Arthur H. Smith, Village Life in China (New
York: Fleming H. Revell, 1899)

In an old Chinese story, the great lord of Chi was reading the Book of Saints of when a carpenter in his presence asked what he was doing.  The lord explained that he was reading the book to become a greater prince by following the sages.  The carpenter had the audacity to point out that one cannot truly learn from reading about dead men.  True understanding comes from doing for oneself, whether handicraft or statecraft. Here the Chinese carpenter is the representative par excellence of the artisan class.  The carpenter personifies expertise or Qiao, a quality learned at an early age.  It is an example for everyone who sees expert specialization as fundamental to civilization.  Mencius (372 – 289 BCE) tells a parable between the situation of a prince who will not listen to counsel, and that of a homeowner who gets too involved in the building of his house; not relying on the experts: “An expert is a man who learns his skill from childhood on.  You should follow his way instead of making him follow your way.”

The great Joseph Needham in his Science and Civilization in China speaks of the Chinese veneration of intuitive and meditative skill.  Carpenters work by ‘knack’, ‘rules of thumb’, and by directly inherited learning.  His expertise cannot be expressed logically; he can only show.  The idea is in the action, what Needham calls “a total education of body and spirit”.  According to Klaas Ruitenbeck, the carpenter’s knowledge and skill was “not to be found in any book…  It is impossible to convey every knack of the trade into words”.

Valuable lessons were taught using rhymes and songs sung on the job.  When creating the rammed earth foundation, “The Carpenter’s Song for Pounding Diligently” could be up to 600 verses long, the measure of which was paid for by the owner.  The longer the song, the firmer the foundation.  A song known as the First of Eight Trigrams helped the carpenter remember the procedure for marking out raw logs.  Every joint had a rhyme or saying to describe it.  The carpenter in China was led along “customary paths which the experience of ages had created”.