This article argues that the concept of cultural capital as it is generally used in the study of the modern West constitutes a catachresis with three fundamentally problematic aspects: it shortchanges the productive capacity of capital; it assumes a commensurability between different types of aesthetic production and consumption that cannot obtain; and it overlooks the crucial contribution of individual labor to the accumulation and exchange of cultural capital. If we turn our attention from nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe to early modern (Ming and Qing) China, the first of these three objections finds a relatively satisfactory answer in a society that defines an elite class as a class in large part through aesthetic production: the national civil service examination system grounded Chinese political, economic, and cultural orders from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Even in this “best-case” scenario, however, it becomes clear that the assumed commensurability on which the trope of cultural capital is predicated, and the spontaneity and directness with which it is supposed to manifest itself, with little room for individual agency and efforts at self-representation, remain substantial obstacles to a nuanced understanding of the complicated relationship between aesthetic and material production. The article concludes with an inquiry into the specific work that discourse on cultural capital accomplishes in the contemporary global academy: the trope of cultural capital turns out to serve best not as a tool for the critical analysis of past cultural production but rather as the ideological foundation for a new sense of the aesthetic in the Internet era.

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