HYI Working Paper Series: Zeng Dian and Hong Wei

Abstract: In ancient China, time was managed by professional organizations. Officials in these organizations calculated the calendar as well as daily time to help people systematically arrange their days. Within this sophisticated system of technology, a social group called gengfu sent time signals at night, serving as a public clock. Until the Ming and Qing dynasties, gengfu were the only way most people knew the time at night. However, after Western timekeeping technology came to China, Chinese traditional timekeeping technology gradually lost its importance, and subsequently, the consciousness of Chinese people was transformed. Gengfu, who once had been indispensable to social life in ancient China, had lost their importance. This paper examines the history of gengfu and timekeeping in China, making contributions to social studies of technology and history of technology. We focus on the mutual relationship between society and technology and offer a social history of Chinese traditional timekeeping technology. Western clocks and watches opened up the private space of Chinese life, giving individuals the ability to deal with time. The technological and social foundation supporting gengfu disappeared. In the process, technology and society kept a dynamic balance. Using historical materials, we interpret gengfu in a new way.
Keywords: gengfu, timekeeping, night, China, mutual shaping, technological change