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Stone, Scissors, Paper: Thinking Through Things in Chinese History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 September 2019

Dorothy Ko*
Barnard College
Corresponding author. email:


What would Chinese history look like with things taking the center stage? Our present understanding of this history is animated primarily by literate people in pursuit of examination degrees and sons, and often filtered through such modern social science categories as culture, ethnicity, and gender. In this introduction, I put the set of five articles in the special issue in conversation with recent research to identify new analytic categories and research strategies that accord agency to things, remap the parameters of Chinese history, and ponder the new directions afforded by the study of material cultures.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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The framework of this introduction was formulated in my keynote address to the “Thinking Through Things in Qing China” workshop held at the Johns Hopkins University in September 22–23, 2016. I thank organizer Tobie Meyer-Fong and the participants for their insights. Gratitude is also due to Edward (Ned) Cooke of Yale University for his help with sources on material culture studies in the field of US history.


1 (accessed January 22, 2019). An artifact is “an object made by a human being, typically an item of historical or cultural interest.”

2 “Archive of National Treasures” is currently aired on CCTV-4, the Chinese-international channel for viewers in the PRC and overseas. Although the actual viewing figures for the program are not known, the channel itself boasts an average daily viewership of 379 million in China alone in its solicitations for advertisements. See (accessed January 22, 2019).

3 Recent historical research on material cultures in China has announced the arrival of a diverse emergent field. Limited in space does not allow me to include an exhaustive list here. Some representative works not cited elsewhere in this Introduction, in order of publication, include: Clunas, Craig, Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Rawski, Evelyn, Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, Accumulating Culture: The Collections of Emperor Huizong (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008)Google Scholar; Eyferth, Jacob, Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots: The Social History of a Community of Handicraft Papermakers in Rural Sichuan, 1920–2000 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hay, Jonathan, Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China (Oxford: Reaktion Books, 2010)Google Scholar; Wu, Yulian, Luxurious Networks: Salt Merchants, Status, and Statecraft in Eighteenth-Century China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schlesinger, Jonathan, A World Trimmed with Fur: Wild Things, Pristine Places, and the Natural Fringes of Qing Rule (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ho, Denise Y., Curating Revolution: Politics on Display in Mao's China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Martin, Ann Smart and Garrison, J. Ritchie, “Shaping the Field,” in American Material Culture: The Shape of the Field, edited by Martin and Garrison (Winterthur, DE: The Henry Francis du Pont Museum, 1997), 120Google Scholar. For the history of the related field of decorative arts, see Edward S. Cooke, “American Decorative Arts and the Academy,” The Walpole Society Notebook, 2012, 81–99. The anthropological approach is encapsulated in Tilley, Christopher et al. , eds, Handbook of Material Culture (London: Sage, 2006)Google Scholar. For the art historical approach, see Prown, Jules David, Art as Evidence: Writings on Art and Material Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

5 This quotation describes the approach of the pioneering and influential scholar Henry Glassie, who argues that material cultures constitute a system of communications from the past with recoverable rules. As such, material cultures constitute a more truthful representation of the lives of non-literate people than texts. Martin and Garrison, “Shaping the Field,” 3.

6 Martin and Garrison, “Shaping the Field,” 20.

7 Martin and Garrison, “Shaping the Field,” 20.

8 Lothar Ledderose's study of the Qin workshops of terra cotta soldiers is seminal, as is the book in which it appears: Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)Google Scholar. The first book-length study of early imperial workshops and artisans in English is Barbieri-Low, Anthony, Artisans in Early Imperial China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

9 Notable exceptions include pioneering works in Chinese by archaeologists as well as scholars in gongyi meishu shi 工藝美術史 (the history of arts and crafts) and shougongye shi 手工業史 (the history of handicrafts). In archaeology, an exemplary study is Dongfang, Qi 齊東方, Tangdai jinyinqi yanjiu 唐代金銀器研究 (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue, 1999)Google Scholar. Historians of arts and crafts, trained and housed in a system of academies of arts and crafts separate from universities, have produced a series of textbooks organized by dynasties. Works of methodological reflections include: Jian, Hang 杭間, Shouyi de sixiang 手藝的思想 (Ji'nan: Shandong huabao, 2003)Google Scholar; Yiyi, Xu 徐藝乙, Wuhua gongqiao: Chuantong wuzhiwenhua yanjiu de tansuo yu yanjiu 物華工巧:傳統物質文化探索與研究 (Tianjin: Tianjin renmin meishu, 2005)Google Scholar.

10 For a recent effort in combining studies of visual and material cultures, see Ebrey, Patricia Buckley and Huang, Shih-shan Susan, eds, Visual and Material Cultures in Middle Period China (Leiden: Brill, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 The concept of “cultural biography,” which scholars have found relevant to studies of material cultures in China, is Igor Kopytoff's. See his chapter The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, edited by Appardurai, Arjun (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Originally a sixth article was planned, one by a historian of science who works on textile technology. Regretfully this approach is not represented in the present special issue.

13 Mencius 3A.4. Translation by Derk Bodde. See discussion in my The Social Life of Inkstones: Artisans and Scholars in Early Qing China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017), 311Google Scholar.

14 See, for example, Naquin, Susan, Peking: Temples and City Life, 1400–1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

15 This was made clear in a pioneering volume, Writing and Materiality in China: Essays in Honor of Patrick Hanan, edited by Zeitlin, Judith T. and Liu, Lydia H. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Wu Hung's chapter, “On Rubbings: Their Materiality and Historicity” (29–72) is particularly pertinent to the present discussion.

