Knowledge by Design

Knowledge by Design – Some Words about the Early to Mid-Qing Reign

In the year 1973 a carpenter pulled out a portfolio of porcelain sketches from behind one of the detached fittings that he had been asked to repair in the Western Palace in the Forbidden City Palace complex. The building that had once hosted the empresses’ and concubines’ staff was at that time used as a research library and so the librarians, concerned about their books, were carefully watching the repair work. The librarians immediately identified the design sheets as part of the Qing Imperial production process and, as they were a non-textual source, the librarians handed the portfolio over to the artifacts archives in the Forbidden City Palace Museum. There the portfolio lay dormant until the 1990s when Chinese institutions and government bodies, embarking on a newly-announced UNESCO initiative on "intangible knowledge and skills," began to offer funds to publicize these sources digitally and study them for the preservation of Chinese ancient arts and crafts. 

This is, in a nutshell, the story about the re-discovery of a set of historical sources on Chinese arts and craft production which historians had previously known by philological traces and theoretical discourse: sketches, models, tools and samples. My contribution to this workshop introduces the use of sketches in silk weaving and porcelain production in Qing state-owned production. Analyzing them within the broader literature of this time, I will show how actors employed and reconfigured fields of practical and theoretical knowledge on materials, mathematics or perspective to communicate aesthetic, managerial and technical issues within the court and across the empire between diverse actors. In a diachronic view the Qing are exceptional because they institutionalized design within the inner court. Previous dynasties considered the management of the arts and crafts a matter of the ministries of rites and work.  As the Qing secularized the arts and crafts a new class of experts emerged, and forms and formats of codification were changed to fit contemporary utilitarian purposes.

  • Schäfer, D. (2013). Peripheral Matters: Selvage/Chef-­de-­piece Inscriptions on Chinese Silk Textiles. UC Davis Law Review, 47(2), 705-733.