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  • Zinc for Coin and Brass: Bureaucrats, Merchants, Artisans, and Mining Laborers in Qing China, ca. 1680–1830s by Hailian Chen
  • Ernst Homburg (bio)
Zinc for Coin and Brass: Bureaucrats, Merchants, Artisans, and Mining Laborers in Qing China, ca. 1680–1830s By Hailian Chen. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. 788.

Zinc for Coin and Brass elevates an old debate on the history of zinc to a higher level. This book transforms the question "who was first" into a search for answers to "why." The book is a comprehensive, multidisciplinary history of zinc in China that takes on board the history of technology, the environment, STS, transport, monetary and social history, and the administrative history of China. Through this lens, the book produces historical insights on Chinese society that transcend the case study.

Today, zinc is a metal with numerous applications. But for centuries, zinc and its ores were a mystery. When copper is combined with the ore calamine, a product (brass) is formed with a gold-like luster. This made "chymists" think that calamine was a philosopher's stone that could turn copper into gold. Another mystery was the metal-like product imported into Europe from India and China. That unknown, intriguing metal attracted the attention of generations of scholars who tried to find out when and where zinc was first produced.

For a long time, the best synthesis of zinc's history were five articles—including one on Indian and Chinese zinc—published in 1912 by the German-Swiss metallurgist Woldemar Hommel (1878–1924). In the past fifty [End Page 257] years, investigations by Chinese researchers, as well as British Museum archaeologists and chemists like Paul T. Craddock and Michael Cowell, who excavated and analyzed the chemical composition of old Chinese cash, brought many insights, but a new synthesis was lacking. Zinc for Coin and Brass is that synthesis.

As a young Chinese civil engineer, Hailian Chen started her zinc studies as part of the "Monies, Markets and Finance" research group, coordinated by Hans Ulrich Vogel of the University of Tübingen, Germany. Vogel is an expert on Chinese monetary policy in the early Qing period (1644–1800) and extensively studied copper mining in China and the use of copper in coins. Apparently a shortage of copper destabilized the economy. In the Qing period, brass was increasingly replacing bronze, but the details of that transition had not really been studied before Chen took it on board. Starting from a monetary perspective, she soon realized that the topic of zinc was far broader and more complex. She labeled herself "zinc woman" and investigated every possible aspect relating to Chinese zinc (p. xvi).

The study's central analytical tool is the "commodity chain analysis," developed together with George Bryan Souza, focusing on each phase of product development: demand, production, energy supply, logistics, commercialization, and consumption. Chen shows that the production of metallic zinc started later in China than India, but independently, and two centuries before Europe. Monetary reasons were key, because long-distance transport of calamine to the central mint in Beijing was far more expensive than making zinc locally near the mines, then transporting the metal to the mint.

It is impossible to list all the novel insights offered in this important study. Regarding the zinc economy, we now know the key dates: China produced metallic zinc from the mid-sixteenth century, increasingly for coins in the seventeenth century, and in enormous quantities from about 1740. The "frontier province" Guizhou produced 70 to 90 percent of zinc metal. Chen shows convincingly that zinc played a crucial role in stabilizing the Chinese monetary economy. She also argues that the Qing government was not as static a bureaucracy as many people thought, but in fact a dynamic actor that cooperated with private entrepreneurs and stimulated mining via loans and other incentives.

Despite these virtues, there is also room for improvement. For her analysis of the technology of zinc production circa 1730, Chen combines sources ranging from 1637 to the early 1900s, but she does not emphasize the important changes in equipment design and in the process itself. The enormous boom in zinc production between 1730 and 1750 can, arguably, be largely explained...


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