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INTRODUCTION

 
General Introduction

  Group Members

  International Advisors

BACK

Borderlines and Intersections:

Knowledge Spheres in Pre-Modern China

10th -18th Century

A Proposal

for a MPS/CAS Partner Group

at the IHNS of the CAS

 

The aim of the Partner Group is to form a new basis for understanding how pre-modern approaches to practical knowledge in the Chinese cultural realm related to various knowledge spheres. It attempts to identify and analyze their borderlines and intersections and how they affected knowledge production in the fields of technology and the sciences. The project defines knowledge spheres on the basis of intellectual, social, geographical, political, and/or organizational features. An example would be astronomy, where we can usefully distinguish between at least three interacting knowledge spheres. The Astronomical Bureau, where trained personnel conducted observations and incorporated them into official calendrical documents, had to respond to the political, cosmologically informed expectations of the imperial court, while depending on apparatus in which their own technical objectives had to be translated into material form by professional bronze work craftsmen.

The group will thus investigate the internal structure of knowledge spheres in which technology and practical knowledge occurred, and their external linkages. This provides a new conceptual basis for research on Chinese knowledge about nature and man, technology and the development of this knowledge. The Partner Group will concentrate on the 10th to 18th century. Historians portray this as a period that gendered great creativity with many transformations in technology and systematic approaches to knowledge about nature and man. Research will focus on the geographical region that was politically dominated by the Song, Jin, Yuan and Ming Dynasties.

 Research within the Partner Group will be guided by a set of specific research questions that bring together textual and material evidence. The major focus will be on how technology in these knowledge spheres was conceived, constructed, and negotiated in the changing world of Chinese society to create the practical, conceptual, and cultural conditions of scientific and technological innovation.

 

 

General Conception

 In pre-modern China knowledge spheres were subject to and defined by the goals to which the specific knowledge was geared. Knowledge about nature and man, i.e. scientific knowledge, and knowledge about practical or technological issues were contextualized within these spheres and linked to external issues. The borderlines and intersections of these knowledge spheres shifted because Chinese society experienced tremendous changes during the period in focus.

The Song dynasty established a sophisticated bureaucratic state that stood in contrast to the militaristic and aristocratic organizational structure of its predecessors. A class of literati officials evolved, establishing an orthodoxy of culture and knowledge that influenced subsequent generations up until the 18th century. Under Mongol rule the Yuan Dynasty opened new channels of transmitting knowledge with the establishment of the Pax Mongolica. The subsequent Han Chinese Ming dynasty established a forceful state based on the model of the Song. It maintained control and peace for more than three hundred years, during which the economy prospered and commerce intensified. During this long period cultural and economic centers shifted back and forth from north to south. Urban culture developed and rural life was transformed by changing agricultural methods and new crops. The state engaged in various forms and fields of production. Trade and foreign contact provided another significant incentive for the construction and production of knowledge.

All these factors combined to form the uniquely Chinese construct in which scientific and technical-practical knowledge was placed and thus developed. The project will investigate the location of and relation between various knowledge spheres in order to provide an authentic lens through which pre-modern China’s scientific and technological knowledge can be seen and assessed.

 

The following issues are focused on:

§  Borderlines and intersections of various knowledge spheres and the conceptual approach to technological and scientific contents.

§  The impact of political change on various knowledge spheres and its perception. A point of interest is whether knowledge spheres persisted despite a change of dynastic reign.

§  Knowledge mobility across organizational and geographical spheres. Particular attention will be paid to the tension between erudite and mundane spheres, and between the state and local communities.

§  Demarcations between orthodox and popular, secularized and esoteric knowledge and the effects on knowledge construction.

 

Several research projects will explore these issues in depth. The projects are designed both as theoretical approaches and case studies, and will relate textual to material evidence. They have been selected to bring in complementary dimensions to existing and ongoing research projects at the MPIWG on the Chinese Culture of Technological Invention and Innovation. They will also benefit from methodologies developed in other research conducted at the Institute. Due to the organizational structure of the Partner Group, existing and newly developed long-term projects at the Institute can be supplemented at short notice. 

 

 

¨                         Measuring the Heavens: Cosmos, Computation and Instrument Making

This project investigates the interaction of the Chinese astronomical knowledge spheres: cosmology, calendar, and instrument making. The focus is on how changes or innovations in theoretical and practical aspects of astronomy were reflected or transferred from, and into instrument making. Three major periods of innovation in instrument making can be identified: during the Northern Song (11th century), early Yuan (13th century), and late Ming (17th century). They correspond to significant changes in computation methods and cosmological ideas. For the Song dynasty our main sources for the instruments are Shen Kua’s Hun Yi Yi (1074) and Su Song’s Xin yixiang fayao (1086). For the Yuan period we will use scattered textual evidence and Ming duplicates of Yuan period instruments. For the late Ming period our focus will be on how Western knowledge was assimilated in instrument making, such as astrolabes or elaborate sundials.

