The working group “Ability and Authority” is wrapping up Phase I of its research into communities of practice, work, and labor beyond literati preoccupations. Phase I focused on the period from 1200-1450, inquiring into the development of expertise and occupational cultures beyond continuities and ruptures in state authority. The Yuan dynasty’s high respect for varied abilities made visible the masters of many crafts, and led to the incorporation of authorized experts into state and social groups with the attendant written records. After the Yuan, the literati elite increasingly claimed to monopolize knowledge through bookish skills, and practical expertise lost its high visibility. But historians can still recover it. We have used a variety of sources to identify specific abilities and the authority springing from them in the spheres of astronomy, sacred sculpture, navigation, translation and interpretation, ink-making, diplomacy, military leadership, porcelain-making, and door-keeping.
In Phase II, the “Ability and Authority” group will extend chronologically to reach from the Yuan through the Yuan-inflected early Ming periods and into mid- and late Ming, when renewed commercialization joined and overtook bureaucratic management of labor and expertise. In this broader chronological scope, Phase II can consider how Chinese practice and thought drew not only from places across Asia, as under Mongol rule, but also from as far away as Europe from the sixteenth century onwards. We remain committed to across-dynastic and cross-cultural approach to the question of how politics and political events interacted with Greater China’s knowledge cultures. But we are also interested in the social-material history of practice and working lives with no immediately-evident wider political impact. We believe that, in the long term, collaboration among scholars focusing on particular lines of work (occupations) will make possible a comprehensive bottom-up history of knowledge and politics in the Yuan and Ming periods.
Questions of interest, all assuming that there will be variety across space and change over time, include:
- How did the objects on which a particular set of occupational practitioners worked exercise agency, shaping human choices?
- What was the full range of expertise that particular occupations required, from the technical to the social? What happened when practitioners made mistakes?
- How did particular occupations train their practitioners in technical abilities and socialize them into shared relations to colleagues, co-workers and clients?
- How did the interacting physical and mental elements of daily work shape practitioners’ consciousness? Did occupational ability reinforce or undermine elite ideological claims?
- What roles did sacred knowledge and practice play in working lives?
- How did various occupations relate to one another through the state, the market, community commitments, and other mediations?
- How did paths into and out of particular occupations affect broader norms and practices of social mobility?
- How did the state and practitioners themselves co-create regional, ethnic, religious, gendered, or other ascriptive attributions of expertise?
- How did various branches of the state, wealth-holders, and practitioners co-manage expertise, at the levels both of systems and standards, and of particular assessments of skills and productivity?
- How did practices of expertise respond to and contribute to technological and social changes, as well as political change?
- How did experts remain independent of, or actively resist, social and political change?
- How did contact with foreign objects and knowledge cultures affect practices of expertise and occupational cultures?
- How did occupational cultures affect political events?
- How did the social and technical aspects of occupational history affect Chinese culture writ large?