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Evolution and influences of Chinese craftsmanship

LI YANZU and PAN TIANBO | 2022-08-04 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Wu Zhaoguang, an inheritor of compass production at Anhui provincial level of intangible cultural heritage, is making a compass. Photo: CFP

Chinese craftsmanship culture is an important part of Chinese civilization. Over a long history, Chinese craftsmen have created a dazzling craftsmanship culture with their scrupulousness, self-improvement, and by striving for excellence.

The project to trace the origins of Chinese civilization shows that cities, classes, kingship, and the state constitute a new approach to the study on the origins of Chinese civilization, which abandons the traditional approach consisting of traditional metallurgy, writings, and cities. To some extent, approaches studying the origins of Chinese civilization are inspired by the craftsmanship culture. 
In early Chinese society, crafts represented by the inventions of the millstone, blast furnace, plow, and wheel laid the groundwork for agricultural development, so the ancient agricultural population grew rapidly. The development of wheel technology made it possible for people to migrate and gather, and cities started to appear. The large number of cities and towns emerging in the Central Plain provided a broad space for the development of handicrafts, and a craftsmen class independent of agriculture began to appear. That is to say, with the development of cities and handicrafts, classes emerged as a symbol of the division of labor. The emergence of class-based society marked the advent of the stage of civilization in ancient China.
Evolution of Chinese craftsmanship
In prehistoric-China, craftsmen created prehistoric pottery, millstones, jade ware, lacquerware, and other handiwork systems under a reverence for nature and deities, revealing their poetic expression of nature, objects, and the universe.
The Chinese craftsmanship culture entered a new stage during the Xia (c. 2070–1600 BCE) and Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE) dynasties. The Xia implemented an institution known as Gong-zheng [in charge of craftsmen and their production]. During this period, the first prosperity of the early Chinese craftsmanship culture appeared in the technologies of bronzeware, blast furnaces, wheels, smelting, etc. It is said that Xi Zhong, a Che-zheng [a title of the official in charge of vehicles and clothing in the Xia court], invented the world’s first wooden-wheeled chariot.
The Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE) implemented the “Six Officials System,” including the Heaven Official, Earth Official, Spring Official, Summer Official, Autumn Official, and Winter Official. The Winter Official is also known as Si-kong [a title of the official in charge of handicraft industries and civil engineering]. Almost all the artisan trades and production types that have remained to this day emerged during this period. The Kao Gong Ji, or the Records of Craftsmen, the first encyclopedia of crafts and technologies in China, was also compiled during the Zhou era.
The Han Empire (202 BCE–220 CE) adopted the system of “Three Lords and Nine Ministers” [a central administrative system]. Among the “Nine Ministers,” Shao-fu, translated as Minister Steward, was responsible for all the craftsmen and their production affairs in the country.
From the Sui (581–618) to the Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, the Chinese craftsmanship culture entered the era of the “Ministry of Public Works.” During the reign of Emperor Wen of Sui (r. 581–604), the “Three Departments and Six Ministries” system replaced the previous “Three Lords and Nine Ministers” system as the primary administrative structure, and the official position of Minister Steward was replaced by the Gong-bu, or the “Ministry of Public Works,” [which dominated the administrative systems of the construction and maintenance of infrastructure and other government construction works, the manufacturing and provisioning of government equipment, and the hiring of artisans or laborers for temporary service]. The titles of officials under the “Ministry of Public Works” system highlighted the rank and sequence of officials, which had a strong sense of hierarchy. It reflected the gradual strengthening of the centralized political system.
Global influences
From the perspective of global history, the global spread and influence of Chinese craftsmanship culture cannot be ignored. 
The technical aesthetics of Chinese fans plays a role in the construction of civilization. Under the influence of European civilization, Chinese fans display unique aesthetic vitality and powerful growth. The Chinese fans embody various art forms, such as handicraft work, painting, calligraphy, literature, opera, architecture, and martial arts, which are full of excellent genes of Chinese civilization. The global spread of Chinese fan culture has connected Chinese civilization with other civilizations around the world. 
