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Shouzuo: old-generation craftsmen’s way of self-expression

HAO DAHAI and CHEN HONGMEI | 2021-12-02 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Several young people work on their hand-made porcelain toys. Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST

“Shouzuo (Tezukuri)” has been a quite popular concept over the past few years. Generally known as a derivative form of a Japanese word, it may be regarded as the shortened form for “Shougong Laozuo (“hand work”).” As a common netspeak, “tezukuri” can also be simply understood as our personal DIY (Do It Yourself). It has actually become something of an occupation over the past 10 years. 


During such a short period, internet technologies like “Interest Tribe,” “Vertical Community,” and “Instant Messaging” have expanded our ways of interacting with others, and also provided favorable conditions for “tezukuri” to go beyond the niche and become known to a wider public and play a role in the market. 
Becoming part of urban life 
Conceptually, “tezukuri” represents a kind of manual work, called “craftsmanship” by Richard Sennett in his The Craftsman. He criticizes those who understand it as hand labor like carpentry in a narrow sense, and believes that it should include various handiworks. On the operational level, “tezukuri” is similar to “handicraft” and “workmanship,” implying artistry or skill is needed to engage in manual work. In other words, “tezukuri workers” are similar to “craftsmen” in this new era. In our social development, most traditional handicrafts have lost their practical value and been declining day by day, due to industrialization and mechanized production. In some remote or minority areas that are not industrialized, some traditional handicrafts have luckily survived to date, due to their necessity in daily life. 
Therefore, the government has made efforts from the perspective of traditional culture protection, and protected traditional handicrafts in the form of intangible heritage protection. As a similar craftsmanship or manual skill, how come “tezukuri” has survived industrialization, and shown such great vitality, playing a part in our urban life? 
By comparison, in addition to means of production, scale, and market, traditional handicraft has observed the first essential survival principle of “confidential artistry,” and the succession principle of linear “master-to-apprentice” lineage has always failed to compete against industrial expansion. Intangible heritage protection pays particular attention to maintaining or restoring complete artistry, and representative inheritors are critical to their succession. “Tezukuri” has made efforts to instill various traditional artistry factors into its creation, integrating various artistry skills of ethnic groups from various regions in their history. 
Meanwhile, it also depends on artistry sharing on the internet globally (with social and material bases of industrialization needed to realize universal tools, materials, and spare time utilization), to help people to make a living and develop a hobby. Therefore, “tezukuri,” as a new trade, has played a role in this new era. 
Reflection on daily life 
Tezukuri has conformed to the times, and avoided declining like traditional handicraft. What do measures of counter-industrialization mean to people who see tezukuri as a favorable occupation? Marx’s remarks were definitely groundbreaking amongst criticisms against industrialization. In Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx revealed and criticized the alienation of labor under early-stage capitalist production relations. He believed that labor should be an activity of self-actualization and self-development. However, in reality, workers have been alienated from the product of their labor, labor process, human nature, and other people. Individual freedom and autonomy are denied. 
Scholars after Marx have also comprehensively criticized workers’ alienation, including technique, reason, nature, consumption, and culture. For instance, Herbert Marcuse pointed out that in an “advanced industrial society,” people have lost the positive dimensions that we need, such as “negative thinking” and “great refusal,” and eventually become a “one-dimensional man.” 
Tezukuri has the power to fight alienation. Technological innovation enables knowledge accumulation, and inspires individuals to understand social reality in an analytical way. Some tezukuri pioneers innovated by fusing everyday life with production, attracting and engaging more people along the way. We can look at tezukuri from the angles of the nature of labor, process of labor, and products of labor. First, it is a hobby that intrinsically drives individuals to practice and produce. It gives people pleasure, value, and meaning, while doing handicraft work. Mature tezukuri makers can fully demonstrate their creativity and show their taste. It is fair to say that tezukuri helps people actively satisfy and develop themselves. 
In addition, tezukuri is different from mechanical labor that features in streamline production and machine production. Tezukuri requires individuals to be highly independent throughout the entire production process, from designing, mold-making, and dealing with materials, to attaching meaning to the work. The complete process of labor allows makers to acquire a sense of complete personality, since it enables them to display their talents. 
Moreover, individuals can not only touch the product, but also understand, possess, consume, and reproduce the product. Producers interact with products, therefore workers and labor products are no longer alienated in this regard. 
