- A Great Undertaking: Mechanization and Social Change in a Late Imperial Chinese Coalmining Community by Jeff Hornibrook, and: Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860–1920 by Shellen Xiao Wu
China is the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world. Its leading position in the use of this carbon energy resource and its exposure to the challenging environmental, economic, and social consequences have resulted in many economic and political analyses questioning the long-term viability of coal use in China’s political economy. However, these contemporary issues also seem to have indirectly inspired [End Page 561] a number of studies tracing the history of coal as a resource, artifact, and commodity during early industrialization and economic modernization processes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These new studies on coal are anchored in the fields of history of technology, history of science, and history of imperialism, as well as in social and political history; they analyze the scientific exploration, production, and consumption of coal at all levels of Chinese society from the late Qing dynasty through the 1949 revolution.
Among Western economic historians, Tim Wright and Thomas Rawski deserve credit for producing the first comprehensive studies of the Chinese coal industry and its contribution to China’s prewar economic growth (or lack thereof).1 Pulling together and interpreting a host of data from fragmented and dispersed primary sources, these 1980s studies greatly enhanced our understanding of the technological, economic, and managerial aspects of coal mining, as well as the development of mining wages and industry regulations. They contributed to the debate about whether China’s economic development during the early twentieth century was a success or a failure. In 2000, Kenneth Pomeranz discussed the location of coal deposits in relation to markets and transportation costs as factors influencing industrialization processes and thus revived the debate about the role of coal as a resource, industry, and market product in the Chinese economy and society.2 Since then, scholarly engagement with coal has moved beyond its nature as a source of energy and economic gain. As the two books under review demonstrate, historians have broadened the investigation by concentrating on the materiality of coal, its role in scientific exploration and knowledge production, and its impact on the socioeconomic structures and practices of local communities in pre-1949 China.
Shellen Wu’s study Empires of Coal discusses China’s resource management of coal during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It examines China’s interaction with Western powers during its process of absorbing Western scientific theories and engineering practices for the purpose of promoting the industrial and economic modernization [End Page 562] that began to emerge at the time. As Wu states, her narrative is driven, not primarily by an analysis of the technological changes taking place in nineteenth-century coal mining, but rather by a discussion of “the underlying reconceptualization of mineral resources and their significance for China’s place in the world” (p. 3). For the purpose of documenting “this change in worldview” (p. 3), Wu creates a narrative in rough chronological order that places China’s evolving geological exploration and mining development in the context of imperialism. She shows the interactions between Western and Chinese geologists and engineers against the background of their diverse, nationally informed economic and political interests.
After an informative chapter introducing the historiography of coal and mining in China, chapter 2 focuses on the main character in Empires of Coal, Ferdinand von Richthofen. His academic work in the late nineteenth century pioneered a careful investigation of Chinese mines and estimated Chinese mineral resources and their potential value for China’s future. As a German geographer and geologist, Richthofen was...