Donald B. Wagner, Background to the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel
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The traditional iron industry in Shanxi
Shanxi seems fitted out by nature for the iron industry,
with the world’s largest deposit of coal, reasonably large
reserves of iron ore, refractory clay, and limestone, and
not much else in the way of raw materials for industry.
And conditions are not good for agriculture, with poor
soil and a dry climate. Consequently the iron industry has
been, at least in the past few centuries, the dominant
economic activity. Coal mining and iron production were
sideline occupations for a large part of the peasant
population, but it seems that there were also large areas
in which iron making was the only occupation. In one town, with a
population of perhaps 5,000, people told a foreign visitor
in 1898, ‘We eat iron.’
Some experts believe that agricultural conditions in
Shanxi have not always been so bad; deforestation has
ruined the soil by erosion and ruined the climate by
changing the regional precipitation pattern. Other experts
disagree. This question can no doubt be answered by
research in archives, old diaries, and the like,
supplemented by archaeological investigations, but
environmental history has not yet progressed very far in
The iron and steel products of Shanxi were known for
their high quality from very early times. As early as the
Tang dynasty the poets Du Fu (712–770) and Lu Lun
(737–798) mentioned the famous scissors of Shanxi. For
many centuries a large proportion of the needles used in
China came from here.
The earliest description of the distinct ‘crucible
smelting’ technology used in Shanxi is that of Ferdinand von Richthofen in
1870. It is quite different from what was used
elsewhere in China: a mixture of ore and charcoal is
packed in sealed crucibles which are heated, using more
coal as the fuel, to around 1200°C for a few days. The
iron oxides in the ore are reduced to metallic iron by the
coal in the crucible. With this technique there were no
great economies of scale, and as Richthofen notes, all of
the ironworks were very small.
We do not know how long crucible smelting was practised
in Shanxi; virtually nothing is known about it before
Richthofen’s description in 1870. Shanxi archaeology seems
to show that blast furnaces were used here in ancient
times. My guess is that the mountains of the province were
forested back then, and that blast furnaces were used as
long as the forests could provide charcoal; when the
forests at some time were gone, crucible smelting was
invented to make possible the use of mineral coal instead.
I cannot even begin to guess when this occurred: the Tang
dynasty? the Ming?
Shanxi produced in 1870 about 130,000 tons of iron per
year. This is an enormous amount, more than we know of
from all the rest of China at the time. (It must be
remembered that throughout China there undoubtedly was
much production for local consumption about which we know
nothing.) But the industry was already in decline, as
The mining of coal, the manufacturing of iron, and the conveying of both to market employ a large number of men and animals. But notwithstanding its ample resources the country is poor. The profits are reduced to a minimum. . . . Underground miners, who receive elsewhere 200 to 300 cash a day, must here content themselves with wages of 100 cash. Yet the owners of mines are poor people. There have evidently been better times in this region, as one is justified in concluding from the great number of houses built with luxury, and richly adorned with fine work of sculpture.
competition with foreign trade is another cause of the
decadence of the wealth of [this province]. If we
commence with the trifling article of needles, their
manufacture in Shansi has almost been annihilated, by
the importation of the much better and cheaper foreign
article. The same will be true, before long, in regards
to guns and steel ware; and there can be no doubt that
the injurious effects of foreign competition have been
seriously felt by the iron trade of Shansi in general.
Being the only noteworthy article of export from that
province, the diminished sales and reduced prices
contribute to impoverish the inhabitants.
By 1898 the production of iron in Shanxi had fallen to
ca. 50,000 tons per year. It increased slightly during
World War I, to 70,000 t/yr in 1916, but in 1950 it had
fallen to less than 20,000 t/yr.
In 1870 Richthofen gave great praise to the iron produced
here, and in fact wrote that it was superior to European
iron, but most later witnesses reported that Shanxi iron
was quite inferior, containing far too much sulphur. Two
samples analysed in 1911 showed 0.13 and 0.61 percent
sulphur; even the lower of these values is higher than a
smith would want, and it would for example be very
difficult to make needles of this iron. In 1958, in
connection with the Great Leap
Forward, the process was considered unusable, and it
was largely abandoned.
It is interesting that the crucible smelting technique
was adopted in 1908 in Höganäs, Sweden, where it has the
special advantage that it can use poor-quality Swedish
coal, which cannot be used in a blast furnace. It seems
quite certain that the ‘invention’ of the Höganäs process
was directly inspired by the Shanxi process through the
Swedish engineer Erik T. Nyström, who taught chemistry and
geology at Shanxi Imperial University in Taiyuan for many
years from 1902.
Experiments with the Höganäs process showed that the
sulphur content of the iron produced could be held down to
0.01–0.03 percent by the addition of a small amount of
limestone (CaCO3) to the crucible charge
combined with careful temperature control around 1200°C.
It seems to be a reasonable assumption that the iron
producers had earlier used limestone in iron smelting, and
had stopped using it in order to reduce expenses. Perhaps
we see here another example of a technical step backward
as a response to competition with cheap foreign iron.
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