An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Kaogongji 考工記

Mar 23, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Kaogongji 考工記 "Records on the examination of craftsmanship" is a book on a wide range of fields in artisanry. It dates from the late Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) and is transmitted as the last part of the Confucian Classic Zhouli 周禮. During the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) somebody handed Prince Xian of Hejian 河間獻王 (d. 129 BCE) an old-script copy of the book Zhouli, but the sixth chapter, that on the "winter offices" (dongguan 冬官), was missing.

The Minister of Works' (sikong 司空) task was the monitoring of official work for the royal palace, the capital and its surroundings, and the needs of the royal state of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) in general. The Kaogongji was thereupon added to the Zhouli as a kind of surrogate for the missing chapter. Because of this the last chapter of the transmitted Zhouli is not called Dongguan sikong 冬官司空, but Dongguan Kaogongji 冬官考工記. The Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Jiang Yong 江永 (1681–1762) believed that the Kaogongji had been compiled in the regional state of Qi 齊. This assumption was confirmed by Wang Zhizao 王芝藻 (around 1700), who undertook a linguistic analysis demonstrating that many terms (like jiaobei 茭椑, zhonggu 終古 or qisu 戚速) belonged to the tongue of Qi (modern Shandong). In many ancient and modern editions, the Kaogongji is published separately, and not as part of the Zhouli.

In this shape it is found in Lin Xiyi's 林希逸 (1193-1271) commentary Yuzhai Kaogongji jie 鬳齋考工記解, Xu Guangqi's 徐光啟 (1562-1633) Kaogongji jie 考工記解 and Dai Zhen's 戴震 (1724-1777) Kaogongji tu 考工記圖. The most widespread compound editions are to be found in the collection of Zheng Xuan's 鄭玄 (127-200) commentaries on the Classics, Zhou-Qin jingshu shizhong 周秦經書十種, Sun Yirang's 孫詒讓 (1848-1908) Zhouli zhengyi 周禮正義 and in the series Lanling bishi congshu 琳琅祕室叢書.

The Kaogongji describes the works of the "hundred artisans" (baigong 百工), with the production of tools, implements, vehicles, weapons, court robes and music instruments. It provides detailed information on special skills like silk spinning, dyeing, tanning, painting (with lacquer varnish), the construction of city walls and buildings, and the casting of bronze tools. It gives insight into the arts of woodcarving, the processing of metal, of animal skins, the application of colours, engraving and polishing, and the production of ceramics. Chinese scholars have counted 30 different chapters, but of the chapters Duanshi 段氏 "The farrier", Weishi 韋氏 "The saddler", Qiushi 裘 氏 "The furrier", Kuangren 筐人 "The basket maker", Jiren 楖人 "The arrow maker" and Diaoren 雕人 "The sculptor" only the headlines survive. The intention of the text was to provide clear standards for each type of work supplied to the royal court.

Table 1. Skills Described in the Kaogongji
Woodcarving (gong mu zhi gong 攻木之工)
lun wheels
輿 yu platforms and guards of chariots
gong shooting bows
lu lance shafts
jiang the work of carpenters
che wagons
zi the use of catalpa wood
Metalwork (gong jin zhi gong 攻金之工)
zhu beating
ye founding
fu clocks ("duck")
li capacity measures ("chestnut")
duan agricultural instruments (段=鍛)
tao swords ("peachtree")
Processing of animal skins (gong pi zhi gong 攻皮之工)
han drying
bao cuirasses
yun drums
wei leather
qiu furs
Application of colours (she se zhi gong 設色之工)
hua embroidery

colouring of feathers
kuang wickerwork
㡛 (㡆) mang cooking of silks
Engraving and polishing (hua mo zhi gong 刮摩之工)
yu jade
ji wood for arrow shafts
diao sculpturing
shi trimming of arrows
qing soundstones
Production of ceramics (tuan zhi zhi gong 搏埴之工)
tao work of the potter
旊 (瓬) fang work of the ceramicist

Concerning vehicles the Kaogongji reports on the main parts of single-wheeled and double-wheeled vehicles, namely wheels (lun 輪), palanquins (gai 蓋), the body of the carriage (yu 輿) and the drawbar (yuan 轅). Quite interesting are the details on war chariots that show differences between the vehicles of different ages. In the field of weaponry, the descriptions on the manufacturing of bows and arrows are very detailed. They include a method to check the straightness of arrows by waterlevel, and lay the focus on the selection of excellent material. The "six levels in metallurgy" (jin you liu qi 金有六齊) give evidence of the gradual change of alloys by adding increasing amounts of tin to copper to obtain different types of brass and bronze.

