Popular and Specialist Artisanal Knowledge in China, Mid-Thirteenth to Early Twentieth Centuries

In premodern China, the population was roughly divided according to professions into four groups: literati, farmers, artisans, and merchants. During this period, artisanal knowledge was mainly transmitted in person. Most Chinese artisans were not as literate as their European counterparts, if literate at all, and written texts played a minor role in the transmission of their specialized knowledge.[1] The master of a workshop taught the apprentices how to perform bodily actions by working alongside them and only transmitted written knowledge with brief and codified texts. Sometimes craft recipes were not even written down; they were memorized by masters and transferred verbally to designated successors in the craft. [2]

Although artisanal knowledge—the embodied and practical knowledge enabling one to make things—could not be learned without access to the master’s instruction, the non-practical knowledge of artisanship could be gained through written texts. One of the major textual sources was a category of book compiled and published since the late thirteenth century that we now call “daily-use encyclopedias” (riyong leishu 日用類書). Developed from the tradition of encyclopedias compiled by literati as a reservoir of literary knowledge for belles lettres, these daily-use encyclopedias shifted their focus away from the production of literature to the practical knowledge of everyday life, including crafts that could be performed without machinery. Their scope not limited to a particular aspect of knowledge, these encyclopedias functioned as general handbooks and manuals for living.[3]


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The contents of the Complete Collection of Classified Affairs Essential for Those Living at Home (Jujia biyong shilei quanji 居家必用事類全集), one of the encyclopedias compiled under Mongol rule in the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), demonstrates the extensive coverage of “daily-use encyclopedias.” In ten books, there was:

  1. studying, reading, writing, calligraphy, phonetics, letter-writing;
  2. family discipline, family rites;
  3. office: principles for officials, electional astrology, occultism, oneiromancy:
  4. household: feng shui, electional astrology for construction, livestock farming and its electional astrology;
  5. plant agriculture and its electional astrology, writing implements and book connoisseurship, lamps, repair of copperware, timing, identification of luxury goods;
  6. tea, soup, drinks, incense, dried fruits and nuts, brewing, paste making, electional astrology for food preparation, preserved meats and vegetables, salted seafood;
  7. cooking, dyeing, cleansing, incense, cosmetics;
  8. skills for officials;
  9. medical recipes; and
  10. longevity.[4]

Books 4 to 7 and 9 to 10 were typical of commoners’ everyday lives and covered different crafts, from cooking to making things. The other books did more than that. Book 1 provided the knowledge needed for a man to become learned, and Book 2 provided guidance on the administration of a family as well as on the collective events that helped sustain the identity of a large family. Books 3 and 8 revealed other target readers of daily-use encyclopedias. The Complete Collection was useful to literate commoners of various occupations, but also to governmental employees with administrative duties. This encyclopedia was not published specifically for commoners but aimed to serve as a popular source of knowledge for daily use by both elites and nonelites alike.

How practical was the artisanal knowledge provided by daily-use encyclopedias? In other words, could things be made with the knowledge from these texts? Recipes and instructions in the encyclopedias appear to have been too simple to be put into practice. Book 5 of the Complete Collection of Classified Affairs described a method of paper processing to produce a “yellow paper” for painting and calligraphy:

For every hundred pieces of paper, use 2 taels of alum and 1 tael of yellow gelatine. Dissolve them in hot water to form a dilute solution immediately. Spread the solution on the paper, let dry and repeat the process once. Pile up the paper and squeeze out water by placing a board or a table flat upon the pile. Then scour each piece of paper with plain cloth and the paper becomes smooth naturally.[5]

The obscure instructions lacked necessary details. What was the size of the paper to be processed? How much water should be used to dissolve “2 taels of alum and 1 tael of yellow gelatine”? The absence of precision impeded the direct application of recipes without the prerequisite artisanal know-how. The reader of such a daily-use encyclopedia without prerequisite knowledge would need to make further trial-and-error attempts to transform the recipe into viable procedures to make the thing.

“The Method of Yellow Paper,” Complete Collection of Classified Affairs Essential for Those Living at Home, Book 5, via Internet Archive , https://archive.org/details/02097175.cn

While daily-use encyclopedias made available a wide variety of artisanal knowledge, there also existed specialist treatises on artisanship characterized by their depth in description. Such treatises contained more description of the procedures and necessary techniques to carry out a given process. The origin of composing specialist treatises of artisanship dated back to the “Artificer’s Record” (“Kaogong ji” 考工記), written during the Warring States period (fifth century to 221 BCE). Most of these specialist treatises were written by literati, not artisans, because the latter were generally illiterate and did not rely on written texts to transmit their artisanship. As a result, these treatises leaned towards the needs of literati who wanted a handbook or manual of artisanship to, for example, assist them in the administration of artisanal production or in the identification of valuable artisanal products.

