Rating: 4 out of 5.

You know I read some strange books, so you probably won’t be too surprised that I decided to take a quick break in between Dreadgod and The Inca to read an ancient encyclopedia from China.  I came across a reference to the Kaogong Ji, also called The Book of Artificers, in a news article associated with the journal Science, and found an online translation of the ancient document therein referenced.  It was fascinating.

The news article, “Researchers decipher mysterious ancient recipe for bronze,” is rather misleading.  It claims that the components of bronze specified in the Kaogong Ji are referring to complex alloys, rather than proportions of tin and copper.  The support for this argument rests almost entirely on the fact that bronze implements from China of the contemporaneous period exhibit diverse ratios of lead in addition to tin and copper, and from this evidence the authors extrapolate an entire industrial complex and metallurgy industry for which there is little to no evidence in the historical record.

Only one counterargument is given in the news article, but as I investigated (and searched for an English translation of the Kaogong Ji), I quickly found that the report of a complex “ancient recipe” for bronze runs counter to almost every other historical interpretation of the Book of Artificers, and ignores the purpose for which the book was most likely written.  It is not a technical manual, but an encyclopedia of sorts, providing a summary of a wide array of crafts and fields.  In that sense, it is a survey work, though its level of detail sometimes reminded me of reading Human Dimension and Interior Space.

That said, my paltry hour of research into the topic cannot compare to the efforts of those who’ve written entire studies of the document, so I will forgo further analysis and instead turn my attention to providing a review for the Kaogong Ji itself.  As I said above, it is a fascinating read, whatever its origins, purposes, or exact translations, mostly for its historical insight.  Mostly because of my world-building, plus my general curiosity, I find detailed documentation of how, historically, tasks were actually accomplished compelling.  There’s something especially immersive and insightful about reading, in an ancient culture’s own words, exactly what the proportions of an ideal chariot should be, or the length of sword permitted to each class of nobleman.

Plus, there’s always a peculiar mixture in these types of pieces of what we would today consider superstition and rigorous insight.  It’s easy to read a line about the crops not growing right because of bad qi and dismiss everything thereafter as ignorant of how the world “actually works,” but references to non-scientific explanations in the Book of Artificers sit next to rigorous descriptions of how alloying works, or the grain structure of wood, or the mechanics of motion.  Just because our ancestors didn’t build airplanes, and couldn’t identify the spectral composition of stars, does not mean that they were any less intelligent than we are today.  In fact, I sometimes think they might have been more so.

This was just a quick digression, and its nature means that many people may not find much use or interest in it.  If you have a little patience, however, or a bit of skimming ability for the parts where it’s just listing measurements, I think you’ll find a lot of interest in China’s ancient Book of Artificers.  I hope you consider giving the Kaogong Ji a read soon.

Note: I read a translation found as an appendix to a paper called “A Preliminary Study of the Kaogon Ji,” which is freely available online.

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