16 Jonathan Hay, ‘Guo Zhongshu's Archaeology of Writing’, in this issue.

17 Susan Mann draws attention to the material dimensions of domestic life by focusing on female labor. See her Precious Records: Women in China's Long Eighteenth Century (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997)Google Scholar. Francisca Bray does so by construing domestic women as technologists and cultural producers, thus shifting the definition of technology from text-based knowledge to action-based culture, in Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997)Google Scholar. For Bray's articulation of a “new materialism,” see her Toward a Critical History of Non-Western Technology,” in China and Historical Capitalism: Genealogies of Sinological Knowledge, edited by Brook, Timothy and Blue, Gregory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 158209CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Kile, S.E. and Kleutghen, Kristina, “Seeing Through Pictures and Poetry: A History of Lenses (1681),” Late Imperial China 38.1 (2017), 47112CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Kleutghen, Kristina, Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015)Google Scholar.

19 Gould, Stephen Jay, Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987)Google Scholar.

20 Hay, Jonathan, “The Diachronics of Early Qing Visual and Material Culture,” in The Qing Formation in World-Historical Time, edited by Struve, Lynn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 303–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Meyer-Fong develops these categories from her analysis of material culture in her recent book, What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in Nineteenth-Century China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013)Google Scholar. This book shows that when the core values of a civilization came under attack, writing on pieces of paper acquired a talismanic aura, as vehicles of truth that far exceed their flimsy materiality. Like other tangible things such as bones, “paper” became freighted with unbearable moral weight.

22 Dagmar Schäfer, “Dynastic Knowledge and the Knowledge of Dynasties: Politics and the History of Scientific Change,” paper presented at Columbia University, April 3, 2017.

23 Research on “scissors,” or tools and instruments, is particularly needed. As Yulia Frumer reminds us in her recent book on time-keeping devices in Tokugawa Japan, working with a thing—in this case an instrument to measure miniscule temporal units—can produce new concepts or mental structures about the world in the form of new theories about planetary motion. “Scissors,” or tools and instruments, are particularly good to think with. Frumer, , Making Time: Astronomical Time Measurement in Tokugawa Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 A pioneering work is Chang, K.C., ed., Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977)Google Scholar. It has inspired, among others, Swislocki's, Mark monograph, Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the Urban Experience in Shanghai (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a recent study by an anthropologist, see Anderson, E.N., Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014)Google Scholar. For a historical study of food as medicine, see Leung, Angela Ki Che and Caldwell, Melissa L., eds, Moral Foods: The Construction of Nutrition and Health in Modern Asia (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2019)Google Scholar.

25 Kristina Kleutghen, “Jade, Lacquer, and Ink: Qianlong's Gifts Bestowed on the Macartney Embassy,” paper presented at the Thinking Through Things in Qing China workshop, Johns Hopkins University, September 22–23, 2016, 3.

26 Rachel Silberstein, “Other People's Clothes: Second-Hand Clothes Dealers and the Western Art Collectors in Early Twentieth-Century China,” unpublished paper, 3.

27 Skinner, G. William, “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China, I,” Journal of Asian Studies 24.1 (1964), 343CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China, II,” Journal of Asian Studies 24.2 (1965), 195228CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 The work of Yang Zhishui 揚之水, combining the traditional Mingwuxue 名物學 (the study of names of things) with visual and material analyses, is inspiring. See her Shijing mingwu xinzheng 詩經名物新証 (Tianjin: Tianjin jiaoyu, 2007)Google Scholar.

29 Kleutghen, “Jade, Lacquer, and Ink,” 6.

30 The research of Thomas T. Allsen on things in a transnational context has been particularly illuminating. See his earlier work, Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire: A Cultural History of Islamic Textiles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)Google Scholar and his last, The Steppe and the Sea: Pearls in the Mongol Empire (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019)Google Scholar.

31 Silberstein, “Other People's Clothes,” passim.

32 Recent research on Ming–Qing institutional history include: Rowe, William T., Saving the World: Chen Hongmou and Elite Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001)Google Scholar; Guy, R. Kent, Qing Governors and Their Provinces: The Evolution of Territorial Administration in China, 1644–1796 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010)Google Scholar.

33 For recent studies of the Qing imperial workshops, see Gugong bowuyuan 故宮博物院 and Bolin Mapuxuehui kejishi yanjiusuo 柏林馬普學會科技史研究所, eds, Gongting yu difang 宮廷與地方 (Beijing: Qijincheng, 2010). Kaijun Chen has analyzed the Qing Imperial Porcelain Manufactory in his “The Rise of Technocratic Culture in High-Qing China: A Case Study of Bondservant (Booi) Tang Ying (1682–1756)” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2014). See also Moll-Murata, Christine, State and Crafts in the Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018)Google Scholar.

34 Pamela O. Long, “Trading Zones in Early Modern Europe,” Isis 106.4 (Dec. 2015): 840–47, quotation from 840. Cf. Long, , Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences, 1400–1600 (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2011), 94Google Scholar. For a description of four nodes and modes of knowledge transmission, see Schäfer, Dagmar, “Introduction,” in Cultures of Knowledge: Technology in Chinese History, edited by Schäfer, Dagmar (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 118Google Scholar. For an influential study of artisanal workshops in early modern Europe, see Smith, Pamela H., The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.