Met Rubbing of Old Fisherman from Ming Carving

Twentieth-century rubbing of a Ming carving of an old fisherman. His bamboo rod, line, and float; a hat to protect him from sun and rain; woven shoes that can get wet, and perhaps a net are visible. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public Domain.

Project (2020-2021)

The Sociology of Occupations as a Way to Study Yuan-Ming Working Lives

Most people in premodern China spent most of their lives working. Scholarship on work in Yuan and Ming times has addressed large formations and changes—commercialization, capitalism, the state, social hierarchy, modernity—in ways that lead towards quantification and away from experience. Studies of particular occupations, on the other hand, have lacked a shared theoretical framework. The sociology of work, developed by the Chicago school from the 1920s onwards, offers such a framework. The questions and theories that sociologists (in particular Everett C. Hughes) developed, with appropriate modifications that will reveal themselves in the course of the research, will allow the mining of sources written by the gentry and the state, along with visual material, material culture, and the practice of physical empathy, to reveal aspects of ordinary people’s lives. Workers, their identities and dilemmas, and their relations to customers, clients, competitors, and colleagues, produced culture. We cannot understand even the elite level without knowing the base it leant on, reacted to, and disguised. The Hughes framework can reveal how working lives shaped not only the economy but also culture, society, and even politics. Looking at the occupations together will lay the groundwork for a new Ming history. In 2020, I began drafting a manual for historians on how to use the sociology of work, now forthcoming from Amsterdam University Press. I worked with other members of the “Ability and Authority” Working Group to incorporate some of the insights of the framework into their own research. I also initiated my study of ordinary people’s work in Ming times by beginning to survey sources, including texts, pictures, objects. I presented a conference paper on “mistakes at work” in the Legal Code of Great Ming, completed an essay on He Bian’s Know Your Remedies, and an article that applies the Hughes framework to ordinary people’s work as it appears in a late-Ming collection of jokes.