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Ancient craft practices inspire Chinese manufacturing

REN JUNJUN | 2018-10-11
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Ancient China made unparalleled achievements in craft making practices. Whether it’s the Four Great Inventions, ceramics, bronzeware, silk fabrics, furniture, or even vehicles, boats, bridges, buildings and more, ancient craftsmen channeled their wisdom into their works. The ancient Silk Road spread Chinese civilization to places all over the world. Many Chinese works embodying the spirit of Chinese craftsmanship have been handed down since ancient times and deeply influenced the design culture and creation practices of both China and the West. These brilliant works cannot be separated from the guidance of past sages. Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Mozi, Zhuangzi and other masters of the Hundred Schools of Thought put forward many incisive theories about craft practice that are still admired today.

The ancient Chinese philosophers often pondered on the man-nature relationship from the perspectives of harmony and co-existence. In “On Leveling All Things,” Zhuangzi writes, “The universe and I came into being together; I and everything therein are One.” And Mencius in his book writes, “The benevolent takes the heaven, earth and all things as a unity.” In the Tao Te Ching, Laozi holds that there exists Tao between the Heaven and the Earth, and Tao is the rule by which all things work. Throughout the process of craft production, the invisible Tao should be integrated into the visible crafts.

Such unity of man and nature, Tao and craft can offer important wisdom to contemporary product innovation and creation in China. Chinese products today also advocate such concepts as ecological progress, sustainable development and a community shared by man and nature—these principles can be regarded as the guiding ideology for the country’s contemporary national strategy of Chinese Manufacturing.

According to the Ancient Chinese Encyclopedia of Technology, the best craft making requires a combination of the four elements—favorable Heaven, auspicious Earth, high-quality materials and ingenious craftsmanship. To the ancestors, the Heaven and the Earth have spirits and the four seasons move around in regular cycles, therefore, a craft’s materials should be obtained in accord with the weather. In addition, crafts should be designed and created in the context of the environment by conforming to natural and geographical position, regional environment and cultural tradition. Measures should adapt to local conditions. Advantageous weather and geographical conditions come first as a prerequisite, before high-quality materials, and are followed by craftsmanship in production. It can be said that the ancient Chinese craftsmen took nature as their teacher. By continuing to learn from nature, they could summarize their experience, grasp the laws of crafting, adhere to the principle that all things in the universe mutually reinforce and counteract each other.

Another concept is to delve into the essence of things for the ultimate purpose of use. The great pre-Qin Confucian master Xunzi proposed the idea to prioritize one’s needs and use things at one’s discretion, which stresses people’s role in consciously making use of materials—craft production is intended to be used for people’s benefit. Mozi put forward the utilitarian concept in crafting and stressed the importance of practical value. In the Tao Te Ching, Laozi says that “Great music is faintly heard; Great form has no contour.” As the Chinese saying goes, great truth is always simple. The same goes for crafting style, which stresses the preference of satisfying people’s practical needs over pursuing beauty in form. A glimpse of the history of modern Western art design shows that many Western theories in this field such as minimalism, less is more, organic design and natural style all coincide with the traditional ideas of crafting in ancient China. In addition, Laozi’s philosophical thought in the Tao Te Ching—“Cut out doors and windows in the house; from their not-being arises the utility of the house”—deeply influenced the American eminent architect Frank Lloyd Wright, providing underpinnings for his theory of “organic architecture.”

The last influential concept from ancient craftsmanship is that of making the most use of things. As the Tao Te Ching mentions, “He [the sage] is good at saving things; for that reason there is nothing rejected. This is called invisible wisdom.” This illustrates the relationship between individuals and all things, telling people that everything has its value and is usable. It is recorded in the Mozi chapter “Economy of Expenditures” that “the ancient sage-kings authorized the code of laws of economy,” which advocates frugality and not doing anything detrimental to the people’s interests at extra cost. Today, the anomalies of global climate change and frequent natural disasters both result from the fact that contemporary society has run against the natural laws of development. In the future, Chinese manufacturing strategy should carry forward the ancient Chinese concept of thrift and shoulder its responsibility to the world as a manufacturing power.


Ren Junjun is deputy dean of the School of Art and Design at Hubei University of Economics.

(edited by BAI LE)