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The Crafting of the 10,000 Things

Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China

The last decades of the Ming dynasty, though plagued by chaos and destruction, saw a significant increase of publications that examined advances in knowledge and technology. Among the numerous guides and reference books that appeared during this period was a series of texts by Song Yingxing (1587–1666?), a minor local official living in southern China. His Tiangong kaiwu, the longest and most prominent of these works, documents the extraction and processing of raw materials and the manufacture of goods essential to everyday life, from yeast and wine to paper and ink to boats, carts, and firearms.

In The Crafting of the 10,000 Things, Dagmar Schäfer probes this fascinating text and the legacy of its author to shed new light on the development of scientific thinking in China, the purpose of technical writing, and its role in and effects on Chinese history. Meticulously unfolding the layers of Song’s personal and cultural life, Schäfer chronicles the factors that motivated Song to transform practical knowledge into written culture. She then examines how Song gained, assessed, and ultimately presented knowledge, and in doing so articulates this era’s approaches to rationality, truth, and belief in the study of nature and culture alike.  Finally, Schäfer places Song’s efforts in conjunction with the work of other Chinese philosophers and writers, before, during, and after his time, and argues that these writings demonstrate collectively a uniquely Chinese way of authorizing technology as a legitimate field of scholarly concern and philosophical knowledge.

Offering an overview of a thousand years of scholarship, The Crafting of the 10,000 Things explains the role of technology and crafts in a culture that had an outstandingly successful tradition in this field and was a crucial influence on the technical development of Europe on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

352 pages | 24 halftones, 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Asian Studies: East Asia

History: Asian History

History of Science

Literature and Literary Criticism: Asian Languages


“An erudite, nuanced, and groundbreaking contribution to the study of science and technology in early modern China. Highly recommended.”

H. Doss | Choice

The Crafting of the 10,000 Things is open to any readers who enjoy intellectual adventures.”

Chu Pingyi | Isis

“[A] brilliant and subtle investigation of the philosophy of technology in early modern China.”

Peter C. Perdue | Technology and Culture

“[A] completely new reading of Tiangong kaiwu that lends it a depth no scholar has previously detected. . . . [A] major contribution.”

Timothy Brook, University of British Columbia | Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies

The Crafting of the 10,000 Things is a great achievement, which will repay careful reading on the part of historians of Western Europe and other parts of the world, as well as of China.”

Pamela O. Long | Metascience

“Schäfer brings Song and his book out of the narrower history of Chinese technology to integrate him into the broader field of Chinese history as well as the global history of science beyond East Asia. For these and other qualities, the History of Science Society awarded this book their 2012 Pfizer Award for most outstanding book on the history of science. Just as Song’s Works of Heaven opens up the world of craftsmen’s knowledge in seventeenth-century China, Schäfer’s The Crafting of the 10,000 Things arguably exemplifies an illuminating approach to the craft of writing on the global history of science in the present.”

Marta Hanson, Johns Hopkins University | Journal of Asian Studies

“When it was first rediscovered in Japan early last century, modernist Japanese, Chinese, and Euro-American scholars hastily assimilated Song Yingxing’s Tiangong kaiwu to the accruing literature on the allegedly ill-fated history of science and technology in late imperial China. They framed an overdetermined view of Song’s accomplishments in light of the failure of China to develop ‘modern science.’ This simple-minded teleology has now been challenged by Dagmar Schäfer. Schäfer contextualizes Song’s so-called magnum opus by placing this longest and most prominent of Song’s works alongside his other writings, and reenacts for us the culturally embedded practices that informed Song Yingxing’s career of knowledge-making in a time of precocious commercialization and commoditization in Ming China.”

Benjamin A. Elman, Princeton University

 “The Crafting of the 10,000 Things is a richly textured study of knowledge in the making, seen through the life and thought of Song Yingxing, a seventeenth-century philosophical iconoclast whose study of technologies laid out a radical view of cosmological processes and their relation to human nature. Dagmar Schäfer offers a provocative and convincing portrait of a maverick but comprehensive thinker who, in the white heat of indignation provoked by a political scandal, wove a complex and coherent theory of cosmic process and human action into a set of arresting texts on the heavens, on human crafts, on sound, on politics, and ethics, all inextricably commingled in Chinese natural philosophy. This brilliant book will be attractive and accessible to students and scholars in the cultural history of science and technology, in intellectual history, and in world history, as well as in Chinese studies.”

Francesca Bray, University of Edinburgh

“Dagmar Schäfer uses the remarkable work of the Ming scholar and minor official Song Yingxing to bring together the philosophical values of tradition and innovation among the Ming intellectual elite with the material culture of jade, silk, farming, and many other crafts. She is sensitive to all the registers of these objects: how they were processed, made, and marketed; their role in determining status in a steeply but subtly graded hierarchy; the economics of their manufacture and sale; the symbolic and philosophical uses to which they were put. In her hands, Song’s idiosyncratic cosmology becomes a lens through which to see Ming theoretical and practical culture in a new light.”

Lorraine Daston, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

Table of Contents


Knowing “Things and Affairs” in Premodern China

Nature, Crafts, and Knowing

Chapter 1. Private Affairs

The Ming Dynasty and the Song Family

Childhood and Education

Driving Forces—The Appointment of Chen Qixin

Song’s Writing Campaign

Chapter 2. Affairs of Honor

Knowledge in Terms of qi: Universal Rulings and Rationality

The Truth in Heaven and the Order of qi

The Power of Heaven—Omens and Eclipses

Systems of Value: The Sage-Kings, the Authority of the Past, and Man’s Role

The Knowledge in Crafts

Chapter 3. Public Affairs

Crafts and the Ming State

Man’s Nature (xing) and Talents

Abilities and Education

Social Permeability and the Commercialization of Society: The Merchant

Customs and Habits

Chapter 4. Written Affairs

Rhetoric of Knowledge Inquiry: Texts and Experience

Images, Technology and Argument

Observing the Nature of qi: Theory and Practice in Knowledge Construction

The Complexity of qi Transformations—Composites and Compositions of qi

Chapter 5. Formulating the Transformation

Reading the Signature of yin-yang qi in Gas, Salt, Wind, and Rain

Growth and Decay: Wood, Corpses, and the Proportional Relation of yin and yang

Glitches in the Matrix of qi: The Concepts of Ashes and Particles

Chapter 6. Acoustics

An Anatomy of Sound

The Human Voice

Volume and Velocity

Resonance and Harmony

Conclusion. Leaving the Theater

Epilogue. Aftermath

By Virtue of Friendship: Literary Sponsorship

By Virtue of Position: Outside and Opposition

By Virtue of Loyalty: Moral Obligations

An Artifact in Transmission: The Editions of the Works of Heaven

Writing about Practical Knowledge in the Chinese Literati World


Appendix 1. Chinese Dynasties and Various Rulers

Appendix 2. Song Yingxing curriculum vitae

Appendix 3. Editions of the Tiangong kaiwu 天工開物





Association for Asian Studies: Joseph Levenson Prize (Pre-1900)

History of Science Society: Pfizer Award

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