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] Continue reading “Popular and Specialist Artisanal Knowledge in China, Mid-Thirteenth to Early Twentieth Centuries”

Insights into Loss from the History of Knowledge

This post is part confession and part revelation.

When Simone Lässig approached me about collaborating on migration and the history of knowledge, I immediately agreed.[1] I began writing about German scientists and the production of knowledge over twenty years ago, and much of my current work involves migrants.[2] Taking part in the GHI effort offered me an opportunity to think more systematically about the production of migrant-oriented knowledge and its implications for my studies of German communities across Latin America. Continue reading “Insights into Loss from the History of Knowledge”

The Writing Lesson

Woman seated at table, looking at book, pencil in hand, about to something
The Writing Lesson  by Morris Schulman, sponsored by the WPA, ca. 1935–43, and digitized by the New York Public Library.

This image of a middled-aged African American woman won’t let go of me. Seated at a table doing her writing lessons, many years of experience clearly visible on her face, she reminds me that much knowledge is not bound up in the written word. At the same time, her patient work suggests the power of the written word. She clearly wants to learn how to write. Why? Perhaps she was part of the Great Migration and her urban life required new skills or offered new opportunities? Perhaps it was a point of pride or so that she could read and respond to texts important to her emotional or spiritual life?

The picture also embodies learning by the artist through the Works Progress Administration. Besides reminding me about the techniques and skills the WPA fostered, it makes me wonder about the personal encounters between different worlds that the production of this piece must have entailed. What did those involved take away from the experience?

Mark Stoneman holds a PhD in history and is an editor at the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC.