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Conferences & lectures

Scientific Management and Manual Skill in Mao-Era China

Friday, February 10, 2023
1 p.m. – 3 p.m.

Jacob Eyferth (Associate Professor, University of Chicago)


This event is free


History Department


J.W. McConnell Building
1400 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W.
Room 1014 Seminar




Abstract: Like other socialist states, Mao-era China set itself the goal of closing the gap between mental and manual labor. More so than the Soviet Union and its European allies, China took concrete steps towards that aim: it sought to systematize and “elevate” the experiential knowledge of artisans and peasants, to recruit shopfloor workers into management, and to build a unified education system that promoted practice-oriented learning. However, these efforts were hampered by a fundamental failure to understand the nature of manual skill and counteracted by the CCP’s technocratic tendencies. At the conceptual level, Party leaders fell into the trap of thinking of manual and mental work as separate categories, failing to see no work is ever purely mental or purely manual: most handwork requires judgement and careful planning, and all brainwork is based in sentient, moving bodies. The CCP never developed a theory of skilled work as unity of knowing and doing, theory and practice. At the practical level, the CCP absorbed the lessons of the international Taylorist movement and the European Science of Work, filtered through the Soviet Union. These lessons, too, pushed it towards standardized mass production and the use of prescriptive “work methods” (gongzuofa). The result, I argue, was a complex mix of skilling and deskilling, as millions of workers learned new techniques but control over the production process was increasingly inscribed in formulas and machines.


About the Speaker: Jacob Eyferth is a social historian of China with research interests in the life and work experience of nonelite people throughout the twentieth century. Currently, he is associate professor in the department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations of the University of Chicago. His first book, Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots, is an ethnographic history of a community of rural papermakers in Sichuan. It won the 2011 Joseph Levenson Prize for the best book on China in the post-1900 category. He is currently working on a second book, tentatively titled Cotton, Gender, and Revolution in Twentieth-Century China, that uses cloth and clothing as a lens through which to analyze how the monumental changes of the twentieth century—revolution, collectivization, industrialization, etc.—transformed the lives of rural women. 

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