- Graphics and Text in the Production of Technical Knowledge in China: The Warp and the Weft
The nineteen essays gathered in this engaging volume add up to a compelling discussion of relationships between text and image across the history of visual culture in China, with an emphasis on technological imagery. The scope of the book is impressive. It traverses history from the Shang dynasty (1600–1100 bce) to the twentieth century and takes in a diversity of subjects, among them: mathematical diagrams; illustrations of humans and human skeletons; maps of terrestrial, celestial, religious, textual, and conceptual realms; and representations of plants and industrial and agricultural processes. Unity of purpose is furnished by a common theme: explorations of relationships between tu, a type of imagery often associated with technology, and the texts into which these tu were incorporated.
In her introduction, Francesca Bray sets out to question definitions of tu as “pictures,” as it is usually translated. Bray challenges established parameters of technological pictures as she investigates the diachronic developments of the term tu during its long history. She prefers not to confine it to an English equivalent. Rather, she proposes that in China tu is a functional category that is regarded as “templates for action” (p. 2).While this is an intriguing idea, one may wonder whether this aspect of imaging is unique to China or specific to technological graphics. In technology-focused materials, text and image typically work together to convey a message—inevitably, given the inherent didactic aim. Readers or viewers are given codes or instructions to better apprehend concepts and apply them where appropriate. Bray defines tu as “a specialist term denoting only those graphic images or layouts which encoded technical knowledge” (p. 2). This is perhaps too restrictive: in Chinese practice, many images that have no technical content are labeled tu. [End Page 202]
But quibbles over terminology distract attention from the merits of the collection as a whole, and this is not a technical treatise on the concept of tu throughout all of Chinese history. It is praiseworthy for its efforts to initiate an inspection of the interactions among knowledge, science, technology, and imagery. At its best, it allows the reader to see alternative systems of thought and their related technologically informed imagery in historical context, and it offers insight into the meaning and functions of imagery and technology during specific episodes in Chinese history.
Three contributions warrant particular attention for their methodological innovativeness as well as their scholarly quality. Alexei Volkov, in an essay on Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce) use of geometric imagery as reformulated in the thirteenth century, argues that “a modern historian of mathematics should investigate the theoretical premises of a given mathematical tradition” that may or may not subscribe to the foundations promoted in the discipline as presented by the Greeks (p. 455). How such an effort to account for the cultural framework might work in practice is demonstrated by Anne Despeux, in a fascinating narrative of the creation of skeletal imagery in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century China. A guiding force behind the depictions of skeletons was the government’s wish to document cases of death in which foul play may have been involved. The effort to identify criminal activity generated new knowledge on the nature of the human skeleton and alternative imagery that signified advances in understanding the human body.
In Despeux’s essay, the reader can discern the convergence of morality, government responsibility, technology, formation of new types of knowledge, and alternative formal arrangements to envision (and signify) this new knowledge. As Despeux explains, the motivation to develop more accurate imagery and text was driven not by a desire to record visually the inner workings of anatomy in an abstract pursuit of scientific knowledge—an approach associated with Western knowledge. Rather, the creation of more accuracy was guided by the Chinese government’s desire to see justice done.
Iwo Amelung’s essay, “New Maps for the Modernizing...