Modern Chinese history; history of science and technology; business and labor history; material culture and gender studies; history of textiles.
Yuan Yi is Postdoctoral Research Scholar in Modern China Studies at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. Her book manuscript, "Industrial Craft: The Mechanization of Cotton Spinning in China, 1887-1937," examines the industrialization of Chinese cotton spinning with emphasis on the circulation of spinning machines, technical experts, and cotton varieties between China and the United States. Drawing upon extant spinning machines, the manufacturers’ manuals, engineering journals, interviews with factory workers, and documents from American machine firms and Chinese cotton mills, it shows how Chinese engineers, machinists, and female machine operators strove to solve technological problems specific to their factories, through continued modification and repair of American machines that failed to process short-staple Chinese cotton. Exploring a variety of handwork performed by these technical experts, it argues for the significance of manual labor in the making of the factory system, thereby complicating the dichotomy between craft and mechanization. Also, by demonstrating how new sets of knowledge were created on the Chinese shop floor in the course of using foreign machines, it challenges the assumption that technology transfer simply emanated from the West to be disseminated to the rest of the world.
Her paper entitled “Custom-Made Machines in the Ear of Mass Production,” which was part of her dissertation, was awarded the 2019 Samuel Eleazar and Rose Tartakow Levinson Prize by the Society for the History of Technology. She earned a PhD in Chinese history from Columbia University in October 2020.