Donald B. Wagner, Background to the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel
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The iron industry in Guangdong, 1845–47, according to the Swedish comercial attaché C. F. Liljevalch
interested in the iron industry in a certain place at
a certain time, a useful piece of advice is: Find a
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
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
[Here and below the author is concerned with cast-iron woks, which always surprised Europeans with their slight thickness and large diameter.]
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.
. . .
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
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