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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Materials Movements and Knowledge Transmissions in Qing China
3: Centralizing Skills: Imperial Networks and Knowledge Circulation in Qing Jade Production
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Michigan State University, United States
In 1759, the Qianlong emperor incorporated the northwest frontier of Xinjiang into his empire. Shortly afterwards, an unprecedented amount of nephrite jade, which had been richly preserved in Yerkand and Khotan, was transported overland to the palace in Beijing. These jadestones were sculpted in the Imperial Household Department workshops, including seven field workshops across the empire, among which those in Suzhou and Yangzhou hosted the most skilled artisans. These workshops utilized the Imperial Household Department’s extensive capital-local network which was staffed with its own bannermen. Working with this network, the court tracked local craftspeople and propelled the flow of transmission devices for jade carving, such as sketches, models, tools, and artifacts. This paper examines the procedures of jade production in field workshops, exploring how the practical knowledge and skills needed for jade manufacturing were circulated and transmitted between the court and local society. I ask: how did the court recruit craftspeople’s skills via a systematic management of labor mobility? What role did transmission devices play in constructing communication between the emperor and his distant carvers? How could the emperor make precise requests of the craftspeople and how effective (or not) was it? Probing these questions, this paper examines jade production as a means to reveal the mechanisms of the Qing court’s production infrastructure. By exploring how this infrastructure facilitated cross regional transmission of practical knowledge, this work aims to show the ways in which the court redistributed skills while discussing how this redistribution is reflected in its empire building.