The South China Mall in Dongguan, a manufacturing hub in Guangdong province, is the world's largest shopping center. Opened in 2005, it's a gaudy monument to the breakneck ascent of Chinese capitalism 7 million sq. ft. (650,000 sq m) of leasable space, with wings designed to mimic Venice and the Champs Elysées. But, as Anthony J. Barbieri-Low notes in Artisans in Early Imperial China, the concept behind these new mainland megamalls (four of the globe's 10 biggest are in China) is quite old news. As in two millenniums old.
Near the middle of his arresting academic study of the craftsmen of the Qin (221-207 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) dynasties, Barbieri-Low an assistant professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Santa Barbara describes the frenetic Eastern Market of the Han capital of Chang'an (present-day Xi'an). Established in 201 B.C. by Liu Bang, the first Han Emperor, this shopper's paradise was surfeited with stalls hawking everything from silk to cheap tableware. At a whopping 5.4 million sq. ft. (500,000 sq m), it covered more space, as Barbieri-Low points out, than the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, the largest in the U.S. today. From a general reader's perspective, it's this sort of taut link between a remote buried past and the present that keeps Barbieri-Low's professorial yet approachable history from floundering in arcane detail. (You may want to skim the fastidious passages on Qin and Han tax codes, however.)
"Through this book," Barbieri-Low writes, "I hope to refocus our gaze from the glittering objects and monuments of China to the men and women who made them." To that end, he's a sapient guide through not only the bustling, state-regulated markets, but back down the production line to the small private workshops where many of the goods some of them knock-offs of wares made in larger imperial facilities were produced by conscripts, convicts and slaves as well as free artisans.
At one point he gently exhorts the reader to place a hand on a life-size photo reproduction of a handprint left by its maker on a ceramic brick, taken from an unearthed Han tomb wall. It's a hauntingly visceral exercise, like shaking hands with a dead man, but precisely the type of immanent encounter with a past typically coffined in museum display cases that Barbieri-Low hopes to inspire. "Understanding these lives," he says, "will allow us to humanize the material remains of the past."
Those lives tended to be burdened by occupational hazards: dermatitis for lacquerers, mercury poisoning for gilders and exhaustion for manacled convict artisans, often worked into their graves. Convicts, it seems, had it even worse than slaves (who by some counts may have numbered as many as 1 million, or 2% of the total population, during the former Han dynasty) since slaves were considered valuable property and used mostly for light or clerical duties. One to six convict laborers, on the other hand, died each day at a typical large imperial worksite, building roads, opulent palaces and tombs, including the most famous of all: the mausoleum of Qin Shihuangdi, the first Qin Emperor, who, in 221 B.C., unified China. Their lives were so cheap that a single convict graveyard near the mausoleum sprawled over 22 acres (nine hectares).
Free craftsmen, not convicts, sculpted the celebrated terracotta warriors and horses guarding Qin Shihuangdi's vast underground necropolis. But as Barbieri-Low debunks, they were not the master artists they are sometimes trumpeted to be. Many were just journeymen, working on component parts upon which they inscribed their names not as Monet-like signatures but as part of quality-control procedures. The names worked as premodern barcodes. Shoddy platters, censers, stone carvings and so on could be traced back to the workshop that produced them, and the artisans could be punished accordingly. The inscriptions also worked as brands, and forgeries of luxury wares were rampant. Fake Gucci bags are just a historical extension.
Mass-production of goods is Barbieri-Low's dominant leitmotif. Long before China was factory to the world, he suggests, it was factory to itself. The artisans were indispensable cogs in the Qin and Han imperial machinery. Barbieri-Low splendidly reanimates their lost lives, and gives them due credit for greasing the wheels of China's first empires. It's the same sort of credit due to those shunned migrant workers now constructing Olympic stadiums in Beijing, anonymously propping up the superpower of tomorrow.