chinese collection is without them—the objects that form the topic of her outstanding new book, inkstones, are notable by their absence from the category of Chinese decorative arts; indeed, only one of the stones shown in this effectively and richly illustrated volume is in a museum in the West. This piece, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York, bears the signature of Gu Erniang 顧二娘 (fl. 1700–1722), the enigmatic, Suzhou-based female maker of inkstones.
Inkstones are objects that lay at the heart of constructions of elite male subjectivity in the early Qing, as they have been at least since the great Song calligrapher and painter Mi Fu 米芾 (1051–1107) made them the subject of a discourse of connoisseurship in his Inkstone Chronicle (Yanshi 硯史). That the most famous maker of inkstones should be a woman and that the Met example should have no more chance of being "genuine" than the many other works that bear her signature are only two of the enigmas teased out in this text. Ko's book, in its reach and ambition, manages to make inkstones diagnostic of, among other things, "the state of politics, art, and manufacture" and "contending knowledge cultures, entanglements between words and things, as well as sensitivities about gender and embodied skills" (p. 5). In fact, following the methodology of the anthropologists Igor Kopytoff and Arjun Appadurai (whose seminal collection The Social Life of Things is referenced in the book title), Ko uses a close reading of the biographies of certain key things to give us here no less than a 360-degree conspectus of early Qing China, from the agency of emperors to the margins and beyond.3
The "material turn" in Chinese studies has some interesting ancestors, and indeed Ko cites one of them in the form of Robert van Gulik, the subject of an earlier essay of hers (p. 242n7).4 But another methodological point of reference that anchors this book is the concept of "human–thing entanglement," derived originally from the actor–network theory of Bruno Latour (who is cited in Ko's book) and [End Page 367] subsequently developed by archaeologists and art historians such as Ian Hodder and Caroline van Eck.5 Important to Van Eck too is the idea of the "excessive object," which chimes closely with Ko's discussion of Gu Erniang as a "super-brand," in the sense not just of a brand that is very famous but one that is dispersed to the point where vast numbers of artifacts are believed to be her products, irrespective of their diversity and variety (p. 123).
It is worth noting that this study of objects that never find their way outside China (they are far too precious within the Chinese art market) runs counter to some recent studies in Qing material culture that stress themes of contact, encounter, and the transnational. But, like the calligraphy that they are principally designed to produce, inkstones have not been part of a global story and certainly have not formed part of Western constructions of Chinese decorative art. It is good to be reminded (in the words of Sanjay Subrahmanyam) both that "not everything is connected and not all of the time" and also that what mattered most to constructions of...