Theses Doctoral

From Tin to Pewter: Craft and Statecraft in China, 1700-1844

Wang, Yijun

This dissertation examines the transmissions of technology and changes in the culture of statecraft by tracing the itinerary of tin from ore in mines to everyday objects. From the eighteenth century, with the expansion of the Qing empire and global trade, miners migrated from the east coast of China to the southwest frontiers of the Qing empire (1644-1912) and into Southeast Asia, bringing their mining technology with them. The tin from Southeast Asia, in return, inspired Chinese pewter artisans to invent new styles and techniques of metalworking. Furthermore, the knowledge of mining, metalworking, and trade was transferred from miners, artisans, and merchants into the knowledge system of scholar-officials, gradually changing the culture of statecraft in the Qing dynasty. This dissertation explores how imperial expansion and the intensive material exchange brought by global trade affected knowledge production and transmission, gradually changing the culture of statecraft in China.
In the Qing dynasty, people used tin, the component of two common alloys, pewter and bronze, to produce objects of daily use as well as copper coins. Thus, tin was not only important to people’s everyday lives, but also to the policy-making of the Qing state. In this way, tin offers an exceptional opportunity to investigate artisans and intellectuals’ approach to technology, while it also provides a vantage point from which to examine how Qing bureaucrats managed the world, a world of human and non-human resources.
My dissertation stands at the intersection of the history of science and technology, art history, intellectual history, and the history of global trade. It broadens the scope of the history of science in China by demonstrating how artisans’ practice was crucial to the production of mining treatises. It contributes to the study of science, technology, and society by showing that the transmission of and innovations in technology should be situated in the context of social, cultural, trade, and ecological networks. Finally, I argue that mid-Qing scholars’ efforts to collect practical knowledge changed the culture of governance from Confucian moral didacticism to technocratic epistemology. Qing bureaucrats, Manchu and Han alike, utilized practical knowledge from artisans and merchants in their policy-making process. By emphasizing the entanglement of technology and statecraft, my project contributes to intellectual history and enhances our understanding of the logic of bureaucracy of the Qing empire.
My dissertation consists of five chapters. Each chapter uses different methodologies and covers different geographical regions. Chapter One engages with the history of science by demonstrating how scholars translated and codified miners’ vernacular knowledge of mining into mining treatises. Chapter Two examines the semi-autonomous mining community in Yunnan to illustrate that the social organization of miners, which I define as the “social technology” of mining, contributed to the formation of the capital- and labor- intensive mining industry. Chapter Three moves to the island of Bangka (in present-day Indonesia) and focuses on the transmission of mining technology from China to Southeast Asia. Through comparison, I show that the miners in Yunnan and Bangka formed similar (semi-)autonomous social organizations. I argue that it was this social technology that enabled the transmission of Chinese mining technology across geographical regions and laid the foundation for the Chinese dominance of the mining industry in Bangka. The cases of Chinese mining technology in Yunnan and Bangka challenge the modern understanding of technology by showing that technology was not just about tools and machines. Before the 1850s, both Qing bureaucrats and European colonizers considered the social organization of mining to be critical to technological progress.
Chapter Four moves back to China to study the formation of Guangdong style pewter. Utilizing visual and material sources, I examine how the introduction of tin from Southeast Asia led to innovations in metallurgy, and how European silver and porcelain inspired stylistic changes. I argue that technology and innovations should be understood in the context of social, economic, material and ecological networks. The final chapter moves to Beijing and Jiangnan area to engage with the institutional history of the Qing empire. Through a case study of monetary reform undertaken in 1740, this chapter reveals that Qing bureaucrats acquired and applied practical expertise to their administrative work. Through their close interactions with artisans and merchants, Qing bureaucrats developed a distinctive vision of statecraft (jingshi). Before the late nineteenth century, the sovereignty of the Qing state was not exercised in the extraction and monopoly over natural resources. Instead, the Qing state relied on the market to acquire most of the natural resources they needed. By focusing on tin, this dissertation shows that the Qing state exercised its political power through material production and paid more attention to the management of skilled labor, capital, and the proper allocation of human and non-human resources.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Ko, Dorothy
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 5, 2019