Donald B. Wagner, Background to the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel

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The traditional iron industry in Guangdong

Other regions: Dabieshan, Fujian, Sichuan, Hunan and Jiangxi, Shanxi.
Over the centuries the traditional iron industry developed separately in different regions of China, resulting in considerable geographic variation. I shall focus here on one region, the subtropical province of Guangdong in south China, while other regions are considered more briefly.

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.
Guangdong had been a part of China from ancient times, but it had no great importance, from an economic or cultural standpoint, before the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). It was in the Ming that improved transport and trade made south China’s natural resources accessible to industry, while in the same period overpopulation, intensive agriculture, soil exhaustion, and deforestation led to the relative impoverishment of north China. China’s economic centre of gravity moved south, trade with Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and the West increased, and Guangdong became one of the richest provinces of China. Its iron industry thrived.

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 technology.

Tael, a word from Malay, is what foreign authors normally call the Chinese unit of weight liang, of 37 grams.

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 intermediate types.

The large ironworks

Flodpramme ved
River prams near Foshan, Guangdong, 1984 (Photo DBW).
The large ironworks were located in the west of the province, where extensive forests provided abundant fuel. The iron produced was for the most part transported by the great rivers of the province to Foshan (also called Fatshan), an industrial city some 20 km from the provincial capital Guangzhou (Canton). Here a great variety of iron and steel goods were produced, to be sold throughout China and Southeast Asia as well as further west.

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 large ironworks, described by Qu Dajun (1630–1696)

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 metre).

The text gives some quantitative economic data for ‘an ironworks’, but the numbers of workers, animals, and ships cannot be for a single ironworks – if hundreds of workers were necessary to produce 2–4 tons of iron per day, the operation would have been absolutely inefficient, and furthermore, transporting it would not require 200 oxen and 50 ships. Here Qu Dajun’s source must have been a description of a firm that operated a large number of ironworks.

Satellitfotografi af Luoding
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.
The best iron, according to Qu Dajun, came from Datongji, in Luoding County. A research team from the Guangdong Provincial Museum carried out investigations here in 1978 and 1982 and found numerous traces of past large-scale iron production.

The investigation team’s report  is Cao Tengfei & Li Caiyao, ‘Guangdong Luoding gu yetielu yizhi diaocha jianbao’, Wenwu 1985.12: 70–74.
This was most often in the vicinity of villages with the character lu 炉 (which means ‘furnace’) in their names: Tielu, ‘iron furnace’; Luxia, ‘under the furnace’; Jiuludu, ‘old ironmaster’; and the like. Abandoned mines and the ruins of blast furnaces were found, and peasants reported finding quantities of charcoal and slag in their fields.

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.

The small ironworks

Blast furnaces in Guangdong were classified by law as dalu, ‘large furnaces’, and tulu, ‘local furnaces’, which were small. As we have just seen, the large furnaces produced pig iron; the smaller furnaces could be used both for the smelting of pig iron from ore and as cupola furnaces for casting iron products from pig iron and/or scrap. The large furnaces were located in regions with abundant forest resources and access to river transport to large markets; the small furnaces were found throughout the province.

Støbning af
                          wokker i en lille ovn
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

On cupola furnaces, and in general on iron casting, see ‘Cast iron in China and Europe’.
The picture on the right shows one of the small furnaces being used to cast woks. The blast comes from a large ‘windbox’ (fengxiang), worked by one man. The traditional Chinese windbox is a piston pump which through an elaborate system of valves blows air on both the forward and the back stroke. The iron flows out into a ladle (hidden behind the furnace) and is poured from the ladle into the mould.

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.

1. Terrænet sondres
5. Jorden lutres

1. ‘Exploring the soil.’
5. ‘Purifying the dirt’, i.e. iron is extracted from the calcined ore.

2. Jernmalmen
6. Ilden fjernes

2. ‘Testing the iron ore.’ 6. ‘Removing the fire’ – perhaps the picture shows the disposal of slag tapped from the furnace.
3. Jernmalmen brydes
                        Jernet hældes ud

3. ‘Extracting the iron ore.’ 7.‘Tipping out the iron.’
4. Malmen ristes
8. Barrer laves

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).

First ore samples are collected and brought to an expert whom we can call the geologist (nos. 1 and 2). Then come mining and the calcining (roasting) of the ore (3 and 4). The calcined ore is charged in the blast furnace together with charcoal and perhaps a flux (5). The blast comes from a very small windbox driven with one hand.  The molten iron is tapped by tilting the entire furnace (7) and poured into bar-moulds (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 elsewhere.

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.

Kobberudvinding i Kaifeng
Blast furnace for copper production in Kaifeng, Henan, 1987. Photo DBW – see also


The Ming dynasty was probably the most prosperous period for the Guangdong iron industry, but our only sources for numbers of works and annual production are from much later times. In 1734 a Qing official wrote that there are ‘at least’ 50–60 large ironworks in the mountainous parts of the province, employing tens of thousands of workers. Each works produces about 500 tons per year, and this fits with Qu Dajun’s statement that a blast furnace produces 2–4 tons per day from autumn to spring.

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 earlier.

Western competition

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 finally abolished.

Annual iron imports increased and increased: in 1867, 7,000 tons; in 1869, 27,000 tons; in 1891, 112,000 tons. The imports supplied an increased demand for iron as China took its first steps toward modernization, but the greater part seems to have taken the place of domestic production.

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.

Though foreign competition without a doubt was the primary cause of the decline of the Guangdong iron industry, another cause must also be mentioned. Foreign trade in itself brought new opportunities for Chinese investors. All of the phases of production and trade in tea, porcelain, silk, and all the rest which foreigners bought, not to mention the opium trade, would have given a much better return on investment than iron production, which historically and internationally has most often been a low-profit industry. This may have been a contributory cause of the closing of the large ironworks, which required considerable investment. In addition there was domestic competition, especially from the Shanxi iron industry. Here the technology was radically different; it was quite inefficient, but did not require heavy investment.

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