Technology, Gender, and History: The Case of Late Imperial China

Tuesday, April 9, 2013
3:30 - 5:00pm
Social Sciences and Media Studies Building, Room 2135
Dr. Francesca Bray

Dr. Francesca Bray is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and President-elect of The Society for the History of Technology. Her research includes the history of science, technology and medicine in China, and the anthropology of technology in the contemporary world, including the politics of everyday domestic technologies in California. Her most recent publication is The Warp and the Weft: Graphics and Text in the Production of Technical Knowledge in China (Brill, 2007) and has 2 forthcoming works, Rice: New Networks and Global Histories (Cambridge) and Technology, Gender and History in Imperial China: Great Transformations Reconsidered (Routledge, expected May 2013)

Technologies played a dramatic role in birthing the modern industrial world, so it is hardly surprising that classic and widely familiar histories of technology trace narratives of triumphant Western progress, contrasted to backwardness or stagnation in other societies around the world. But in recent years historians of Western technology have become less interested in technology as a catalyst of human progress, and more interested in how technical practices shape social identities, symbolic systems and power relations. In the case of China, historians of technology likewise spend less time now struggling to explain why China “failed to progress” after 1400, asking instead what they can learn by mapping the technological landscapes of imperial China, and by considering what social and symbolic as well as material work technologies performed in imperial society.

Prof. Bray’s own research explores the nexus of technology, governance and gender in late imperial China. She uses sources documenting technological artifacts and practices – in this talk she focuses on the construction and use of domestic architecture – to investigate male and female subjectivities and to show how gender principles were woven into the material fabric of empire. While her narrative is not necessarily one of “progress” it is certainly one of change, inviting us to reflect anew upon such key features of modern society and the modern self as privacy and consumption.