Historicized Innovation

Historicized Innovation: Knowledge Tradition and its Encounter with the New

Martina Siebert


Legendary master of dyestuff: the 4th c. alchemist Ge Hong guarding dyers practicing their craft for which he is the patron ‘sage’. Source: woodblock print, Qing 18th century.

In Chinese erudite tradition almost every object or technique was attributed to an inventor or originator. From the 12th century onward scholars became seriously engaged in these narrative attributions. Some scholars compiled topically arranged heuremata - catalogues 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. The project acknowledges both sides as integral parts of a knowledge tradition of technological invention and innovation in China and reflects on their structure, function and the tension between them.