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Interview with the Author: The Social Life of Inkstones by Prof. Dorothy Ko

Image courtesy of the University of Washington Press.

April 16, 2018

Prior to her talk at the University of Washington, Prof. Dorothy Ko generously took time to answer a few questions about two recent publications: Fire Walk with Me: Tales of Artisanal Body (Parts) and Innovation in Early Modern China and The Social Life of Inkstones: Artisans and Scholars in Early Qing China.

Prof. Ko will be speaking at the University of Washington on Thursday, April 26 from 3:30pm-5:30pm in Thomson 317. We hope to see you there!

The artisans of early modern China take center stage in your 2017 book The Social Life of Inkstones, as well as in Fire Walk with Me: Tales of Artisanal Body (Parts) and Innovation in Early Modern China. The former describes how the production of inkstones integrated artisanal and intellectual life into the figure of the “artisan-scholar,” whereas the latter references the exploitation of artisans at the hands of their bosses. How did these contrasting arrangements affect perceptions of artisanal labor in each instance?

Prof. Ko: There is not one artisan but many in early modern China. The perception and value of artisanal labor in each trade depend on a host of factors that are often not rational to the modern mind. Seal carving, for example, requires a similar set of skills as carving inscriptions on inkstones, but the former was generally considered more prestigious or refined. Nor can we attribute this variation to the proximity of each practice to literary culture. Artisans who carve words on different material surfaces—stone, woodblock, and jade, for instance—garner different remunerations. We need case-by-case empirical studies of the division of labor in each trade through time as well as how they vary from place to place.

In a recent symposium at the Clark Museum, Fire Walk With Me was part of a larger conversation titled “Artisanal Practice and State Power.” Do the stories of these artisans in Jingdezhen reflect their place in a broader social fabric defined by governance?

Prof. Ko: Indeed. Jingdezhen is a special place where the unbearable weight of the imperial court was keenly felt since it was the site of the Ming and Qing imperial porcelain manufactory. The artisans there were oppressed not only by relentless production quotas, eunuch supervisors (in the Ming), and pressure to invent new products, but also by workshop bosses and loan-sharks. These intense political, economic, and technical pressures came through vividly in the tales told by the Jingdezhen artisans. In this sense these stories offer glimpses of the artisanal communities’ experiences of the opportunities and challenges of an early modern society preoccupied with the pursuits of wealth, status, and novelty.

Fire Walk With Me concerns the stories of artisanal communities in south-central China that feature the intermingling of human sweat and blood with the materials of their work. Could you speak to how this entanglement expands or deepens an understanding of artisanal authorship?

Prof. Ko: As scholars, we seldom think of ourselves as artisans. But of course we are—we think and write not with our minds, but with our bodies (embodied minds to be exact). All mental activities, as cognitive scientists and neurologists tell us, are embodied. All scholars are inherently craftsmen: We are apprentices in graduate school, honing our skills in conducting research and delivering papers. We become journeymen after our orals and earn the right to operate a workshop without supervision only upon successful defense of our dissertation. As professors we strive to make a name for ourselves by the masterpieces we send into the world. The only difference is that the lucky few tenured professors are less susceptible to the judgment of the fickle market, a luxury that few artisans, regardless of fame, can afford. The intermingling of artisanal sweat and blood (not to mention tears) with the products of their handwork is true of scholarly authorship as well.