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Philosophy and Technics in Premodern China

To understand the philosophy of technics in ancient China, it is necessary to have some appreciation of the basis of Chinese culture. Geographically, China is a land-based country; seafaring and maritime trades are not nearly as important to China as they were, for instance, to Greece and Rome. Chinese life is based in agriculture. Even as late as the beginning of the twenty-first century, almost 50 percent of the Chinese population remained engaged in farming. It is no wonder that agricultural technics were originally the subject of Chinese philosophical reflection.

The earliest Chinese text to deal with technics is generally considered to be Kaogongji (Records of Examination of Artisans), an official book of the Qi state, one of a dozen small states during the Spring and Autumn

Period (770-476 BCE). It was composed by an unknown author and describes manufacturing processes and specifications related to carpenters, metalsmiths, leatherworkers, dyers, jewelers, and potters. But it elaborates especially on the methods of use of various agricultural and handicraft tools, which it classifies into diverse categories. Regarding the making of artifacts, the Kaogongji says, “The heaven has seasonal and climate change, the land has geographical differences, materials have various properties, and artisans have different types of creativity and skill. Gathering these four can produce good products” (Wen, 1993, p. 5).

The Kaogongji offers an interesting Chinese contrast to Aristotle’s four causes (material, formal, final, and efficient). Whereas Aristotle’s four causes are derived from reflection on human fabrication and then projected into the world of nature, the Kaogongji limits itself to aspects of the world that the human worker needs to take into consideration. There is no attempt to apply the Chinese analysis to reality as a whole or to give it metaphysical significance. This again reflects a distinctive this-worldly commitment in Chinese experience and culture.

Another contrast with traditional views of technics in the West can be found in a passage from the classic Daoist text attributed to Zhuangzi (who flourished during the Warring States Period, 476-221 BCE). In general, Daoists are critical of urban life and thus, by implication, of technics and especially artifacts. But one persistent tendency in the West is to fail to appreciate the inherent goodness of technics, independent of the skill of the artisan or the products created—an appreciation that can be found even in the sometimes radical antitechnical culture of philosophical Daoism.

Daoists all agreed that the dao is the supreme principle of the world. But Zhuangzi converted it from just an ontological principle to something also manifested in daily life (Chen, 1999, pp. 77-78), because he believed that the dao, as the origin of all things, must be reflected in ordinary human activities. Zhuangzi called attention to the artisan’s extraordinary skills, which like the dao can be sensed but not expressed in words. So the Zhuangzi’s works contain some intriguing stories describing artisans who demonstrate fascinating artistry, such as butchers, boatmen, wheelwrights, stonemasons, and arrow makers. The fable of butcher Ding cutting up an ox is a well-known example. Zhuangzi used butcher Ding’s explanation to King Hui of Wei about how he could cut up an ox so skillfully as to reveal the dao in daily life. As butcher Ding explains,

I have always devoted myself to dao. It is connected to skill. When I first began to cut up bullocks, I saw before me simply whole bullocks. After three years’ practice, I saw no more whole animals. And now I work with my mind and not with my eye. When my senses bid me stop, but my mind urges me on, I fall back upon eternal principles. I follow such openings or cavities as there may be, according to the natural constitution of the animal. I do not attempt to cut through joints: still less through large bones.

A good cook changes his chopper once a year—because he cuts. An ordinary cook, once a month—because he hacks. But I have had this chopper nineteen years, and although I have cut up many thousand bullocks, its edge is as if fresh from the whetstone. For at the joints there are always interstices, and the edge of a chopper being without thickness, it remains only to insert that which is without thickness into such an interstice. By these means the interstice will be enlarged, and the blade will find plenty of room. It is thus that I have kept my chopper for nineteen years as though fresh from the whetstone. Nevertheless, when I come upon a hard part where the blade meets with a difficulty, I am all caution. I fix my eye on it. I stay my hand, and gently apply my blade, until with a hwah the part yields like earth crumbling to the ground. Then I take out my chopper, and stand up, and look around, and pause, until with an air of triumph I wipe my chopper and put it carefully away. (Zhuangzi, 1889, pp. 34-35, translation adapted)

The dao in butcher Ding’s explanation is a kind of knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by spoken or written words; it is tacit knowledge. Zhuangzi’s paean to the ancient artisans and their artistry relates to his and other Daoist’s advocation of intuition over conscious rationality. At the same time, Zhuangzi clearly also called attention to the inherent value of technics.

Another text from almost two thousand years later attests to continuity in traditional Chinese perspectives on technics: the Tiangong kaiwu (Exploitation of the Works of Nature), written in 1607 by Song Yingxing. This work provides detailed descriptions of early Chinese production processes for nearly thirty different fields of agriculture and craft production. The descriptions are further based on firsthand experience with an exceptional range and depth. In comparison with the most important work on technics from the same time period in the West—that is, Georgius Agricola’s De re metallica (On the Nature of Metals), published in 1556, which only focused on mining— the Tiangong kaiwu is remarkable for covering both agriculture and the craft industry. Comparing Song to the famous French encyclopedist Denis Diderot, Needham called him the “Chinese Diderot” (Needham, 1969, p. 102).

The very name of the Tiangong kaiwu also deserves comment. It combines the term tiangong, meaning “human being replaces Heaven to perform responsibility” from the Shujing (Book of Documents), and kaiwu, meaning “one succeeds in doing something when he knows and obey the laws” from the Yijing (Book of Changes). But Song Yingxing gave this combination new meaning. According to the explanation of Japanese historian of science Saigusa Hiroto, “Tiangong’ refers to human behavior which is opposed to nature, “kaiwu” means that human beings transform according to their living interests everything originally contained in nature” (Song, 1992, p. 17).

In Song’s view, nature is rich in inexhaustible and precious resources that are not easily acquired from heaven. The only way to attain them is to use manual labor and technics. In other words, as Pan Jixing, the editor of this classic text, has commented, the Tiangong kaiwu emphasizes a harmony between heaven or nature and human beings and interactions between human behavior (manual labor) and natural behavior (natural power; Song, 1992, p. 17).

On the basis of his personal experience, Song Yingxing thought it was dishonorable for scholars to have no understanding of where food comes from or how clothes are made, and they should do more than simply immerse themselves in the so-called knowledge of the Sishu (four ancient Confucian texts) and Wujing (five ancient Chinese classics). Accordingly, Song shifted his attention to practical work (i.e., artisan’s work). To collect documents, he traveled the whole country and visited artisans and workers who were actually producing things. In addition, he collected 123 illustrations and carefully structured the 18 chapters of his book, which begins with a chapter on cereals and ends with one on jewelry. Song was prioritizing the necessities of cereals and grain as more important than the luxuries of gold and jade.

This idea of the priority of food over gold and jade has also appeared in other ancient Chinese works, such as the agricultural text Qi min yao shu (Main Technics for the Welfare of the People), written by the Northern Wei dynasty official Jia Sixie between 533 and 544 BCE. Even now, Chinese philosophers often attach great importance to the practicality of technics and technologies, especially those related to the Chinese economy and the people’s livelihood.

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