The iron industry in Guangdong, 1845–47, according to the Swedish comercial attaché C. F. Liljevalch

On Swedish industrial spies in England see e.g. J. R. Harris, Industrial espionage and technology transfer: Britain and France in the eighteenth century, Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998, pp. 508–513.

For historians interested in the iron industry in a certain place at a certain time, a useful piece of advice is: Find a Swede. Since the 18th century Swedish travellers have studied most of the world, and the iron industry has occupied such an important place in the Swedish economy that they have often sent detailed reports home on local iron-production techniques and on the market for Swedish iron. For example, most of what we know today of the English iron industry in the 18th century comes from Swedish ‘industrial espionage’.

C. F. Liljevalch was in Guangzhou (Canton) to negotiate a new commercial treaty between Sweden and China, and he also visited Shanghai and other coastal cities. Much of the information in his book appears to come from contemporary English and American books, but the section on metallurgical industry is undoubtedly based on his own observations, since no other author has such detailed information. It is necessary to note, however, that he writes of ‘China’, but in fact knows only the situation in Guangdong.

The chapter ‘Metals’ is 16 pages long, with 9 on iron. I have translated about half of the discussion of iron.


China’s large population, intensive agriculture, numerous crafts, and almost innumerable sailing vessels of all sizes should imply an insatiable demand for iron. The consumption, though large, is nevertheless not in the usual proportion to population and industry.

. . .

Police regulations place not inconsiderable obstructions in the way of a greater employment of iron. A person who holds a larger quantity than necessary for the daily running of his business is exposed to suspicion and extortion on the part of the authorities. The mandarins give as the reason for this a fear of the improper use of iron for weapons against the established order, and as a means of inciting and supporting the frequently-occurring rebellions in provincial regions.  

The iron trade is therefore the object of a monopoly in which only certain merchants, with privileges given by the local authorities, are permitted to offer the metal for sale. These are subject to strict supervision, and must deposit a considerable surety for the fulfilment of certain ordinances. Iron may not be transported without a licence. The iron merchants are not permitted to sell more than a certain quantity to any one person, and they are held responsible if any iron is sold to vagrants, thieves, or pirates.

I wished to take home a quantity of Chinese iron of various types as samples, but met many obstacles, for it was claimed that more than 10 catties [6 kg], or 14 Swedish pounds, could not be sold to one person. It was therefore necessary to send different persons to several firms in order to collect 1 picul [60 kg] of iron.

Iron ore occurs throughout the interior of China, and the production of pig iron is a common employment. There are also large foundries, employing as many as 100 workers, but no rolling mills, and bar iron is nowhere available, only small pieces.

Smiths use small iron bars, of two grades, termed once fired and twice fired.

. . . [Here follow the dimensions of the bars: The largest have the form of a ½ liter measuring cup, and otherwise the once fired measure either 10–12.5 × 6.25 × 4.4–5 cm or 7.5–10 × 6.25 × 3.75 cm, the twice fired either 7.5 × 3 × 3 cm or 12.5–15 × 7.5–10 × 2.5 cm].

Both grades are hammered out by common smiths to rods, ca. 20 inches long, ½–¾ inches wide, and ¼–⅜ inches thick [50 × 1.25–1.9 × 0.6–0.9 cm], which are worked into all manner of wrought-iron goods, especially nails.

Chinese iron is easy to work; smiths use both charcoal and stone coal for the purpose. The blast comes from a wooden cylinder, 8–10 inches [20–25 cm] in diameter, standing at an angle of 45 degrees, or from a rectangular box, in either case fitted with a piston and driven by a worker who is spelled after 1–2 minutes. The shift is so quick that the piston never stops for an instant.

Chinese smiths are hard-working and proficient, and their pay is so low that the difference in price between the raw material and the finished product is surprisingly small, especially considering that no machinery of any kind is used.

It is surely only in China that one can see three or four of these disciples of Vulcan, each with a tobacco pipe in his mouth without being inconvenienced by it, with the greatest skill serving the sledge hammer with hands that in form and dimensions more seem fashioned for a woman than for a smith.

. . .

The samples of iron castings which were brought home show an unusual proficiency, especially when we compare the light weight of the casting with its large dimensions.

