Donald B. Wagner, Background to the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel
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iron industry in Guangdong
Dabieshan, Fujian, Sichuan, Hunan and Jiangxi,
|On Chinese trade
with Southeast Asia see Bennet
Bronson, ‘Patterns in the early Southeast
Asian metals trade’, in Ian Glover et al., Early
metallurgy, trade and urban centres in
Thailand and Southeast Asia, Bangkok:
White Lotus, 1992, pp. 63–114.
In north China deforestation had long been a problem, and
by the 10th century the fuel for blast furnaces here was
largely mineral coal rather than charcoal. But the problem
of sulphur from coal in the pig iron produced was never
solved; with the growth of trade, high-quality charcoal
iron from Guangdong became available on the market, and
very few blast furnaces remained in operation in the
north. In Shanxi iron
production continued using an entirely different
a word from Malay, is what foreign authors
normally call the Chinese unit of weight liang, of
The ironworks in Guangdong were of two very different
types, large and small. Government administration took
notice of the difference: the two types were supervised by
different departments, and their tax payments were
respectively 53 and 5.3 taels of silver per year. It was
obviously not a problem for a bureaucrat ignorant of
technology to distinguish between the two; there were no
near Foshan, Guangdong, 1984 (Photo DBW).
There is a description of the large ironworks in a book
about Guangdong, Guangdong
xinyu, written at the beginning of the Qing
dynasty (ca. 1680) by Qu Dajun (1630–1696), who was both a
local patriot and a Ming loyalist. This is a very large
book, over 700 pages in a modern edition, and it tells of
all the wonders of Guangdong as they had been under the
Ming dynasty a century earlier. It is clearly a patchwork
of quotations from written sources which today are no
longer extant, and the text must be read with one’s
critical sense on full alert.
The blast furnace is very large, 5.6 metres high, and the
blast is worked by four men. Ore and fuel (and a flux?)
are charged with the help of some sort of mechanical
apparatus. The furnace appears to operate continuously for
about half the year, from autumn to spring, and produces
2–4 tons per day (4 tons of iron fills about ½ cubic
Satellite photograph of the area around Luoding, Guangdong, taken from Google Earth. The city of Luoding lies on a tributary of the West River, on the edge of a bare plain, with wooded mountains close by.
Luoding’s coordinates are 22.76 N, 111.56 E. The easiest way to find the coordinates of historical places in China is through China historical GIS.
is Cao Tengfei & Li Caiyao, ‘Guangdong
Luoding gu yetielu yizhi diaocha jianbao’, Wenwu 1985.12:
The team investigated a furnace ruin in the village of
Luxia, and the result seems to confirm Qu Dajun’s
description of a blast furnace. A retired schoolteacher in
Tielu told the team that in the past one man, Mai Wenyuan,
had owned six ironworks in the vicinity; no more seems to
be known about him. The story appears to confirm the
suspicion that Qu Dajun’s quantitative data concern a firm
rather than a single ironworks.
Near Datongji there is a large bay which in the past
functioned as a harbour. Local retired sailors could
remember a time when there were normally 30–40 ships
berthed here. The ships carried pig iron and woks down the
river to Foshan and other places and returned carrying
scrap iron and various handicraft products. Thus it would
seem that in the early 20th century there was still a
considerable iron production here.
Casting of woks in a small cupola furnace, painted by an anonymous Chinese artist in Guangzhou, ca. 1840. (British Museum, Oriental and India Office Collections, Add.Or. 2333–2342; the whole album is reproduced in http://donwagner.dk/wok/wok.html).
On cupola furnaces, and in general on iron casting, see ‘Cast iron in China and Europe’.
Pig iron production from ore is shown in a Chinese album
in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, which I do not have
permission to reproduce. Nevertheless I show them here
below in a very small size, hoping that the library will
not be too angry with me.
5. ‘Purifying the dirt’, i.e. iron is extracted from the calcined ore.
|2. ‘Testing the iron ore.’||6. ‘Removing the fire’ – perhaps the picture shows the disposal of slag tapped from the furnace.|
|3. ‘Extracting the iron ore.’||7.‘Tipping out the iron.’|
|4. Roasting the ore.
(The Chinese caption is, inexplicably, ‘Separating the lead’, but the picture clearly shows the calcining of iron ore.)
|8. ‘Making bars’.|
Iron production in Guangdong, eight gouache paintings by an anonymous Chinese artist in Guangzhou, ca. 1845 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, ‘‘Fer’, C.E. Oe 119 in-4°, 1–8).
These paintings give the only information we have on the
small blast furnaces in Guangdong. Comparison with
photographs and technical descriptions of small blast
furnaces elsewhere in China indicates that the paintings
are idealized; but the artist must have seen such a
furnace, for many technical details are correct.
