China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Combining the study of art, literature, and science, this paper presents new research on the sixteenth- century book Xiushi lu 髤飾録 (A Treatise of Lacquer Art), the only surviving pre-modern monograph on Chinese lacquer. Authored by the artisan Huang Cheng, the book provides a glimpse into the material, intellectual, and moralistic world of artisans in China.
While the treatise has been regarded as a key reference in the study of the techniques and materials of Chinese lacquer, its cosmological, moralistic, and ethical dimensions have long been dismissed by modern scholars. Through an examination of key concepts expounded in the treatise, I argue that the text reflects neither the obscure knowledge of the artisan-author, nor moral regulation imposed on craft production by the official and ruling class, but rather his effort to construct the image of a learned and respected artisan and to elevate the status of practical and material knowledge in the scholarly and literary world. In this light, the book signals artisans’ growing self-awareness with their rising social and economic status in the late Ming dynasty. In passing, this paper will discuss issues of translating key terms concerning Chinese artisans in the context of Euro-American traditions of understanding East Asian art as primarily decorative rather than high art. The paper is part of the research project to foster collaboration among scientists, conservators, and art historians and to make this treatise available in the English-speaking world through a translation project.