Artifacts of Authentication

Artifacts of Authentication: People Making Texts Making Things in Ming-Qing China

Bruce Rusk

The uses and connotations of the word zhen (authentic, genuine, true) in Late Imperial scholarly discourse were broad. This is clear from frequent appeals to zhen as an ideal in philosophical, literary, economic, and aesthetic works. Just as significant is the profusion of its opposites: words for scams, lies, insincerity, falsehood, untruth, adulteration, and even adulthood. Though not interchangeable, these antonyms point to a common if often absent value at the center.

This project examined Ming and Qing debates about the authenticity of artifacts and texts by seeking hidden connections among documents and objects. To give one example, the purity of gold was a stock metaphor for the moral qualities of an individual in Ming philosophy, yet the meaning of the comparison must have changed as adulterated metals forced buyers and sellers to question every ingot they encountered. Books offered merchants tips on detecting and avoiding such fraud, but were so precise in their accounts that they occasionally could serve as how-to guides for swindlers.

Devices meant to ensure authenticity repeatedly became the medium of its downfall. For example, the stamp-like marks on porcelain from imperial kilns, meant to identify pieces for official use, gave makers of forgeries an easy-to-imitate target. This process, however, was not a matter of degenerate knockoffs versus genuine originals but a dialectic in which inauthenticity is at least as creative as authenticity. First, many fakes were not mere copies but creative works that drew on the aura, cultural resonance, and authority of a vaunted original. Second, the existence of fakes pushed some to look more closely at or for originals. Things and texts often became the object of intellectual scrutiny precisely because their status was doubtful. This scholarship in turn generalized and theorized difficult problems of authenticity.