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Reviewed by:
  • Artisans in Early Imperial China
  • Anne P. Underhill
Artisans in Early Imperial China by Anthony J. Barbieri-Low. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008. Pp. x + 394. $60.00.

Barbieri-Low’s engaging book, Artisans in Early Imperial China, tackles an important topic that has not been adequately addressed by historians, art historians, or archaeologists: the people behind the production and distribution of hand-crafted goods during the Qin and Han periods, 221 b.c.e.–c.e. 220. Whereas other scholars often discuss the finely made art objects from this era in isolation, Barbieri-Low breathes life into them, revealing their hidden human dimensions. He argues convincingly that “one cannot truly understand the visual and material cultural remains of early imperial China without understanding something about how they were made, who made them, and under what social and economic circumstances they were fashioned” (p. 26).

Barbieri-Low succeeds in demonstrating the effectiveness of adopting a multidisciplinary approach to investigating ancient artisans and their products. He uses historical texts and inscriptions on objects to uncover information about the lives of artisans and the division of labor in production, art history to analyze the artisans’ creations, and anthropology to analyze the socioeconomic context. His aim is to employ historical, art historical, and anthropological (including archaeological) data in equal measure. He has, moreover, organized the chapters of his study to highlight the lives of artisans from different perspectives; he examines artisans in society (Chapter 2, which covers the topics of social status and social mobility), in the workshop (Chapter 3, which covers production methods, division of labor, work conditions), in the marketplace (Chapter 4, which deals with the organization of official markets and marketing methods), and at court (Chapter 5, which discusses the role of art objects in palaces and the organization of palace workshops). Chapter 6, “Artisans in Irons” examines non-free artisans, such as convicts, who were forced to produce for the state. His analysis of texts and inscriptions especially provides an illuminating view of the lives of artisans and the objects they made during the early imperial era. [End Page 491]

Readers should know that anthropologists have long employed a holistic approach to research on craft goods, analyzing goods within systems of production, distribution, and consumption, rather than in isolation. For these scholars (including myself), the focus has always been the people behind the artifacts, revealed through the study of such topics as social identity, labor organization, craft specialization, exchange systems, consumption patterns, and regional economic systems.1 Research projects have included the production, distribution, and use of craft goods (especially ceramics, stone objects, textiles, metal objects) in prehistoric and early historic societies. Relevant publications exist for most world areas, including societies comparable in social complexity and scale with early imperial China such as the Inca empire.2 Considering the anthropological literature on these topics, I offer suggestions here for future research on early China. My intention is not to replace the productive multidisciplinary approach advocated by Barbieri-Low, but to discuss how one might amplify the anthropological component even further to provide more information on the producers and consumers of craft goods in early China. [End Page 492]

The bulk of Barbieri-Low’s book treats the term “artisan” as a highly trained and skilled person who makes fine objects by hand. His book thus implies that such beautiful objects, works of art, were produced primarily for elite consumers. While recognizing that objects of beauty can be made for more than one type of consumer, the anthropological literature also distinguishes between various craft goods on the basis of class, status, gender, and ethnicity of the consumers. Researchers investigate how certain kinds of goods may bring prestige or wealth to consumers. They focus on how people actively use different kinds of goods in a social system. Also worthy of future investigation is the impact that consumer demand in early China had on the production of various kinds of craft goods. Consumer demand affects the production of both prestige-bearing goods and the common goods used in daily life.

Barbieri-Low provides clues about variation in the social and ideological aspirations of consumers during the Qin and Han...


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pp. 491-498
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