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Reviewed by:
  • Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 11, “Ferrous Metallurgy.”
  • Nathan Sivin (bio)
Donald B. Wagner. Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 11, “Ferrous Metallurgy.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xxxiii, 477 pp. Hardcover $195.00, ISBN 978-0-521-87566-0.

Christopher Cullen, general editor of the Science and Civilisation in China series, found in the archives a note by Joseph Needham, apparently from 1981: “Donald Wagner @ Ostasiatika Institutet Copenhagen / v. keen on hist[ory] of i[ron] and s[teel] in [China] might collaborate.” Thus, Cullen observes, “Don Wagner’s fate was sealed” (p. xxvi). After twenty-seven years—during which the author published four other books and many essays on this topic, and important studies on other topics—we have a volume well worth the wait.

In 1958, Needham published a lecture he had given to the Newcomen Society two years earlier. Roughly a tenth the size of this volume, it was an excellent summary of what antiquarians and historians of technology then knew. However, the history of siderurgy has grown and metamorphosed in the half-century since, in part because classical sinologists have multiplied and, unlike those of mid-century, are no longer terrified of science and technology. Even more decisively, the great successes of archeological excavation in China, and the emergence there of world-class laboratory investigators of ancient metallurgy in the 1980s and 1990s, have made it possible to solve problems on which no texts cast a decisive light.

Wagner is equally familiar with the primary literature, archeological data, and experimental reports—all of them. He uses these sources to illuminate all the [End Page 390] dimensions of iron metallurgy: Why did the direct production of wrought iron from ore die out more than two thousand years ago? How did ancient authors understand the physics of converting iron to steel? When and why were ordinary farmers able to afford sharp-edged iron tools? Why was the large-scale manufacture of cast iron in big blast furnaces, normal in the Han dynasty, largely lost in the Tang, and how did it recover? Did government regulation help or hinder embryonic capitalism in iron and steel commerce?

Archeology in modern China, just as elsewhere, is seldom systematically planned. Most of it is a matter of documenting and rescuing accidental finds in the short time before their sites are destroyed to construct a building or a road. Often it takes decades to study and publish the artifacts. The results are not necessarily representative, because some areas of the country have been rather closely studied (for instance, capitals of powerful ancient states) while others remain neglected.

Those of us who followed new digs, eventual publications, and metallographic analyses in such journals as Kaogu over the past generation or so found the dates proposed for the earliest iron and steel processes often changing. Even what seemed to be the firmest findings sometimes turned out to be empirically false. There seemed no doubt that Chinese siderurgy began in the northeast in the third century b.c. with cast iron made in blast furnaces, unlike the priority of wrought iron made at lower temperatures in the rest of the world. By 2006 it was clear, thanks to finds in western Xinjiang and Gansu, that the oldest artifacts are wrought iron, half a millennium older, from graves not typical of Chinese culture—which implies Scythian influence, perhaps via what is now Uzbekistan. It remains true that, as Wagner sums it up, “from that point onward, development seems to have been largely independent, and to have followed a quite different path from that of the West. Very early innovations—iron casting, blast-furnace smelting, fining, and a range of other techniques—meant that iron production and trade had a very different economic and political significance in China than it had in the West” (p. 369). The next history of the topic may have to modify that conclusion, but in view of Wagner’s thorough research and his comprehensive critical reasoning, it is likely that only details will change.

This volume is typical of the Science and Civilisation in China series in...