Telescopes in Chinese Literature
Co-sponsored with the Tang Center for East Asian Art.
Sarah E. Kile
University of Michigan
Thinking with Lenses:
Optical Technology in Literature and Visual Culture in Seventeenth-Century China
Beginning in the late 16th century, Jesuit missionaries brought scientific knowledge to China both in the form of translated texts and of material objects. While the astronomical success of foreign optical instruments at court is well known, the nature and scope of the influence of lenses produced by Chinese artisans using Jesuit knowledge remains understudied. This talk explores the incorporation of the newly introduced technology of glass lens crafting and various devices associated with lenses, such as eyeglasses, telescopes, and microscopes, into the rapidly commercializing culture of the late Ming and early Qing periods. I focus on three forms of assimilation and experimentation: commercial, aesthetic, and literary. I first introduce the production and marketing of lenses for commercial purposes, paying special attention to the question of the cultural significance of this new type of product. Then I engage in a comparative examination of visual and textual depictions of lenses and the range of practices and perspectives they inspired beyond scientific treatises. I demonstrate how, as lenses were deftly incorporated into longstanding literary and visual forms, they inspired new perspectives on issues of embodied perception, writing, craft, and intersubjectivity. I conclude by suggesting how analysis of the impact of new visual technologies on existing literary and visual forms holds promise for comparative studies of the early modern world.