Text and Labor in Asian Construction, Transportation, and Infrastructure

Saturday, November 5 - Sunday, November 6

Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society
5701 S. Woodlawn Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60637

“Handwork”—broadly construed to include farm work, construction, as well as other crafts and skills that sustain material life—relies on various forms of knowing in order to train the hand to perform the work. This “knowing,” which may be tacit or explicit, individually embodied or widely shared, constitutes the focus of our investigation. In the third and last of three symposia, we look at the relationship of textual traditions and handwork in the case of construction, transportation, and infrastructure in modern and premodern Asia.


Saturday, November 5

9:30 a.m. - 9:45 a.m.   Light Breakfast
9:45 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. Welcoming Remarks

10:00 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. 
Panel One: Construction

The building trades worldwide have always been associated with secret lore and arcane knowledge. In Asia as in Europe, carpenters and masons were assumed to possess dangerous skills: by altering the proportions of a door frame they could invite fortune or misfortune; by placing a ridge pole in this or that way, they could ensure prosperity and progeny or cause the owners’ early deaths. Much construction work does indeed require advance planning, measurement, and a knowledge of numbers and proportions – skills that may have been rare enough in the preindustrial world to be associated with magic. Such skills could be passed on orally in the form of formulas and jingles, or written down in scrapbooks. Much building knowledge, however, may never have been codified; builders worked with clay and mud, for example, may have relied more on an embodied sense of form than on verbal rules and prescriptions. Modern building techniques, of course, are highly formalized, but here too, it is the builder’s eyes and hands that translate the architect’s blueprint into concrete shape. This panel will explore the intersection between formal plans, semi-formalized craft lore, and individually embodied knowledge in different building sites in Asia.

Caroline Bodolec (EHESS Paris, anthropology)
Adam Sargent (University of Chicago, anthropology)

12:30 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.  Lunch

2:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Panel Two: Transport

Premodern transport is rarely thought of as a distinct field of knowledge. However, transport, whether by land or by water, requires an understanding not only of frequently changing routes – of harbors, inns, and resting places along the way, of shoals and currents in a river or weather conditions along the road – but also the handling of boats, carts, and draft animals. As in the construction trades, the knowledge of porters, muleteers, and boatmen often took the shape of semi-formalized lore: songs and jingles that list landmarks and stations along the way, or rumors about which smuggling route was safe. But here, too, nonverbal and embodied knowledge is important: think of the ability of a river pilot to detect submerged rocks and shifting shoals by “reading” the surface of the water. Transportation, even in its most basic form, requires a built infrastructure of paths, roads, bridges, and port facilities. In this panel, we will look both at the work of infrastructure construction and at the business of moving goods on ships, planes, or horseback from one place to another.

Nanny Kim (Heidelberg, history)
Ma Jianxiong (HKUST, anthropology)
Julie Chu (University of Chicago, anthropology)

Sunday, November 6

9:00 a.m. - 9:30 a.m. Light Breakfast

9:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
Panel Three: Work organization

Construction and infrastructure work often poses problems of large-scale coordination. In previous rounds of Text and Labor in Asian Handwork we looked at agriculture and manufacture – activities where the basic unit is the single worker (the farmer and his plow and oxen, the weaver and her loom) or the small team or workshop. Construction, infrastructure building, and transportation, by contrast, often require the mobilization of large numbers of workers under some form of central supervision: a foreman, architect, or master planner. What we see is typically the written record of the planner, and it is tempting to think of such records as the sum total of knowledge needed to build a house or dredge a river. However, as Chandra Mukerji has shown in her work on canal building in seventeenth century France, engineers and architects often did little more than coordinating the diverse skills of local communities and artisans. This panel looks at the intersection of centralized planning and locally dispersed skills in large infrastructure projects.

Laura Bear (LSE, anthropology)
Jamie Monson (Michigan State University, history)
Jacob Eyferth (University of Chicago, history)

12:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. Lunch

2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Panel Four: What Have We Learned? Wrapping Up and Planning for the Future

“Text and Labor: Construction, Transport, and Infrastructure” concludes our three-part workshop series on the relationship on text and labor, knowing and doing, in Asian handwork. In our last panel, we want to discuss what we’ve learned from the workshops and discuss ideas for future cooperation.

Dorothy Ko (Columbia, history)
Donald Harper (University of Chicago, EALC)