Millstone technology has improved and developed the production structure, diet structure, and nutritional structure in many areas over the world. In particular, millstone technology was an important medium for the shift by humans from food gathering to food processing, a symbol of its global value and function. Chinese millstone technology has been exported to many countries, showing that no civilization is isolated or static, and that human civilizations are fluid and learn from each other.
The compass made it possible for Europeans to explore the world, and accelerated the speed of global expansion and communication. That is to say, the global dissemination of Chinese compass technology has brought huge and profound social changes to the world, stimulating the Europeans’ spatial awareness, triggering the division and reorganization of global resources, accelerating the development of natural sciences in Europe, and demonstrating the function of Chinese technological culture in the development of global civilization.
Before the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties, Chinese blower technology was in a leading position in the world. After the 16th century, blower technology gradually spread from Asia to Africa, Europe, and the Americas. It has provided technical support for global agricultural reform and industrial revolution, and promoted innovation in agricultural production, military manufacturing, and construction industries. In particular, the blower technology cleared the decks—high cost and low quality—for iron smelting, effectively solved the problem of low metallurgical production efficiency, and provided the basic conditions for the accumulation of wealth in Europe and their global colonial expansion. As a paradigm of global technological innovation, European blast furnace technology has triggered other technological progress and development, and caused philosophical criticism of blast furnace technology in European countries.
Plowing technology changed not only people’s farming behavior, but also their social behavior, including settlement, agricultural, and industrial behaviors. For example, in areas such as Mesopotamia, the Yangtze River and the Yellow River, and the Ganges basins, ancient plowing skills provided sufficient crops for people to live a stable life. Plowing technology not only completed the transformation from a migratory life to an agricultural life for humans, but also caused a series of social changes, which were even more profound. The development of plowing technology directly triggered the development of metallurgical handicraft industries, as numerous plowing harnesses and their accessories were produced. The development of metallurgical industries directly triggered rapid growth of iron smelting and steel casting technologies, which in turn laid important foundations for the European industrial revolution.
The introduction and use of stirrup technology is a product of the cultures of Chinese nomadic tribes. The early brave nomads refused to use the Indian stirrup, which were introduced during the Han Dynasty, as they considered it a sign of cowardice. It was not until the Wei and Jin dynasties (220–420) that the Chinese nomads started to use stirrups due to the frequency of the wars, and its direct consequence was that chariots were replaced by cavalry, which greatly increased the flexibility, scale, and lethality of war. The use of stirrups also shortened the time of war, changed military patterns, and directly affected the development trend of global civilization. The Persians adopted stirrup technology from the Turks, and it was soon introduced to the Arab world [and then to Europe]. Though not widely spread or used in Arab countries, the stirrup has had a revolutionary military and political influence on Europe. The significance of stirrup technology to European civilizations is mainly manifested in the fields of institution, economy, military, etc., especially in the birth and development of European feudal civilization. It has had a profound impact on the military, agriculture, knighthood, and institutional changes in Europe.
The significance of ancient Chinese firearm technology to the development of global civilization is diverse, especially in the change of war (military) patterns, the forms of political civilization, the development of religious civilizational systems, and the development of modern science. The invention of gunpowder and firearms changed the global patterns of warfare and triggered a global military revolution. The global significance of gunpowder or firearms is double-edged, but humans have never abandoned gunpowder or debased its global significance because of its brutality in warfare.
It can be seen that these forgotten “small technologies” have provided technical particles and cultural genes for the development of global civilization. In the new era, extending the study of Chinese craftsmanship culture can further answer major questions such as the outline of the development of Chinese civilization. Strengthening the study and interpretation of Chinese craft and technological objects unearthed around the world is a good way to promote the study of Chinese civilization.
Li Yanzu is a professor from the Academy of Arts & Design at Tsinghua University; Pan Tianbo is a professor from the School of Fine Arts at Jiangsu Normal University.