Donald B. Wagner, Background to the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel
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traditional iron industry in Dabieshan
|There is much more on the region in my Dabieshan: Traditional Chinese iron-production techniques practised in southern Henan in the twentieth century, London & Malmö 1985.|
Dabieshan is a rugged isolated region, about the size of
Denmark, comprising parts of the provinces of Henan,
Hubei, and Anhui. It was a region of extreme poverty;
before the 1960’s there was hardly a road, and all
transport was by horse or foot. A consequence of poverty
and isolation was that the local iron industry, using very
small (‘dwarf’) blast furnaces, could survive long after
the traditional ironworks in most other parts of China had
fallen to foreign competition.
|Extraction of ironsand from river sand in Xinyang, Henan, ca. 1917. (F. R. Tegengren, The iron ores and iron industry of China, bd. 2, Peking 1924, pl. 16).|
The ore used here was ironsand,
which can be extracted from sand in rivers flowing out of
granite mountains. The river sand was washed in a sluice,
as can be seen here. Iron oxide is much denser than
quartz, so the white quartz sand is washed away, leaving a
black or dark red sand with up to 90 percent iron oxides.
(Analysis of one ore sample indicated 20% Fe2O3
and 70% Fe3O4.)
|Blast furnaces in Xinyang county, Henan, photographed ca. 1916 by the Swedish engineer E. T. Nyström. (F. R. Tegengren, The iron ores and iron industry of China, bd. 2, Peking 1924, pl. 34).|
|Iron production in a traditional blast furnace, woodblock print by Lei Shikang, ca. 1958. (Yejin bao, 1959, nr. 1).|
Cast iron was smelted from this extremely rich ore in
small blast furnaces like the two shown here on the right.
A technical description was published by Guo Yujing in 1932. The
fuel was charcoal, and a flux was not necessary. The blast
came from a large windbox driven by two workers, and iron
and slag were tapped out by tilting the entire furnace, as
in Guangdong. The
horizontal beams and a chain which can be seen in some of
the photographs served to limit the tilt. The photograph
below shows the finished plates of cast iron.
(See also Technical description of blast
|A wagonload of pig iron in Anhui, 1958. (Photo Rewi Alley; archives of the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge).|
|A pair of fining hearths in Dabieshan, drawn by E. T. Nyström, ca. 1916. In the background a traditional Chinese ‘windbox’ (fengxiang, double-action piston bellows), in the foreground a plate of cast iron and a bar of wrought iron. Fining hearths were often built in pairs and operated in shifts because the hearth suffered less damage from the heat if it was allowed to cool between uses. (Reproduced with the kind permission of Tom Nyström and the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm).|
|Fining of cast iron to wrought iron in Shanxi, 1958. (Rewi Alley, China’s hinterland—in the leap forward, Peking 1961).|
This cast iron could be used directly by an iron foundry,
or it could be fined
to wrought iron. Two fining hearths in Dabieshan are shown
in the drawing above, and the process was described in a guide from 1958. I have not found
a photograph of the process in Dabieshan, but here on the
right can be seen a similar process in Shanxi. The product
was small bars of wrought iron like those in the
The region’s isolation meant that the traditional iron
industry did not come into competition with foreign iron.
In fact in the 19th century it seems to have grown,
perhaps because of the decline of the Guangdong iron industry.
The First World War, 1914–18, brought a dramatic increase
in the price of imported iron in China, and this brought
new opportunities to the Dabieshan iron industry. In
eastern China the large traditional ironworks were long
gone, their technology forgotten. Dabieshan became a major
supplier of iron. Iron was carried by coolies on their backs out of
the mountains to a large part of southern Henan – a
strange development for eyes accustomed to the modern
In the 1950’s, with peace, reconstruction, and isolation
from world markets, came a new boom for the traditional
iron industries in several parts of China. The
technologies of these industries were investigated and
documented as part of the preparations for the Great Leap Forward, 1958–60,
and Dabieshan was one of the focus regions in this effort.
The attempt to spread the traditional technologies to
other regions was a fiasco, but the documentation which
resulted is today an invaluable source for historians of
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