About this Project

Humans express their creative genius and technical expertise in the ways they organize their agriculture, weave cloths and dress themselves, build walls, and structure their communities. Much of this has occurred without being recorded in writing. The Knowing and Doing project (2014–2016) explored the nature and history of these non-written forms of knowledge—farm work, construction, crafts, and skills that produce material objects. The goal was to expand our conception of what might constitute a “text” in order to open up new ways of understanding human endeavors from the past.

The idea for the project grew out of a conversation between Donald Harper, a historian of pre- and early imperial China, and Jacob Eyferth, a social historian of modern China, who realized that they shared deep interest in learning more about Chinese technology “in action.” They turned to Francesca Bray, who is doing path-breaking work on technologies as expressions of complex socio-technical systems. Bray brings together the study of human practices and close analysis of materials into one complex inquiry. This approach is familiar in the European context, but it had not yet been used to improve our understanding of Asian history and culture. The central problem Bray explores is the divide that separates texts (which serve as ways to communicate expert knowledge) and the peoples whose knowledge was being recorded (who seldom wrote or read). Knowing and Doing is part of a movement to correct that elision, and thereby welcome humanity’s myriad creations as texts that can help us reimagine the shape of human history.

The project launched with a workshop on agriculture at which Bray and Lisa Onaga, an expert on modern Japanese science and technology, participated as Visiting Fellows. Early discussions helped identify the core questions and develop a methodology that would guide the project through its later stages. Collaboration among partners was essential, as historians and philologists learned about advances in computer modeling and GIS used by archaeologists and anthropologists, and vice versa. The workshop also unearthed important divides among scholars of East and South Asia, with the former focusing more on texts and the role of the state than the latter.

These conversations continued at a second workshop on manufacturing and a final workshop on transport and construction. As discussions evolved and scholarly contributions accumulated, the project’s scope expanded to encompass textual scholars, historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists working on time periods spanning many centuries (from prehistorical to contemporary) and huge regions. Recognizing the need to circumscribe the inquiry, the research team narrowed their geographical scope to China, Japan, and India, with plans to expand later to encompass all Asia.

The project identified key scholars from around the world and brought them to campus for intensive engagement around the core set of research questions. In addition to Bray and Onaga, other Visiting Fellows included Dagmar Schäfer and Annapurna Mamidipudi, who contributed to the workshop on manufacturing; anthropologist Caroline Bodolec attended the final workshop. The Visiting Fellows spent significant time with graduate students interested in their fields, adding an important pedagogical dimension to the project’s research.

The Knowing and Doing project is part of a larger groundswell of interest among scholars, activists, and practitioners globally who recognize the need for better international policies around the issue of local producers. Students engaged with the project were intrigued to explore the policy implications of the project’s work in South and Southeast Asia, where handcrafts and other small-scale local forms of production employ millions of people and generate significant revenues, and yet are perpetually in a state of crisis. Through the workshops, publications, and collaborations among researchers and with the next generation of scholars interested in the topic, this project has laid the foundation for further growth of this emerging field at the University of Chicago. A new area of research on technology as a form of knowledge in Asia is now firmly established at the University, linking it with partners worldwide.

Efforts to foster the growth of ideas developed during the initial two years of seed funding are ongoing. One promising offshoot is a new project at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science on the technology of weaving and textiles in China and India. Another is an examination of the material artifacts from archaeological excavations in the Chengdu region of China’s Sichuan Province, which will bring together methods from archaeology, the history of science and technology, and related fields needed to understand the diverse materials from those sites.


How a Chinese Manuscript Written 2,300 Years Ago Ended Up in Washington

June 8, 2018

In this New York Times article, Faculty Fellow Donald Harper (Knowing and Doing: Text and Labor in Asian Handwork) considers the Chu Silk Manuscript as a reminder of the complex relations between China and the United States over the past century.


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