- The Crafting of the 10,000 Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China by Dagmar Schäfer
Tiangong kaiwu 天工開物, the illustrated survey of technical processes published in 1637, is probably the book of the late Ming best known to nonspecialists. Most histories of the Ming include at least one woodblock print from this publication to illustrate working life during the Ming, and no history of Chinese science can avoid reproducing several. The images are simple yet sufficiently detailed to demonstrate key features of the technologies they were engraved to represent. Just as the illustrations bring the world of technology alive, so also does Song Yingxing's descriptive text effectively communicate how things were done at the time and what he thought about the work that technology [End Page 156] performed. Surprisingly, until the book under review, no one has taken Tiangong kaiwu on as a subject for research in its own right. Wang Ling and Joseph Needham drew on parts of it in the 1950s and 1960s as they worked together on the early volumes of Needham's great series, Science and Civilisation in China, though without really examining the book on its own terms. Later in the same era, E-tu Zen Sun and Shiou-Chuan Sun, one a historian and the other a mineral scientist, published a useful translation of the entire book in 1966.1 Their edition includes informative footnotes, one of which I will cite later in this review, but they too declined to set themselves a task beyond translation.
Tiangong kaiwu has thus been widely introduced without having been studied in depth. Was it perhaps that the text seemed too self-evident to warrant closer analysis? Nor has its author warranted a full biography, though that can be attributed to the opposite problem, which is that he has left few historical traces besides his books. In any case, Needham favored Daoist adepts and highly placed servants of the state as his agents of science; Song Yingxing was neither. Pan Jixing 潘吉星 made a good attempt to craft an intelligent book-length biography in 1990, but even then the man behind the work has remained elusive.2 In the absence of biographical detail, Tiangong kaiwu fills the stage and its obscure author has been left in the wings.
With The Crafting of the 10,000 Things, Dagmar Schäfer has changed all this. Her method is not to introduce significant new material about either the author or the technologies he chronicles. Indeed, somewhat surprisingly, the technological landscape of the late Ming does not feature as prominently in the book as one might expect it would. Schäfer is not interested in writing a history of late Ming technology; rather, she is interested in how Song Yingxing thought. In pursuit of this question, she has turned extensively to Song's other writings to interrogate how he understood the physical world. Only after having done that does she feel we can approach the text and illustrations of what she admires as "his masterpiece" (p. 230). The result is a completely new reading of the book that lends it a depth no scholar has previously detected. [End Page 157]
One place to begin an appreciation of her reading is by looking at how she has translated the title. Wang and Needham translated Tiangong kaiwu as Exploitation of the Works of Nature. This rendition involved the common maneuver of turning the concrete word tian, "heaven," into the abstract "nature," and then interpreting kaiwu, the "opening of things," as describing how objects in the physical world, once exposed through experimental scrutiny, could be exploited for human use. The Wang-Needham translation conveys an image of ingenious craftsmen grasping the natural properties of things and learning to harness these properties for application. Their title stands as a kind of shorthand for a philosophy that understood nature as an organism subject to regular permutations that, once decoded, could be tapped to meet human needs. This understanding tallies smoothly with...