The chapter on music illustrates the various parts and the production of different types of bells, drums and soundstones. The determination of the correct note is related to arithmetics and shows the achievements of Chinese mathematicians during that age, as can be seen in the description of the exact dimensions of a bell:

Quotation 1. The Prescribed Measurements of a Bell
十分其銑,去二以為鉦,以其鉦為之銑間,去二分以為之鼓間;以其鼓間為之舞脩,去二分以為舞廣。 When one divides the length of the lower spine (xian 銑, i.e. the rim) into ten parts and takes away two, this is the [height of the] upper bell face (zheng 鉦). The zheng equals the distance between the two [lower end-points of the] xian. If one takes away two parts, this is the distance between the two [center-points] of the striking area (gu 鼓); the distance between the two gu equals the [lateral] length of the flat top (wu 舞). If one takes two parts away, the result is the width of the wu.
以其鉦之長為之甬長。以其甬長為之圍,參分其圍,去一以為衡圍。參分其甬長,二在上,一在下,以設其旋。 The length of the zheng equals that of the shank (yong 甬). The length of the yong equals its circumference [at the bottom]. If one divides the circumference into three parts and takes one away, this is the circumference of the suspension arm (heng 衡). If one divides the length of the yong into three parts, two are above and one below; this is where one affixes the suspension (xuan 旋).
Source: Falkenhausen 1993: 86-87, slightly changed
Figure 1. Parts of an Ancient Bell
Source: Dai 2003: 47.

The oldest separate commentary on the Kaogongji was written by the poet Du Mu 杜牧 (803-853). It is known as Du zhu Kaogongji 杜注考工記. In his "new commentary" on the Zhouli, Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086) added his 2 juan-long commentary Kaogongji jie 考工記解. Dai Zhen wrote the illustrated commentary Kaogongji tu (with 59 images), as well as notes to it, Kaogongji tuzhu 考工記圖注. Chen Yaotian 程瑶田 (1725-1814) authored the study Kaogong chuangwu xiaoji 考工創物小記, and Lü Diaoyang 呂調陽 (1516-1580) the Kaogongji kao 考工記考. Other Qing-period commentaries are Kaogongji kaobian 考工記考辨 by Wang Zongsu 王宗涑 (fl. 1836), Kaogongji chezhi tujie 考工記車制圖解 by Ruan Yuan 阮元 (1764-1849), Kaogongji niaoshou chongyu shi 考工記鳥獸蟲魚釋释 by Chen Zongqi 陳宗起 (1798-1832), and Kaogongji bianzheng 考工記辨證 by Chen Yan 陳衍 (1856-1937).

The oldest surviving edition of the Kaogongji dates from 837, as part of the twelve texts that were inscribed in stone (see Stone Classics) during the Kaicheng reign-period 開成 (836-840) of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907). The earliest print was produced by the Yueweicao Hall 閲微草堂 during the Qianlong reign-period 乾隆 (1736-1795), and the earliest modern print was published in 1955 by the Commercial Press 商務印書館. The latest edition is Kaogongji tushuo 考工記圖說 by Dai Wusan 戴吾三 from 2003.

Dai Wusan 戴吾三 (2003), Kaogongji tushuo 考工記圖說 (Jinan: Shandong huabao chubanshe, 2003).
Further reading:
Lothar von Falkenhausen (1993), Suspended Music: Chime-Bells in the Culture of Bronze Age China (Berkeley: University of California Press).