Courting the Crafts in Qing China

img.jpg

A ceramic workshop in Jingdezhen, Qianlong reign. The upper right part of the image depicts a Ming Lu, literally open oven, where the firing process can be observed. From the Geng Dongsheng, Porcelain Masterpieces in the Deshantang Family Collection. Beijng: Cultural Relics Publication House, 2009.

Courting the Crafts in Qing China

Dagmar Schäfer, Max Planck research group director, researches the diffusion and communication of technology through media in seventeenth-century China.

In the year 1644 the Manchu proclaimed Beijing the seat of their court. Beijing, the Northern Capital, offered challenges as it was far from the prosperous South and had been the capital of the two previous dynasties, the Yuan and the Ming. The new Qing dynasty had to cope with this as they mapped their geography of power. To legitimize their rule, they both relied on Mongolian heritage and clearly distinguished themselves from the conquered Ming. The imperial center was thus re-shaped to define the empire, politically, intellectually and culturally. A collaborative research project between the Independent Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Concepts and Modalities: Practical Knowledge Transmission, headed by Dagmar Schäfer and specialist researchers from the Palace Museum in Beijing, (Gugong bowu yuan), looks at the historical matrix of power and knowledge evidenced by technological knowledge circulation within material production. Examples from the fields of porcelain, enamel, silk, jades, interior design and bronze sculpturing reveal the conditions under which locally produced knowledge moved into the court and was “universalized”; or vice versa, the role imperial knowing played in the construction of standards of validity at the local level.

The researchers at the Palace Museum in Beijing work directly in the architectural complex formerly known as ‘the Forbidden City’. As distinguished art historians and experts in restoration practices, they have greeted the opportunity to reexamine their field from the perspective of the history of technology. The cross disciplinary collaboration implements their specialist knowledge and unlimited access to the collections and extensive archives of the museum to trace evidence of knowledge transmission and technology diffusion in its relation to media culture. The archives of the Forbidden City hold a rich array of non-documentary media used in communication, such as sketches, models, samples and tools. The wide assortment addressed by the research gives a new view to what this era thought could be transmitted, how they wanted to transmit it and to whom. Which type of information was chosen, which element of encoding used, which aspects were institutionalized or standardized and which left to free choice, created the atmosphere in which technological development did, or did not, take place.

A capital city is not only a political center. It also has the task of representing the ideals of knowledge construction of a period or a ruler, while maintaining the social, economic and material functions of a city. In addition, it is often a point of entry for new ideas and concepts. Indeed the Qing, the last dynasty, is noted for its exceptional investment in its information infrastructure, including knowledge circulation, its control and promotion. As the court was the decision maker within all fields of material production, these issues were meticulously documented and the documents were carefully preserved. All things and affairs going on at the court were noted down, including information on craft production.

fig.1._fs_china_13.jpg

Map of the imperial kiln location, in: Fuliangxian zhi 浮梁縣志 [Fuliang district gazetteer]

One may well ask, what can an inquiry into ancient traditions of knowledge circulation, in particular in the sector of practical know-how, offer us today? Qing means and methods of communication were not as fast or as comprehensive as modern information technology. Yet, the infrastructural design of the information systems is not so very different. They both start from the same premise, namely the global gathering of all kinds of data, bits and bytes that are then stored, put on hold and sent out again, or classified, selected and synergized. They also both gather information in diverse ways, stored in various different media; albeit the digital world employs databases of photos, clips, images, and videos, while the analog world of the seventeenth century worked with varied repositories and datasets, text archives as well as sketches, three-dimensional models, tools and sample. Careful examination of the traces left by Qing communication culture offers us an insight into the complex dynamics that historically shaped knowledge in the making.

Chinese officials did not merely keep accounts of raw materials, evaluate labor or care for the logistics of manufacture and decision structures. They were also concerned about issues such as form, processing and design. Samples were sent across the country; sketches or three-dimensional models conveyed the visual image of the product to the emperor and helped to pass on procedural details to the actual hand that produced these items, the artisan, craftsmen or laborer. Any history of technology should also deal with the social relations of artisan and ruler, the official and laborer, in this case, Manchu, Han-Chinese or Tibetan, Buddhist, Confucian or Jesuit. The Qing world followed patterns of property rights and cultural assessment that placed the official and scholar far above the craftsman, and their practices of citizenship separated rural laborers from the protected sphere of society and trade. Their interest in crafts and concern in technology was not displayed by their honoring of the artisan or by the recognition of technology as a category, in the modern sense, but by venerating the artifact and its production. To acknowledge the importance of the media itself, we have to naturalize technology within the broader matrix of late imperial Chinese modes of self-fashioning, social, effective networks of action and response and cosmology. In this view the Qing rulers and elites emerge as considerate and wise actors when it came to technological issues; they courted the crafts, they did not coerce them.

