- The Traditional Chinese Iron Industry and Its Modern Fate
Donald Wagner's slim volume on iron production in China takes us on an enjoyable journey back to the origins of one of China's key heavy industries. For students of the contemporary Chinese economy, this book fills in gaps and has implications that range beyond the sector that is highlighted here.
Wagner's main argument, presented in four case studies, is that different conditions in various regions of China shaped the way the iron industry has developed over the past few centuries. In the Dabieshan region on the Anhui-Henan-Hubei border, difficulties in transportation meant that small blast furnaces could best provide for the needs of nearby consumers. In isolated Sichuan, good regional transportation meant that large furnaces could produce amounts commensurate with economies of scale. Shanxi found a good market in north China, but the technique of crucible smelting complicated reaching an economy of a similar scale. But Guangdong's rivers and access to the sea meant that producers there could send their product all along the Chinese coast and even to parts of Southeast Asia.
The key factor in shaping these industries in the early nineteenth century was the advent of foreign competition. Until about 1700, China had perhaps the world's largest and most efficient iron industry. In the early 1800s, however, Britain's empire building encouraged the virtual "dumping" of iron on markets that were the targets of colonialism. Isolated areas like Sichuan and Dabieshan were more resistant to imports of more efficiently produced foreign iron, as they were less exposed to imported products. Other regions were not so lucky, and by the 1930s the country's steel production was only a fraction of total world output.
The argument is compelling and gives the reader useful empirical material for understanding how China's economy was shaped by its exposure to the imperialist nations. Wagner uses unique and often entertaining accounts from foreign entrepreneurs and diplomats who journeyed to the various regions of China in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and supplements these records with documents from the Qing dynasty.
Though most of this account is confined to pre-twentieth-century industry, there are parts that refer to events as recent as the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. Remnants of the earlier iron and steel industry were revived in this period, and in fact were used rationally in some parts of the country where workers still understood how to mine and manufacture the metal properly. It was in areas [End Page 540] where this expertise was lacking that the Great Leap brought economic catastrophe. But Wagner gives little attention to how the modern iron and steel industry has developed over the latter part of this century.
Significant portions of the text are devoted to the technical aspects of iron making. Though the author urges us to "make a try" to read these sections, and says that those who "attempt to ignore it are in danger of losing a much more important thread" (p. 3), the scientific pages often lack sufficient background material, so that probably only trained natural scientists or engineers can truly follow the presentation. In some of the case studies, such as Dabieshan, the technical discussion ends up dominating the story, and the historical analysis seems almost secondary.
Wagner does try to help the reader with very useful diagrams to help with the difficult passages. The book also includes a dozen pictures and paintings that give a clear idea of how iron miners and producers manufactured such things as plows, woks, bells, and other items used in daily life over the past two hundred years. An early Qing-dynasty account of iron smelting in Guangdong (pp. 65-67) offers fascinating descriptions of myths and legends associated with the mining and manufacturing process.
This book will be most relevant for students of history, but its...