Language and Literature
Global networks are often considered an exclusively modern, western invention and ultimately a utilitarian, not aesthetic concept. This paper challenges these perceptions by investigating the literary aesthetics surrounding an early-modern Chinese network, the Grand Canal, a crucial conduit for goods, people, and information. In late-imperial vernacular novels such as Jin Ping Mei, the Grand Canal not only served to conceptualize flows of people, commodities, news, and gossip as a system of conduits, gates, and connections, it also helped structure these literary works themselves, creating a narrative aesthetic of flows and nodes. In turn, the Canal similarly came to informed western works on China such as Johannes Nieuhof’s 17th-century report of the Dutch East India Company, Mission to the Tartar Cham (1665), and Jean Baptiste de Halde’s Jesuit Description de la Chine (1735), which took up late-Ming hydraulic concepts and aesthetics to think in unprecedented ways about transportation networks as the lynchpin of state power, merchant profits, and the dissemination of scholarly knowledge. By centering early-modern Chinese and Western modes of thinking on networks around the operation and form of the Grand Canal, this paper suggests a more inclusive, global history of hydraulic connections that triangulates statecraft, philosophy, and aesthetics.