Reviewing logic of industrialization 
The previous reflections on human alienation are grounded in the reality of industrialization, which underlies the logic of industrialization in both early and developed capitalist societies. Alvin Toffler points out in The Third Wave that standardization is regarded as the dominant principle of industrial civilization. Since Frederick Taylor’s scientific management methods were applied to industrial production, standardization prevailed, and society was gradually dominated by the logic of industrialization. As a result of the education system and workplace being shaped by standardization, human beings were transformed from well-rounded, vivid, unique, and complex individuals into “plain” industrial products of standardization, or pure labor forces like industrial products. 
There has been criticism centering on the logic of industrialization throughout. The Frankfurt School’s criticism on the cultural industry fires directly upon the suppression of human nature and the lack of individuality brought about by the industrialization culture characterized by standardization, while more scholars emphasize the value of self-individuality and diversity of differences that are de-standardized. Tezukuri, developed amidst this historical background, is actually a reflective practice to the logic of industrialization, expressing individualized self-imagination. 
The craftsmen of tezukuri are forming heterogeneity with their personal characteristics, their variety of skills, and the differentiation of the crafting. 
First of all, craftsmen differ in age, gender, education, class, and professional experience, ranging from young middle-class white-collar workers seeking new development due to career burnout, to part-time students aspiring to make a career out of personal interests; it could be middle-aged participants cultivating their tastes for leisure, or beginners just starting out, or proficient “experts” who are deeply involved, or even someone who’s somewhere in between. 
Secondly, globalized and diachronic skills and elements can be picked up by individuals and put into practice. Traditional crafts, foreign crafts, and contemporary craft skills and elements are arranged and combined in specific practices, and craftsmen perform different skills and maneuvers according to their personal preferences and abilities, hence more uncertainties. 
Thirdly, tezukuri is neither constrained by standardized machines nor forced by fixed or original designs and ideas, but relies on individual feelings and inspiration in the moment. 
On the other hand, tezukuri, as a business approach featuring two main forms, “tezukuri experience” and “personalization,” opens up a window for expressing differentiation to consumers to the maximum extent possible. Tezukuri experience is usually in the form of short sessions where consumers learn simple skills, use simple tools and materials, and experience the pleasure of doing it themselves in a short period of time. It can thus be considered a simple practice to express differentiation. While personalization invites consumers to participate in part of the crafting process to meet their special demands, such as incorporating their imagination in the design or putting a unique stamp on the finished product, giving a more unique meaning to a handmade work that already contains a wealth of individual characteristics. 
Scholars’ understanding of production mode has always been focused on the autonomy of man, which can be proved by either their struggle against alienation or their proactive response to the logic of industrialization. Labor alienation reveals the state of the autonomy of man being suppressed in industrial production, and as universal alienation occurs, the autonomy of man at the level of behavior and consciousness would be almost completely denied. The deeper reason for this process is the generalization and deepening of the logic of industrialization. We can see that standardization breaks through the production scene and extends to the society as a whole, breaking down differences and individuality, and thus severely damages the autonomy of man. Nevertheless, at the very moment of individual autonomy fading, the internet era brings opportunities for its return. 
Tezukuri, as the artisanal practice of the present age, puts individual’s reflection on industrial society into practice and re-establishes the autonomy of man. On the one hand, in the practice of tezukuri, individuals continue to take initiative, integrate creativity, fully participate in the crafting, maintain independence, and expand interactivity, transcending their understanding of labor and their own instrumentality, thus responding positively to alienation with critical thinking and practice. On the other hand, by highlighting the individual characteristics, the diversity of skills and the differences in practice, tezukuri constantly achieves de-standardization, and attaches rich emotions and meanings in the commercialized handmade experience and personalized customization. And in the practice of reflecting on the logic of industrialization, it manifests the autonomy of multiple subjects to different degrees. 
In general, tezukuri provides individuals with a way of self-realization and an opportunity for self-differentiated imagination. Through the restoration of individual autonomy, the vision of comprehensive human development is realized. 
Hao Dahai (professor) and Chen Hongmei are from the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China. 
Edited by WENG RONG