China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Artisans remain one of the least studied segments of late imperial Chinese society, despite their obvious importance to the dynamics of the pre-industrial economy, and to the material culture that enveloped the life of every person. Lack of obvious and systematic source material has been a major obstacle to research. Promising work has looked at surviving manuals, luxury items, museum objects, and Imperial Household production. In this presentation, I will turn instead to working-class artisans (jiang 匠), using the texts that they cast or carved onto the objects that they made.
Drawing on material from my research on the Ming/Qing religious economy of North China, I will introduce three types of sources: 1) Artisan and workshops names inscribed on objects (stone masons on stelae; iron-casters on bells; tile-makers on lead-glazed architectural elements). 2) Stelae records of the teams that constructed temples and their expenses (carpenters, roofers). 3) Traces of workshops on uninscribed statues of gods (bronze casters). I will suggest the advantages of the collection and aggregation of a great many examples as a method for the study of these ordinary artisans, and argue in passing that the material culture of everyday life in late imperial China was regionally, not nationally, based.