The traditional Chinese iron industry
and its modern fate
Donald B. Wagner
and Steel, 1958–60, was not really about
‘backyard furnaces’ of the ‘masses’, though that is the story we hear
from both inside and outside China. The mass campaign – an almost total
failure – lasted only a few months at the end of 1958. Much more
important were small-scale industrial plants, either private or run by
the people’s communes, which used either well-tried traditional
furnaces or scaled-down versions of modern furnaces. In 1958 these
small-scale plants produced 4 million tons of pig iron.
To understand what happened, and why the Leap was nevertheless a
failure, we need to investigate in detail both the history and the
technology of the traditional Chinese iron industry in the past few
|This web-site is partly based on my book, The traditional Chinese iron industry and
its modern fate,
Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1997, where further details and
references to sources will be found. My latest book, Science and civilisation
in China, vol.
5, part 11: Ferrous metallurgy,
Studies in the history of technology tend to favour success
stories and technical progress. Here we are concerned with a negative
development: the steep fall of the Chinese iron industry, from the
world’s most advanced iron production technology in 1600 to a
relatively primitive technology which, around 1900, only survived in
the poorest regions of the country. This story is neatly paralleled by
the development in Europe, over the same period, from a new and untried
technology through the Industrial Revolution to the technology which
dominates the industry today throughout the world, including China.
From the middle of the 19th century and well into the 20th
attempts were made by various Chinese governments to adopt Western
technologies, at first without much success. For iron and steel China
became very largely dependent upon foreign imports. But the great
conflicts of the 20th century – the First and Second World Wars and the
Cold War – often cut off the trade in iron, and this provided renewed
opportunities for the traditional iron industry. The last and best
known of a number of attempts to revive the traditional industry
occurred as one aspect of the so-called Great Leap Forward, 1958–60; we
shall conclude with a look at that campaign and bring technical and
historical insights to bear on some of the many misunderstandings that
flourish about it.
This web-site is largely a translation of a Danish booklet
for use in courses in the history of technology. The purpose of the
booklet was to show
some examples of historical
interactions among technology, economy, geography, and political
decisions. Various kinds of sources are used here in their
investigation, and one aspect of the story is the critical approaches
which are necessary to use them effectively.
On this page I give a brief outline.
Click on the links to read the whole story.
The recent history of China has been a roller-coaster ride from peace
and economic development in the 18th century through civil war and
military humiliation in the mid-19th to today’s status as a world
industrial power. One aspect of China’s decline was a greatly increased
trade with the West, which brought its economy out of balance and
the collapse of several branches of industry. Its effect was especially
severe on the iron industry, which, because of competition with cheap
Western iron, survived best in poor isolated regions.
From very ancient times the Chinese iron industry used a technology
which is generally called indirect
smelting. Cast iron was produced from ore in a blast furnace, and this was
converted to wrought iron by fining
or puddling. This process
seems at first sight unnecessarily complicated, but it is still today
the most efficient method of producing iron.
An aspect with great historical significance is that blast-furnace iron
production gives great economies of scale: the larger the production,
the lower the cost per unit produced.
This very general description fits most of the regional iron industries
in China, but in technical details and – especially – scale there was
great variation. In the following we consider first the subtropical
province of Guangdong, where the traditional industry and its history
is best documented; several other regions will then be considered more
The iron industry of Guangdong was divided into two
distinct sectors, with large-scale and small-scale ironworks. Works in
the mountains produced pig iron in large blast furnaces, and this was
transported by the great rivers of the province to the industrial city
Foshan, near the provincial capital Guangzhou (formerly known as
Canton). In Foshan iron and steel products of all kinds were produced
and sold all over China and Southeast Asia. At the same time iron was
being produced for local consumption in small blast furnaces in
villages throughout the province.
This division into two sectors was not unique for Guangdong. The same
was the case in some other regions in China, and also for example in
Norway and Sweden in the 18th century. It was a matter of the relative
isolation of the villages, transportation costs, and the consequent comparative advantage.
It is also in Guangdong that the effects of foreign trade on China’s
economy can be seen most clearly. Competition with cheap imported iron
and steel meant that the large-scale ironworks closed, while the small
works survived and in some cases prospered.
iron industry of Guangdong
The large ironworks, described by
Qu Dajun (1630–1696)
C. F. Liljevalch’s description, 1847
The two sectors in Norway and Sweden in
the 18th century
Other parts of China
The iron industry of Fujian and the
is an isolated mountainous region
where poverty until recently was extreme. Here iron was produced in
small blast furnaces for local consumption. This production continued
without a break into modern times, and it was the subject of thorough
technical documentation in 1958 as part of the Great Leap Forward.
is a prosperous province in southwest
China. Here iron was produced in large blast furnaces for sale
throughout the province.
iron industry in Sichuan
description of the technology, 1877
In the provinces of Hunan
in central China
find again, as in Guangdong, that the iron industry was divided into
two sectors. The economic and social aspects of this industry were
documented in 1930 by no less a personage than Mao Zedong.
The ‘crucible smelting’ technology of the
province of Shanxi
different from the iron-production technologies in the rest of China.
The same process was adopted in the early 20th century by the
Höganäs firm in Sweden, where it seems to be still in use.
Peace came in 1949 after a
half-century of war and civil war. The technology which has been
described above was still a living tradition in many regions, and it
turned out to be useful in post-war reconstruction. In the ‘Great Leap
Forward’ it came to have a special significance which is often
Numerous myths surround the campaign for ‘backyard furnaces’, and the
story is much more complex than is generally known. The campaign
started as a sensible attempt to break economic gridlock by
establishing smaller industrial plants which had smaller infrastructure
requirements in comparison with giant modern plants. It quickly became
too ambitious, however, and ended in fiasco.
The part of the campaign which called for the whole population to go
out and produce iron in their backyards was utterly foolish, but lasted
only a couple of months and did not have major consequences. The real
catastrophe of the time was the great famine of 1959–62, when millions
died of hunger.
Great Leap Forward
There were really four distinct technologies in play in the Great Leap
Forward: scaled-down modern blast furnaces, large traditional blast
furnaces, small traditional blast furnaces, and the ‘backyard’ blast
furnaces of the mass campaign. Unfortunately, virtually all reports of
the Leap, by journalists and scholars assume that only these last were
involved. Even such an eminent historian as Roderick MacFarquhar, in
best study we have of the politics of the period, makes this mistake.
My hope for this web-site is that it may provoke scholars of
contemporary Chinese history and politics to take a more nuanced look
at the Great Leap Forward.