 

¨                         Knowledge Spheres and Paths of Dissemination in Agriculture

An obvious gap existed between agricultural treatises and agricultural actualities. This project addresses the issue how writings about agricultural knowledge reflect upon knowledge spheres, and how various forms of agricultural writings were situated in the knowledge landscape of ancient China. We investigate how various knowledge spheres intersected or compartmentalized in relation to one another from two perspectives. One is to examine which kinds of knowledge combined to form a corpus defined as agricultural knowledge in written culture. We will use a special genre of almanac-style agricultural writings (tongshu) as our starting point. The other perspective explores how the information in these writings relates to the actual state of agricultural practice as described in documentary resources such as local monographs or private writings. This will bring practical knowledge spheres in contact with social, cultural, moral and regional spheres. When combined the two perspectives provide a better understanding of if and how agricultural treatises written by scholars served as media for the dissemination of agricultural innovations to and from peasants.

 

¨                         Local Communities, Popular Religion and Ritualization of Technical Knowledge - Philip Cho

This project examines the intersections and borderlines of knowledge spheres in the fields of sericulture and porcelain making focusing on the 16th through 18th centuries. It looks into a set of songs on these topics by craftsmen that were reflected upon by scholars. The local literati who recorded these songs meticulously glossed the meanings of specialized terms used by villagers, according to their understanding. These songs are packed with technical details of craft work, and express life experiences, different from many of the elite. These songs also play a role in ritual contexts and ancestral cult. Thus the project will pay special attention to the issue of ritualizing technology in both fields, analyzing how secularized knowledge and practical experience related to the esoteric. Sericulture technology and culture were linked through community networks to different silkworm goddess cults in late Ming and Qing Jiangnan. At the porcelain factories of Jingdezhen, community history and technical knowledge was likewise performed through ritualized work, songs, and festivals. Important rituals that will be investigated in the project are the Jingdezhen Pottery Songs, the Celebration of Lifting Restrictions and Inviting the Spirit to Tong Bin.

 

¨                         Taoist Esotericism, Alchemical Recipes, and Apparatus: A Study of the Danfang xuzhi 丹房须知 (Essential Knowledge For the Alchemical Lab)

This project investigates one important Song alchemical text from the Taoist Canon that presents Chinese alchemy as a mixture of empiricism, rationalism, and magic belief. The text contains Taoist doctrines, alchemical recipes, experimental procedures, and alchemical apparatus. The alchemical laboratory provides a locus for the investigation of how esoteric, practical, and experimental spheres of knowledge intersected with each other. It attempts to open a new perspective on the role of textual documentation in relation to alchemical practices.

 

¨                         Technological Landscape Across Space and Time

This project combines source work with a synthesis and reinterpretation of previous research in an attempt to get a comprehensive overview to the technological landscape across time and space. The project will approach the issue from two levels.

§  Mapping Technologies in Song China: In this part we will proceed from the macro-structure. The initiative aims to map the technological landscape, following the dissemination and location of technologies in relation to one another. It will take into account institutional structures and is based on the extraction of data about taxation and economy. It will focus on the Song Dynasty period. Primary sources will be official documents such as the Song huiyao, Song shi, Xu Zizhi tongjian changbian and the still extant local monographs.

  • The Local Interplay of Technologies: The second level proceeds from the micro-level, investigating two regions with regard to the local setting of technology. It will attempt to give a chronological overview from the Song to the end of the Ming Dynasty in order to look for changes. To give a qualifying framework for further generalizations two regions without technological specification are chosen. One, Songjiang fu, is situated in a flourishing area, rich in natural resources; the other locus, Shangqiu in Henan province has few natural resources, less fertile soil and was economically more marginal. An important issue will be to investigate how urbanization, migration, social mobility or political influence affected technology, and how this in turn changed the recognition and social value of technology.   
  •  

¨                         Material Objects and Knowledge Spheres 
- Su Rongyu, Cultural Heritage School, Guangzhou

  Working with the newly founded Cultural Heritage School of the Chinese Academy of Science, Guangzhou, the Partner Group will give specific attention to research on material objects of technology: tools, machinery and products. The Cultural Heritage School combines research and education in the fields of archeology, art history and the history of technology. Collaboration will allow effective packaging of resources and personnel for the research of the Partner Group. It will ensure that material evidence is incorporated to complement and supplement textual research and that related projects from different perspectives will form together a comprehensive view to the issue of knowledge production in various spheres. Diverse approaches are planned which examine how materia, such as drawings, models and products, transmit technical knowledge and technologies in and across different spheres. Particular attention will be paid to the Cultural Heritage School’s bid to conserve and reproduce artefacts as a crucial element in their endeavour to reconstruct traditional crafts and skills. This will provide the basis for a better understanding of an object’s ability to transmit and preserve production skills and technologies.

 

 

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