In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight series, I sat down with Kyoungjin Bae, LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow. In it, Dr. Bae talks about her research on material culture, particularly the furniture trade, and the importance of unorthodox types of knowledge
Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard. Transcribed by Erzhan Xu.
Couillard: I like to start with people’s background. Where do you call home?
Dr. Bae: I grew up in South Korea, and I moved from Seoul to New York to pursue my PhD training in 2009.
Couillard: What do you think initially drew you to China?
Dr. Bae: Before the Ph.D., I mostly studied early modern European history. When I was a child, I fancied Europe because that region seemed so exotic to me. After I became more serious about my scholarship during my Masters study, I wanted to bridge my study of European history with the social and cultural contexts of East Asia in which I grew up. I realized that there were numerous cultural and material interactions between Europe and China in the early modern period, and that was how I became drawn to China.
Couillard: So what are you primarily working on now?
Dr. Bae: I am working on my book manuscript that’s building on my dissertation. It’s not entirely based on my dissertation, so I have to do more research and write two more chapters. My dissertation was about Sino-European culture exchanges through the furniture trade. I looked at the production, distribution or shipping, and consumption of furniture in both China, especially southern China, Guangzhou, and Britain over the course of the 18th century.
Couillard: So why furniture?
Dr. Bae: I was very interested in material culture from the beginning. I found working with objects as primary sources was an interesting complement to working with texts.
There were many reasons why I chose furniture over other things – it’s understudied yet really essential in our material life. I’m interested in everyday experiences, and furniture is a great medium to look into this subject.
Couillard: What interests you about this?
Dr. Bae: I am very interested in how what we call knowledge is produced through various channels. There’s knowledge in the form of text, like books. But there are other kinds of knowledge, for example, like embodied knowledge, like handicrafts, and the nature of this embodied knowledge is that it is very difficult to articulate verbally. When you ask an artisan, “What kind of knowledge are you practicing or creating?” he or she would not be able explain clearly. An increasing number of scholars in science and humanities pay attention to the ways in which artisanal practice in order to understand the production and transmission of tacit, embodied knowledge.
We can consider making of furniture is also a form of embodied knowledge. Cabinetmakers learn to make furniture through repetitive practices rather than from studying textbooks, and such knowledge is transmitted also through embodied forms.
Couillard: How do you approach studying that kind of knowledge?
Dr. Bae: I learned from anthropology useful methods to approach embodied practice. While I was conducting dissertation research, I worked with a master cabinetmaker in Guangzhou who was specialized in making Cantonese furniture. I worked with him, visited his factory, and interviewed his workers.
Another method is looking very carefully at the objects. I learned about the joinery of Chinese furniture and its reverse engineering. This skill enabled me to read how a piece of furniture was crafted, and what kinds of skills and techniques were incorporated into it.
Editor's note - click here to check out a fascinating collection of GIFs portraying some traditional Chinese joinery
Couillard: What kind of an impact do you hope this will create?
Dr. Bae: One part is about having a broader understanding of history from different angles. I also think interdisciplinary work is important, because it enables us to collaborate more and venture into different areas of human society and knowledge both in the past and present.