Translation of Donald B. Wagner’s Iron and steel in ancient China

Preface by Professor Li Yingfu

When I received Donald B. Wagner’s request to write a preface to the Chinese translation of Iron and steel in ancient China, I was terrified. My knowledge and qualifications were not enough for this task, so I thought over and over again. I'm afraid the only reason is that Professor Wagner was employed as a high-end foreign professor of archeology at Sichuan University. He and I collaborated in setting up metallurgical archeology courses and jointly trained master's and doctoral students.

Professor Donald B. Wagner is Danish, a world-famous metallurgical archaeologist. Born in Canada in 1943, he moved to the United States with his parents. In 1965, he obtained a bachelor's degree in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. In 1968, he moved to Denmark to settle down and began to study Chinese language and culture at the University of Copenhagen. From 1972 to 1974, he went to Japan for further study at the Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Kyoto University. He received his master's degree from the University of Copenhagen in 1976 and his doctorate in 1993. Professor Wagner has worked in many universities and research institutions in Denmark, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and China, engaged in teaching and scientific research in metallurgical archeology. Professor Wagner is mainly dedicated to early Chinese iron tools and iron smelting technology, as well as ancient Chinese. He has published more than 60 papers and 15 books so far on research on mathematics and other related issues.

Professor Wagner studied mathematics as an undergraduate, and his initial research direction was the history of ancient Chinese mathematics. In 1978, Influenced by Professor Noel Barnard, a scholar on the history of Chinese bronze technology, the young Donald Wagner was attracted by the glorious steel technology of ancient China, and without hesitation began to study the history of Chinese iron and steel technology. Since then, he has embarked on a long academic journey to explore the history of ancient Chinese steel technology. From 1981 he studied metallurgy under Professor V. F. Buchwald at the Technical University of Denmark. In the same year, he became acquainted with Joseph Needham, a scholar of the history of Chinese science and technology at Cambridge University, and was invited to compile the Needham’s volume on iron and steel. This book was published in 2008 (Science and civilization in China, Vol. 5: Chemistry and chemical technology, Part 11: Ferrous metallurgy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

The book Iron and steel in ancient China is a work that Professor Wagner devoted great efforts to. It was drafted as early as the 1980s. Later it was continuously revised and improved due to the discovery of new materials, and it was not finalized until 1990, and published in 1993. Although this book was written more than 20 years ago, Professor Wagner’s research vision, methods and research results still have extremely high academic value and significance. As a Western scholar, what is particularly rare is his ability to interpret ancient Chinese documents. Compared with many Western scholars who focus on metallographic microscopes and chemical analysis to study ancient Chinese metallurgy, his research results are more comprehensive and scientific. Professor Wagner has a profound foundation in ancient literature and a rigorous and meticulous research attitude. We have to sincerely admire this Western scholar who has devoted his life to the history of ancient Chinese steel technology.

Because the original book was written so long ago, new archaeological discoveries and new research are constantly emerging, and the material descriptions and research in some chapters are somewhat outdated. Professor Wagner therefore specifically asked the translator to appropriately delete some parts of the original book. For this reason, the translator has partially deleted the contents of Chapters 1, 2, and 3. Chapters 4 to 7 are fully translated.

The first chapter of the Chinese version systematically sorts out the pre-Han Dynasty iron tools unearthed in China from both documentary and archaeological materials. There are detailed discussions of the types of iron artifacts and sites where iron artifacts were unearthed together, such as Chu tombs in Yutaishan, Jiangling, and Yanxiadu M44 in Yixian County. This chapter not only makes detailed statistics and research on the early iron unearthed in China, but also discusses the practical use of various iron tools and their significance to early social changes based on literary materials.

Chapter 2 primarily discusses the production of ancient ironware in China based on documentary materials. In particular, through the interpretation of relevant records in Shi ji, Han shu, Yan tie lun, Shan hai jing, Huayang guozhi, and other documents, the distribution of ancient iron ores and the production of ironware before and after the introduction of imperial monopoly of  salt and iron production of the Han Dynasty are analyzed. An in-depth study is conducted and compared with the Western iron smelting production system.

Chapters 3 and 4 discuss wrought iron, steel and pig iron from the perspective of metallography, based on publications by the older generation of Chinese archaeometallurgists such as Ke Jun, Han Rubin, Li Jinghua and Hua Jueming. He makes pertinent comments on early metallographic detection methods and research results from a dialectical perspective. He not only expresses high appreciation for the achievements of predecessors, but also raises questions about the problems that emerged in early research.

The translator of this book, Li Yuniu, immigrated to Canada in his early years and studied as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto in Canada. In 2009, he was admitted to the Archaeology Department of the School of History and Culture of Sichuan University to pursue a master's degree in archaeometallurgy. In 2014, he entered the University of Exeter in the UK to pursue doctoral studies. Li Yuniu’s excellent Chinese and English skills, especially professional skills in metallurgical archaeology, ensure the quality of the translation of this book.

The translation and publication of Donald B. Wagner’s Iron and steel in ancient China will not only help our country's archaeometallurgists understand the achievements of Western scholars in this field, but also help promote in-depth exchanges between Chinese and Western archaeological circles. It is hoped that in the future there will be more high-level translations and publications of metallurgical and archaeological works.

Li Yingfu
Department of Archeology, College of History and Culture, Sichuan University
Yuchuan Garden, 31 July 2017