Historicized Innovation

Historicized Innovation: Knowledge Tradition and its Encounter with the New

Martina Siebert


Legendary master of dyestuff: the fourth century alchemist Ge Hong guarding dyers practicing their craft for which he is the patron "sage." Source: Woodblock print, Qing eighteenth century.

In Chinese erudite tradition almost every object or technique was attributed to an inventor or originator. From the twelfth century onward, scholars became seriously engaged in these narrative attributions. Some scholars compiled topically arranged heuremata—catalogs about the “origin of things” wu yuan through which these attributions developed into commonly accepted "labels" and were again redistributed among the learned. At the same time, complementary to these scholarly sanctioned narratives of technological development, other Chinese scholars reflected upon the same issues in their private jottings. These writings reveal more individual reactions to contemporary technological changes or novelties. This project acknowledged both sides as integral parts of a knowledge tradition of technological invention and innovation in China and reflected on their structure, function, and the tension between them.