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