Picturing Technology in China from Earliest Times to the Nineteenth Century.

Author:Hegel, Robert E.
Position:Book review
 
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Picturing Technology in China from Earliest Times to the Nineteenth Century. By Peter J. Golas. Hong Kong: HONG Kong University Press, 2015. Pp. xxix + 205, plus 16 plates. $56; HK$430.

Despite important developments in many areas of the study of print culture in late imperial China, one area yet largely unexplored--perhaps in part because of the expertise it requires--is the representation of mechanical objects and the processes of production in printed books and other images. Peter Golas's concise study goes a very long way toward filling in that gap while making a very substantial contribution to the study of Chinese visual culture as well. His command of the relevant primary and secondary materials (in a variety of languages) is highly impressive, and his vision of the subject is truly comprehensive. Golas seamlessly incorporates the history of science and technology in China with its intellectual history and an exhaustive survey of pictorial representations in several media: carvings and engravings from early periods, paintings both by professionals and by the educated but amateur elite, and illustrations from books intended for a range of purposes and audiences.

Golas begins his study by presenting several essential observations: Relatively few technical drawings exist from pre-modern China. Most illustrations of technology were made by non-specialists (artists, illustrators) for other non-specialists (members of the educated elite and royalty) who had no particular interest in the technology itself--the purpose of these images was not to convey technical information. There was no development of specialized drawings intended for appreciation by the knowledgeable few, as in European cultures during the Renaissance and after. His interpretations of this situation are not necessarily original, but they are coherent and compelling: from the Han onward, technical information was more regularly conveyed in text than in illustrations, and there was little general interest in understanding the principles or in advancing theories about how machines worked or how they might be improved. This situation reflects cultural values and practices different from those that dictated the rise of technical drawing in the West: in premodern China work--building construction, shipbuilding, mining, ceramics production--was not generally done by reference to a set of plans or manuals but instead by following the directions of a master craftsman whose practical...

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