Socially skilling toil: New artisanship in papermaking in late Chosŏn Korea

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In pre-modern Korea, paper was renowned for its white glossy surface and cloth-like strength, becoming an important item in both tributary exchanges and private trade. The unique material of the tak tree and related technical innovations, including toch’im, the repeated beating of just-produced paper that provides sizing and fulling effects, were crucial to this fame. However, the scholar-officials who integrated papermaking into the state production system in order to meet administrative and tributary needs initially made toch’im corvée and then penal labor, thereby dismissing it as simple toil. They were not alone, though, in denigrating a form of manual labor. Historiographies of modern science and technology are generally silent about such work, focusing instead on how we invented the human out of drudgery. However, papermakers in late Chosŏn Korea (the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) chose to identify their artisanship with toch’im and eventually succeeded in securing recognition for that technique as a highly paid specialty. By examining this skilling of toch’im, this paper seeks to change the historiographical silence about toil. It overcomes the archival silence that accompanies manual skills by tracing toch’im’s contours through its changing locations and associations in society’s changing social and material networks, revealing paper artisans’ social techniques, or everyday politics that eventually dignified their laborious technique. Paper artisans’ changing relationships with tak barks, tools and facilities, central and local authorities, farmers, merchants, and scholar-officials reveal how such social skilling was made in late Chosŏn Korea, where papermaking became a most successful industry. This tracing of toch’im re-situates creative toil and everyday politics of artisanal hands in the interconnected transformation of social relations, craft, and knowledge practices.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)167-193
Number of pages27
JournalHistory of Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2018.


  • Everyday politics
  • Korea
  • manual technique
  • modern social relations
  • papermaking
  • social techniques
  • the knowledge-class and social changes


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