The cupola furnace in the picture above is built of clay,
probably in three parts like many other small furnaces
elsewhere in China, on an iron tripod base. This is hot
work, and the workers are shown almost naked. The windbox
is quite large, which also agrees with what is known from
Nos. 5 and 7 in the album on the left are more
‘decorous’, with the workers clothed. It is difficult to
believe that the small windbox can supply the necessary
blast, but the furnace itself is otherwise credible. The
lower part (the hearth) appears to be of cast iron,
undoubtedly lined with refractory clay. The upper part
looks like basketry, but it is probably clay formed on the
inner side of a plaited mould. The charging of the furnace
looks very awkward. A more convenient arrangement is shown
in the photograph below, but it is still rather awkward:
the workers step up on an old dining-room chair to get up
on the charging platform.
|Blast furnace for copper production in Kaifeng, Henan, 1987. Photo DBW – see also http://donwagner.dk/Kaifeng/Kaifeng.html).|
My guess is that both the number of large ironworks and
the total annual production were much larger around 1600.
The chaos during and after the Qing conquest, and later
the Qing dynasty’s embargo on export of wrought iron and
steel, would have had a negative effect on the industry.
However that may be, in the Qing the number of large
ironworks fell continuously: in 1734 there were at least
50–60; in 1762, 45; in 1799, 25. In 1889 there were no
large ironworks left.
The small ironworks seem to have fared rather better. In
1735 they were ubiquitous throughout the province, and in
1847 C. F. Liljevalch
reported the same of ‘small tilting furnaces’. In 1954
small ironworks continued in three counties, and had been
reintroduced in several others. The production which,
according to local sailors, still continued in Luoding
County in the 20th century must have come from small blast
furnaces rather than the large ones which had been used
|On the development
of the English iron industry in the
Industrial Revolution, an excellent and very
readable book is J. R. Harris, The British iron
industry, 1700–1850, Basingstoke &
London: Macmillan Education, 1988. A more
comprehensive account is Charles K. Hyde, Technological
change and the British iron industry,
1700–1870, Princeton, N. J.: Princeton
University Press, 1977.
The primary cause of the decline was competition with
cheap iron from the West. Around 1700 it would have been
absurd to try to export iron to China – Chinese iron was
just as good, and cheaper, and the long transport would
have made European iron even more expensive. But in the
course of the 18th century, primarily in England, came the
remarkable flood of innovations which together are
referred to as the Industrial Revolution. The price of
iron fell dramatically, and in the same period the cost of
ship transport was falling. An additional factor was that
every ship needed a heavy cargo as ballast on the voyage
out. This was most often lead or mercury, but as the China
trade increased the market for these goods became glutted,
and it was necessary to find other ballast cargoes. The
general solution to the problem turned out to be opium,
but not all ships carried illegal goods. From 1750
attempts were often made to import European iron to
Guangzhou, but the first time a consignment of iron was
sold at a profit was in 1807. By 1834 foreign iron was a
common trade item in Guangzhou.
In 1847 C. F. Liljevalch
calculated the cost of exporting iron from Sweden to
China, and the result was £30 for 10 tons. His report does
not state the price of Swedish iron in Sweden, but the
price of English iron in England was about £7 per ton.
English ‘nail rod’ could be sold for $4.50 per picul, and this works
out to £16.50 per ton, giving a profit of 65 percent.
The Qing government had a simple and effective means of
regulating industry and trade. Direct regulation would
have required officials with a detailed knowledge of some
very technical activities. Instead the state sold monopoly
rights (the strictly correct word is oligopoly rights) to
private individuals who became enormously wealthy but were
held responsible for the enforcement of the law and for
the payment of taxes. One well-known example was the ‘hong merchants’,
thirteen Chinese businessmen who held a full monopoly on
all trade with foreigners in Guangzhou, the only port in
which foreign trade was permitted. Other examples are the
salt monopoly and a special monopoly on the ginseng trade
in northeast China. There was also a monopoly on the iron
trade in Guangzhou. Very little is known about it, but Liljevalch mentions it
briefly. The Treaty of Nanking, 1842, which ended the
Opium War, forbade this type of monopoly and opened four
other cities to foreigners. The Qing government thus lost
its only means of regulating foreign trade. Liljevalch’s
report indicates that the monopoly still existed 4–5 years
later, but after complaints from British traders it was
By 1900 China was almost totally dependent on imported
iron. But then the First World War, 1914–18, greatly
hampered all imports, and when in January 1918 the United
States placed an embargo on all exports of iron and steel,
the price of iron in China rose by a factor of ten. This
meant new opportunities for the traditional iron industry
in places where it still survived, for example Dabieshan.
The first modern steelworks in China was established in
1891, in Hanyang (now Wuhan), and in 1922 seven modern
steelworks were in operation. These are not, however, part
of the present story, for most of their production was
sold to Japanese creditors at sub-market prices. Chinese
consumption of iron continued to be supplied by the
traditional industry and imports.
It may seem counter-intuitive that it was the large
ironworks in Guangdong which disappeared, while the small,
less efficient works survived rather better. The basic
reason for the difference was that only the large works
came into direct competition with foreign imports. Large
blast furnaces require large markets, large markets in the
nature of things have good transport, and such markets are
the easiest for imported goods to penetrate. The small
markets served by the small ironworks were
protected by high transportation costs.
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