Master Craftsmen

A Philological Archeology of Master Craftsmen

Martin Hofmann


First page of a handwritten draft of the Zhejianglu of 1929, which contains the names of all craftsmen that Zhu Qiqian regarded as significant

This was an investigation into how technical knowledge was represented in biographical writings and how craftsmen and their skills are perceived by Chinese scholars. The core text for this project was the Zhejianglu (Collected Biographies of Master Craftsmen) compiled under the direction of the eminent Chinese scholar Zhu Qiqian (1872–1964).

The Zhejianglu revealed the quest of a traditionally educated Chinese elite for an appraisal of their own cultural heritage in the light of Western concepts of science and technology. Zhu Qiqian attempted to establish a large scale research project to reconsider Chinese material culture as a whole by preserving, systemizing, and analyzing textual sources as well as cultural relics. For this undertaking Zhu assembled experts with different specializations, including master craftsmen of the imperial workshops and foreign experts on Chinese material culture. The Zhejianglu was meant to be the first stage of this large-scale endeavor.

The Zhejianglu includes a wide range of materials that provide detailed information on the perception of craftsmen and technical skill in ancient China. Probing into Chinese assessments of practical knowledge and technical know-how, this research project aimed to display how ascribing practical skills to a person influenced his characterization, and how achievements were rendered in terms of creation and imitation.