Working Group (2020-)

Ability and Authority

The working group "Ability and Authority" researches communities of practice, work, and labor from 1200-1450, inquiring into the development of expertise and occupational cultures beyond continuities and ruptures in state authority and state control over social status. Working with sources that express an imperial or elite vision, historians have overwhelmingly identified China as a culture that increasingly venerated one kind of knowledge—literati bookish knowledge and scholarly skills—from the Song dynasty onwards. Within this chronology, the sole exception is constituted by the Yuan dynasty, which explicitly and systematically valued and recognized varied abilities—cooking, butchering, dyeing, divining, military and hydraulic management, etc.—in which expertise was gained through daily experience, specialized occupational training, and even research.  Because of this state recognition, in sources from the Yuan period communities of specialists, and the masters of each craft become visible: recognized for their expertise and training, and achieving authority by forms of belonging in social structures that extended beyond state schemes.  

Chronologically, this working group focusses on the Yuan and early to mid-Ming periods.  Yuan put its own spin on practices inherited from Song, Liao, XiXia and Jin; and its practice in turn influenced Ming, until renewed commercialization overtook bureaucratic management of labor and expertise.  Geographically, the cosmopolitan Yuan oversaw a greater mixing of knowledge cultures across Asia. This project therefore takes a cross-dynastic and cross-cultural approach to critical engagement with the question of how politics and political event history affected, were affected by, and failed to affect the development of greater China’s knowledge cultures beyond literati preoccupations.

Questions of interest include:

·        How did practices of expertise respond to and contribute to technological and social changes, as well as political change?

·        How did occupational culture and expertise exhibit continuity by remaining independent of, or even actively resisting, social and political change?

·        How were regional attributions of expertise, and ethnic preferences in expertise co-created by the state and workers themselves?

·        What was the relation between social mobility and expert/occupational cultures?

·        How were forms of management influenced by state and self-assessments of labor, skills and standards of expertise?

·        How did occupations relate to one another, both through state mediation and through market or other mediations?

·        How did occupations train and socialize their members, see their relationships to their clients, and develop a shared identity?  How did these aspects of occupational history affect Chinese culture writ large?

·        How did the physical and mental elements of the daily work of an occupation interact to form consciousness and social being in ways that reinforced or ran counter to elite ideological messages?