There were, of course, a few specialist treatises written by artisans themselves. Collected Essentials for Inksticks (Mofa jiyao 墨法集要) was one such exception. Having a close connection with their well-educated customers, inkstick-makers tended to have a higher literacy rate. The treatise’s author, Shen Jisun 沈繼孫 (1322–1403), was born when the Mongols ruled China and lived through the initial decades of the subsequent Ming Dynasty. He resided in Soochow, a city in the empire’s most developed region, Jiangnan 江南, and earned his livelihood as an inkstick maker. His treatise of artisanship included chapters on:

Oil-soaking, water-baths, oil bowls, lampblack collection, wicks, making lampblack, sieving lampblack, dissolving glue, additives, mixing lampblack, steaming ink dough, crushing the dough in a mortar, weighing, pounding the dough, rolling the dough out, surface treatment of inksticks, burying in ash for desiccation, removal from ash, polishing, trials, molds.[6]

These chapters provided much more detail than daily-use encyclopedias did. More than giving a simple recipe, Shen devoted great length to each procedure and the instruments used. He also discussed the choice of raw materials, in addition to the exact inkstick recipe he considered the best. Each chapter was accompanied by an illustration to demonstrate the procedure.


Shen Jisun, “Making Lampblack,” Collected Essentials for Inksticks  (14th century; published ca. 1775–1795), University of California, via HathiTrust, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.$b469699.

Specialist treatises and daily-use encyclopedias neither replaced nor complemented one another. They were written, published, and circulated in parallel. Readers could decide which to purchase at the book market, if the specialist treatises and daily-use encyclopedias were both available—a rare occasion, indeed. Due to their comprehensive nature for the everyday lives of people, daily-use encyclopedias were in greater demand and booksellers more likely to prepare some printed copies despite their length. Each category of specialist treatise had an insignificant number of readers, and the chances of such a treatise being prepared by a bookstore tended to be small. In this sense, the knowledge of artisanship in daily-use encyclopedias was more popular and widespread among readers, whereas that in specialist treatises was reserved for literati interested in that field to explore—although sometimes literate artisans also read the treatises for inspiration.

Historicizing written texts on artisanship is necessary for understanding the nature of popular and specialist artisanal knowledge in premodern China. Unlike modern handbooks and manuals, most Chinese written texts on artisanship were not compiled to guide a person, especially not one without prior knowledge, in the practice of a craft. Therefore, we should either devise a new method of reading these texts or perceive them as a cultural, not a technical or technological component of artisanship.

Wilson Chan is a PhD candidate in the History of Chinese Science and Technology in the School of Chinese, University of Hong Kong. His Twitter handle is @LeviLivy.


  1. Pamela O. Long, “Technological Transmission in China and Europe: A Comparative View”, in Cultures of Knowledge: Technology in Chinese History, ed. Dagmar Schäfer (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 75–84.  ↩
  2. A good introduction to this topic is Jacob Eyferth, “Craft Knowledge at the Interface of Written and Oral Cultures”, East Asian Science, Technology and Society 4, no. 2 (2010): 185–205, https://read.dukeupress.edu/easts/article/4/2/185/97735. For Chinese artisans, see also Joseph Needham, Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West: Lectures and Addresses on the History of Science and Technology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970); Jacob Eyferth, Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots: The Social History of a Community of Handicraft Papermakers in Rural Sichuan, 1920–2000 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009); Dagmar Schäfer, The Crafting of the 10,000 Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); and Dorothy Ko, The Social Life of Inkstones: Artisans and Scholarps in Early Qing China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).  ↩
  3. Benjamin Elman, “Collecting and Classifying: Ming Dynasty Compendia and Encyclopedias (Leishu),” Extrême-Orient, Extrême-Occident, hors série 2007: Qu’était-ce qu’écrire une encyclopédie en Chine? / What did it mean to write an encyclopedia in China?, ed. Florence Bretelle-Establet and Karine Chemla, (2007): 133–37, https://www.persee.fr/doc/oroc_0754–5010_2007_hos_1_1_1073.  ↩
  4. See the content page before each book of Jujia biyong shilei quanji 居家必用事類全集, in Beijing tushuguan Fuji zhenben congkan 北京圖書館古籍珍本叢刊, vol. 61, ed. Beijing tushuguan guji bianjizu 北京圖書館古籍p出版編輯組 (Beijing: Shumu wenxian chubanshe, 1998), 1–422.  ↩
  5. Jujia biyong shilei quanji, 203..  ↩
  6. Shen, Jisun 沈繼孫, Mofa jiyao 墨法集要, in Guojia tushuguan cang guji leibian 國家圖書館藏古籍兿術類編, ed. Xu Shu 徐蜀 (Beijing: Beijing tushuguan chubanshe, 2004), 197–98.  ↩
Suggested citation: Wilson Chan, “Popular and Specialist Artisanal Knowledge in China, Mid-Thirteenth to Early Twentieth Centuries,” History of Knowledge, May 30, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/05/30/artisanal-knowledge/.