The results of this innovative and fruitful cross-disciplinary collaboration are now published in an edited volume: History of Exchange of Craft Techniques between the Imperial Court and the Local: from the Qing Dynasty until the Qianlong era (1735-1796) (first in Chinese, an English translation is forthcoming). With an introduction by Dagmar Schäfer (editor), the contributors, listed here with their area of expertise, will be: GUO Fuxiang, jade; LUO Wenhua, Buddhist bronzes; WANG Guangyao, porcelain; XU Xiaodong, enamels; ZHANG Qiong, silk; and ZHANG Shuxian, interior design. The book demonstrates that each of the six chosen fields had significant political, social, ritual and economic functions. Examining the details of practical knowledge transmission and actual production—looking at what information was conveyed by sketches, by three-dimensional models, in texts or through the dispatching of experts, when, where and how, the book reveals what this era considered key-technologies and worthwhile materials, what they saw as basic knowledge or exceptional expertise in material production. For example, some particular issues addressed by LUO Wenhua in his work on technical exchange between the Qing court and Tibet, and XU Xiaodong on the interaction between the court and painted enamel production are consumption and production, the transplantation and transmission of technologies, the consequences of geographical distance between the actual centers of production and the creative centers where designs were configured. Implementing new knowledge such as Tibetan/Nepalese bronze sculpture techniques and European enamel painting at the court, the Qing made effective use of the potential of technology transfer as a political tool for the construction of empire and as a mediator of cultural concerns.

More Information

More information on the Max Planck Research-Group “Concepts and Modalities: Practical Knowledge Transmission.” Go to Website

The cooperating project “Craftsmanship and the Qing Court.” More Information

The Research Group organizes a series of workshops on technological cultures. More Information

The Palace Museum, Beijing. Go to Website

The National Library, Beijing. Go to Website

Chinese Version of the this Research Topic

German version of this Research Topic

Print version of this Research Topic

Research Topics Archive

Bathymetry model of the Strait of Gibraltar ca. 1932, Instituto Español de Oceanografía.
50: The Strait in the Cold War—Deep Science and Global Geopolitics in the Mediterranean
Andreas Ryff, Münz- und Mineralienbuch, 1594. Autograph in possession of the Basel University Library (A lambda II 46a).
49: Mountain Clamor! Resource Flows and Metal Culture in Early Modern Mining
Parades of Miners, Craftsmen, and Officials Marking the Marriage of Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony, and Maria Josepha, Archduchess of Austria in 1719. Bergakademie Freiberg.
48: Data and Decisions in Early Modern Mines
Transcript of a Bobolink song by Ferdinand S. Mathews (1904), Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music: A Description of the Character and Music of Birds.
47: Scientific Scores and Musical Ears: Sound Diagrams in Field Recording
School of Athens
46: Early Modern Adaptation of the Aristotelian Mechanics
better shelter
45: Refugee Housing
Black Hole Merger
43: One Hundred Years of Gravitational Waves
42: How High Is the Sea?
41: The Renewal of Einstein's Theory of Relativity in the Post-War Era
40: Do Data Have Politics?
39: From Sound to Knowledge
38: Colours and Their Context
37: Is Bigger Better
36: Rooting Language Family Trees
35: Making Genetics Human
34: Galileo's Laboratory of Ideas
33: Historicizing Big Data
32: Ancient Balances at the Nexus of Innovation and Knowledge
31: Looking at Diversity
30: How Recipes Created Knowledge in Early Modern Households
29: Metallurgy, Ballistics and Epistemic Instruments
28: Science under Scrutiny
27: The Globalization of Knowledge and its Consequences
26: Parts Unknown: Making the Familiar Strange
25: Apprehending Human Difference and Population Size
24: Endangerment and Its Consequences
23: The Equilibrium Controversy
22: Art and Knowledge in Pre-Modern Europe
21: Knowledgescapes
20: Baby Science in fin-de-siècle America
19: Let him reconquer language
18: Histories of Scientific Observation
17: On Historicizing Epistemology : an essay
16: Johann Lambert's Conversion to a Geometry of Space
15: The Uncertain Boundaries between Light and Matter
14: Every move will be recorded
13: Courting the Crafts in Qing China
12: The Concepts of Immanuel Kant's Natural Philosophy
11: Jean Piaget and the Child's Spontaneous Geometry
10: Galileo and the Others
9: Historicizing Knowledge about Human Biodiversity
8: Dreaming in and of Neurophilosophy
7: Who Were Einstein's Opponents?
6: Physiology of the piano
5: Numbering Bees
4: New Ways of Using Digital Images
3: Telling Instruments
2: Microscope Slides: An Object of the History of Science?
1: What (Good) is Historical Epistemology?