(Re)Constructing Expertise, Technology, and Geography
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
- Organised by Nanny Kim
- Nanny Kim, “Mining Specialists Introduced as Peasants and Literati Authors as Mining Specialists: Encounters in Research on Qing Period Mining in Southwestern China”
- Guangrui Zhao, “British Geographical Expeditions and the Production of Knowledge about Tibet, 1899–1947”
- Hailian Chen, “Discovering Mining Knowledge in the Qing Archival Documents: Reflections on the Surveys by Inexpert Literati and Oral Testimonies by Illiterate Miners”
- Peifeng Liu, “Communities of Southern Shanxi in Stele Records of the Ming and Qing: Diversity under the Cloak of Rural Villages”
This panel discusses approaches to and insights gained from the modern method of gathering information through fieldwork. The geographic and thematic focus is on areas that are sparsely covered in traditional historic records, such as geographic space, specific local communities, and sites of mining and metal production. In late imperial China, government and elite records were usually content with general outlines, sufficient for administrative and fiscal orientation on the county level. Ming and Qing writings on topics we now define as ethnographic, geographic and technological were produced by elite outsiders for elite outsiders. Free from the need to stoop to concrete detail, the more curious historian is often left unsatisfied. Fieldwork provides highly concrete if often disjointed information. This panel scrutinises possibility of using this source from historic fieldwork undertaken by servants of the British Empire in Tibet since the late nineteenth century to recent fieldwork on sites of historic mining by the authors. The presentations analyse the production of knowledge as well as the distance between received and local narratives, Chinese and British imperial conceptions, and discuss approaches that employ spatial analysis in assessing and interpreting fieldwork findings. The four papers present research results regarding the production of field-based knowledge and the possibilities of gaining insights into past diversities beyond the bland simplicities that received records suggest.
Nanny Kim, “Mining Specialists Introduced as Peasants and Literati Authors as Mining Specialists: Encounters in Research on Qing Period Mining in Southwestern China”
This paper’s starting points are an incongruity and a seeming congruence. The incongruity arises from the fact that the authors of our core texts on the technologies of mining and smelting in late imperial China were erudite scholars but had a limited interest in understanding, how things actually worked. The seeming congruence is between late imperial texts that present mining communities as groups of landless poor who apparently acquired their skills on the job, on the one hand, and informants who present themselves as peasants but gradually demonstrate their expertise that they acquired through practical work of many years, or in continuing a family tradition. Images old and new suggest that Chinese mining was performed with a minimum of technological input and a maximum of cheap labour. The complexities of mining and smelting, however, contradict this suggestion, unless we assume that economics worked differently in China or that Chinese miners had no human aspirations but superhuman skills. The presentation explores possibilities and limitations of analysing a small and limited body of written sources and the differentiation of perspectives and representations that can be found by listening long and carefully enough.
Guangrui Zhao, “British Geographical Expeditions and the Production of Knowledge about Tibet, 1899–1947”
British explorers of the late 19th to mid-20th century are the creators of modern knowledge about Tibet. The majority of the men were in the employ of the colonial government of India, while a few were professional surveyors. In their backgrounds, they shared training in modern schools of the British empire, involving a scientific world outlook as well as an imperialist and racialist perspectives on other peoples and world regions. In their work, they profited from the privilege and protection by the leading world power of the time. Taking part in explorations was a form of the “great game,” usually in the form of peaceful expeditions, but occasionally employing armed force and taking to looting as well. The knowledge that the expeditions produced was diligently recorded, printed and archived by British imperial governments, and much was published in scholarly and popular books and articles. The first producers of modern knowledge about Tibet shaped Western images of this region of the world, perpetuating the precision of scientific information as well as their imperialist romanticism. This paper explores the explorers during their fieldwork. It examines the processes of gathering, interpreting, and creating information and analyses the roles of preconceptions and experience, as well as the processing of the collected information in published records and popular works. The analysis traces the individual experience and the direct observations of the Tibetan Other in relation to collectively held conceptions. It also considers the tensions between scientific impartiality and power politics and their significant influence on the newly created knowledge tradition.
Hailian Chen, “Discovering Mining Knowledge in the Qing Archival Documents: Reflections on the Surveys by Inexpert Literati and Oral Testimonies by Illiterate Miners”
Mining in China’s traditional agrarian society has been linked with the images of impoverished landless drifters and “primitive” techniques. In fact, technologies (broadly defined, including managerial skills) were crucial to operate mines. Previous historical studies on preindustrial Chinese mining have largely relied on interpreting the few surviving printed texts on mining and metallurgy. My recent study on Chinese zinc mining in the eighteenth century has broadened our understanding of traditional mining by investigating a diverse array of primary sources. Among them, the Qing archival documents deserve more attention than they have hitherto received from historians of technology. Focusing on selected case studies of capital crimes and administrative problems recorded in the imperial archive, this paper examines the production of mining knowledge from the perspectives of both elites and illiterate miners in the Qing period. Authored by the inexpert literati-officials without hands-on experience, these materials on mining nevertheless represent an important dimension of constructing mining knowledge about the sites among the educated elites. Equally important are the oral testimonies in the legal cases on the southwestern mining societies that reflect/produce the miners’ world with their self-perception. The presentation deepens our knowledge about an under-represented social group in Qing China and demonstrates the potential of tapping new primary sources for research on the history of technology.
Peifeng Liu, “Communities of Southern Shanxi in Stele Records of the Ming and Qing: Diversity under the Cloak of Rural Villages”
Local gazetteers of southern Shanxi present the region as rural, with some peasants pursuing mining and iron smelting as a sideline occupation. Richthofen’s field trip of 1870 is an eye-opener on the region’s technologies, the specialisations, and the importance that the iron industry still possessed after decades of civil war. A long-term fieldwork project involved the collection of several dozen stele inscriptions that record temple donations. These provide often isolated, but highly specific records on communities, the economic weight of the mining sector, of social structures and safety nets organised by local societies. This presentation assesses the mining sector on the basis of these new sources and attempts an interpretation of the socio-economic structures in the mining communities that gazetteers represented as rural villages.
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(Re)Constructing Expertise, Technology, and Geography