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Late Imperial China 26.2 (2005) 68-88

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The State Ironworks in Zunhua, Hebei, 1403–15811

It has often been remarked that bureaucracy favors the historian, for it produces great quantities of paper which later become historical sources. The Ming state ironworks in Zunhua, Hebei, provides a good example: its administration, especially the management of a large force of corvée, conscript, and convict labor, gave the officials of the Ministry of Works (Gong bu) enough trouble that a good deal of written communication was required, and some of this has survived to tell us about both the technology and the organization of the works. We therefore know much more about this one ironworks than about any—or all—of the thousands of private ironworks of the Ming period.2

We have in particular a description of the blast furnaces in which the iron was smelted and some quantitative information about inputs of ore, fuel, and labor and outputs of cast iron, wrought iron, and steel. Several authors have studied the details of the administration of the Zunhua works, especially the organization of the labor force.3 Here I shall concentrate on the more technical aspects of its operation, but also attempt to place it in its historical context.


Zunhua District (modern Zunhua County, Hebei) lies about 150 km east of Beijing, very close to the Ming Great Wall, and was thus a militarily important [End Page 68] peripheral region. Numerous garrisons were stationed here and in neighboring districts, and these provided a significant part of the labor used by the ironworks.

There was some iron production near here as early as the Warring States period,4 and possibly in the Tang.5 In the Yuan, Hebei appears to have been a very important iron-producing region.6

In the early years of the Ming, state involvement in the iron industry was a contentious issue.7 Starting in 1364, before the final consolidation of Ming power, state ironworks were established piecemeal in various places throughout the Empire; in 1374 there were thirteen (none anywhere near Zunhua). In 1382 the Emperor ordered an official flogged because he proposed the establishment of one more, and in 1385 all the state ironworks were closed, "because they weary the people."8 In the following years many of these state ironworks were reopened, but then in 1395 all were again closed. The order was repeated in 1397, presumably because it had not been obeyed; in 1398 it was ordered that the state ironworks should be opened again for one year, then closed.

The political background of all this opening and closing of state ironworks is not easy to see in the sources, but presumably the fundamental factor was conflict between local and national interests.9 The central government needed a dependable production of iron to supply the armies with weapons, but the ironworks demanded corvée labor to an extent which conflicted with the interests of the local gentry. No doubt there were also many places where the state ironworks competed directly with local ironmasters.


After 1398 the only major ironworks established and administered by the central government was the one in Zunhua. The reason for the special status of Zunhua seems to have been a need for high-quality wrought iron and steel, smelted and fined with charcoal, conveniently near the capital. By the Song period population growth in north China had led to increased pressure on the land, increased demand for iron, and forest destruction, so that it was necessary [End Page 69] to substitute mineral coal for charcoal in iron production.10 (In the south, charcoal iron production continued.) Iron produced using mineral fuel would have had a high sulphur content: this does not matter much in foundrywork, and there is indeed some evidence that in the Ming, in north China, agricultural implements were generally cast rather than wrought.11 But fining this iron to produce wrought iron would have resulted in an inferior, "red-short" product.

Peripheral regions like Zunhua were undoubtedly the last...


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