[Here and below the author is concerned with cast-iron woks, which always surprised Europeans with their slight thickness and large diameter.]

A Chinese itinerant tinker, ca. 1850. Gouache painting by the Chinese artist You-qua i Guangzhou. (The Royal Library, Copenhagen, Ny kongl. Saml., 346b, nr. 33). See also my Chinese tinkers.

The Chinese have a technique for repairing iron castings. In towns and villages one constantly meets persons who carry a small apparatus and call out, advertising their skill in repairing old iron pans, which they prove in a manner which is surprising for a European. They join the parts of the broken pot in a matter of minutes, after which it is as good as new, and I have often seen such a repair done for as little as two Swedish halfpennies. The craftsman melts various powders together in a crucible with a lamp and blowpipe, and this mass is poured into the crack with a teaspoon, a little at a time, while the man presses it in with his fingers, protected by paper, from both sides. An almost imperceptible seam shows the location of the repair, but the pot seems stronger than before.

. . .

On steelmaking see my ‘Some Chinese steelmaking techniques’.

Steel is produced in a large city near Canton [Guangzhou] named Fashan [Foshan] as well as in Suchau [Suzhou], a city famous for its wealth and numerous factories, and many other places. The consumption of steel is not inconsiderable, but less than usual when the number of working individuals is considered. Many tools are necessarily steel-edged, but they are small and neat and used with a light hand.

Granite is much used, but Chinese granite is easily worked and does not wear down the chisel.

Chinese steel is so highly esteemed that it sells for 7–8 piasters [Mexican dollars] per picul [60 kg] for the lowest quality and 15–20 piasters for the best, while European steel sells for 6–7 piasters. Chinese smiths explain that domestic steel is softer, easier to work, and more compact than European steel. It is most often produced in cakes and clumps; in retail shops these are broken up into small pieces. The fracture resembles that of cast iron or something rather like zinc.

From England the so-called nail-rod is imported to Canton and lately also Shanghai. It sells for 4½–4⅘ piasters per picul; An insignificant amount of bar iron, and this only of the smallest dimensions, is also imported, selling for 3¼–3½ piasters per picul.

Iron bands from bales of cotton yarn are sold to the smiths for 2 – 2½ piasters per picul. They forge-weld them together to form bars, from which nails are made.

Swedish iron was in earlier times a regular import to Canton, but in recent years deliveries have been uncertain and only occasional. There are therefore very few smiths who are familiar with it.  . . . Some very old men among the smiths of Canton, when they saw my samples, said Hau, hau, hauti, Sui-tai, ‘Wonderful, wonderful, peerless Swedish iron!’ They added that they had not had an opportunity to use this material for a very long time.

. . .

As a guide for interested merchants it can be useful to know the prices for which Chinese iron can be produced. After the most thorough investigations I believe that the small iron bars described above cannot be produced and transported to the coastal cities for less than:

2½ – 2¾ piasters per picul for once fired;

3¼ – 3¾ piasters per picul for twice fired.

These last must be given a new firing before they can be used in the same way as bar iron.

In 1847 Swedish bar iron sold for 5 piasters per picul or even more.

. . . [Here follows a calculation which among other things shows that freight, customs duties, and miscellaneous costs for delivery of 10 tons of iron from Europe to Canton amount to £30.55, so that, with 1 piaster = £0.22 and £1 = 12 Swedish rix-dollars, the net yield for delivery of 10 tons of Swedish iron would be 699 piasters = £151.45 = 1817.4 rix-dollars. He does not indicate the price of iron in Sweden, which his readers would have known.]

Finished iron and steel products can hardly become the object of export to China, where domestically produced tools are preferred, and where labour costs are so low that hand-work can compete with machines. Consignments from England and Germany have with few exceptions not fetched 40 percent of production cost, and most of these goods have, for want of demand, been re-exported to Manila, Java, the Sandwich Islands, and the west coast of America.

Translated from C. F. Liljevalch, Chinas handel, industri og statsförfattning, jemte underrättelser om chinesernes folkbildning, seder och bruk . . . , Stockholm 1848, pp. 117–126.

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