Donald B. Wagner, Background to the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel
China in the 17th century suffered from peasant revolts and
nomad invasions, resulting finally in the fall of the reigning Ming
dynasty. History books give 1644 as the beginning of the new Qing
dynasty, but in fact its consolidation took many years.
The 18th century was a period of peace and economic advance.
Especially the improvement of canals and roads led to a great increase
in inter-regional commerce and regional specialization. But then things
started going wrong. Traditional Chinese historical writing stresses a
‘dynastic cycle’, in which a reigning dynasty starts well and gradually
degenerates, so that after two or three centuries it falls and is
replaced by the next. This idea makes a certain amount of sense –
consider some of the developments that can accompany peace under a
strong central power:
luxury, corruption, population increase, increased commerce, and the
rise of local economic power centres in uncontrollable hands. But in
the 19th century a great deal of the dynasty’s problems came from
outside – from the West.
Spanish and Portuguese traders began showing up around 1600,
followed by Dutch and English somewhat later. The English East India
Company developed a major trade with China in the latter half of the
The most important commodity in this trade was tea from China,
though there was also a considerable demand in Europe for silk and
porcelain. In the early years of the trade there was very little demand
in China for Western products, so the Chinese products were bought with
silver. Here lay the beginning of the Qing dynasty’s problems: mines in
the Spanish colonies in America brought a flood of silver to Europe;
great quantities came to China in exchange for tea; all this silver
caused inflation in China, and the country’s economy became unbalanced.
Chinese investors put their capital into tea production and other
activities related to foreign trade, to
the detriment of other industries.
Numerous foreign ships came to China with Mexican silver
dollars as their only cargo, and sailed home with a cargo of tea. If it
was possible to find some Western products that the Chinese would buy,
the ships’ capacity would be better utilized and the profit much
greater. A number of commodities were tried, among them lead, mercury,
and iron. Two random examples: in 1750 the Swedish ship Prins Carl sailed from Gothenburg
with a cargo of lead and some textiles, and in 1824 the American ship Citizen sailed from New York with a
cargo of ‘350,000 Spanish dollars in kegs . . . , furs,
lead, bar and scrap iron, and quicksilver’.
In 1847 the Swedish commercial attaché C. F. Liljevalch
reported that cheap imports had so depressed the price of mercury in
China that domestic production had completely stopped. In the following
we shall see a similar effect on the Chinese iron industry.
The final solution to the Western merchants’ problem turned
out to be opium. A triangular trade developed: textiles and other
industrial products from England to the English colonies in India,
opium from India to China, and tea from China to England. There was a
similar American trade with Turkish opium to China.
Foreign and Chinese merchants used the same effective sales
techniques as modern narcotics pushers, and before long opium addiction
had become a serious social problem in China. With the drug abuse came
new economic problems, for now silver flowed in the opposite direction,
out of the country. Corrupt officials made the prohibition of opium
difficult to enforce, and an honest official’s attempt to enforce it
led to the infamous Opium War with England, 1840–42. This was the start
of a serious decline for the Chinese state, for it soon became apparent
that the Chinese military did not have a chance against modern military
Successive Chinese governments in the next hundred years made
great efforts to acquire modern technologies from the West –
railroads, steamships, artillery, and much more – but were constantly
under pressure from internal unrest and external aggression. The Qing
dynasty lost much of its freedom of action with the ‘Unequal Treaties’
which it was forced to accept.
The Qing dynasty fell in 1912. The Republic of China,
established by Sun Yat-sen, was not strong enough to hold the country
together, and local warlords took power in large parts of China. Japan
had de facto occupied
Manchuria from about 1905, and invaded North China in 1937. After the
end of World War II the civil war continued, and ended in Communist
victory in 1949.
The strong central government established by the Communists
peace, reconstruction, and modernization, and China has had many
successes in the latter half of the 20th century. But the same strong
power has made possible some ideologically based dispositions which
were highly counter-productive. The Great Proletarian Cultural
Revolution, 1966–76, now called ‘the ten lost years’, is the best known
example. Less well known is the ‘Great Leap
Forward’, 1958–60, which
included forced collectivization and was followed by what has been
called ‘the worst famine in the history of mankind’, in which millions
of people died of starvation.
China today appears to be in a period of rising prosperity
which can lead to a restoration of the national greatness of former
times. Time will tell whether the dynastic cycle continues to operate.
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