Donald B. Wagner, Background to the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel
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The traditional iron industry in Shanxi
Shanxi seems fitted out by nature for the iron industry, with
the world’s largest deposit of coal, reasonably large reserves of iron
ore, refractory clay, and limestone, and not much else in the way of
raw materials for industry. And conditions are not good for
agriculture, with poor soil and a dry climate. Consequently the iron
industry has been, at least in the past few centuries, the dominant
activity. Coal mining and iron production were sideline occupations for
a large part of the peasant population, but it seems that there were
also large areas in which iron making was the only occupation. In one town, with
a population of perhaps 5,000, people told a foreign visitor in 1898,
‘We eat iron.’
Some experts believe that agricultural conditions in Shanxi
have not always been so bad; deforestation has ruined the soil by
erosion and ruined the climate by changing the regional precipitation
pattern. Other experts disagree. This question can no doubt be answered
by research in archives, old diaries, and the like, supplemented by
archaeological investigations, but environmental history has not
yet progressed very far in China.
The iron and steel products of Shanxi were known for their
high quality from very early times. As early as the Tang dynasty the
poets Du Fu (712–770) and Lu Lun (737–798) mentioned the famous
scissors of Shanxi. For many centuries a large proportion of the
needles used in China came from here.
The earliest description of the distinct ‘crucible smelting’
technology used in Shanxi is that of Ferdinand
1870. It is quite different from what was used
elsewhere in China: a mixture of ore and charcoal is packed in sealed
crucibles which are heated, using more coal as the fuel, to around
1200°C for a few days. The iron oxides in the ore are reduced to
metallic iron by the coal in the crucible. With this technique there
were no great economies of scale, and as Richthofen notes, all of the
ironworks were very small.
We do not know how long crucible smelting was practised in
Shanxi; virtually nothing is known about it before Richthofen’s
description in 1870. Shanxi archaeology seems to show that blast
furnaces were used here in ancient times. My guess is that the
mountains of the province were forested back then, and that blast
furnaces were used as long as the forests could provide charcoal; when
the forests at some time were gone, crucible smelting was invented to
make possible the use of mineral coal instead. I cannot even begin to
guess when this occurred: the Tang dynasty? the Ming?
Shanxi produced in 1870 about 130,000 tons of iron per year.
This is an enormous amount, more than we know of from all the rest of
China at the time. (It must be remembered that throughout China there
for local consumption about which we know nothing.) But the industry
was already in decline, as Richthofen observed:
The mining of coal, the manufacturing of iron, and the conveying of both to market employ a large number of men and animals. But notwithstanding its ample resources the country is poor. The profits are reduced to a minimum. . . . Underground miners, who receive elsewhere 200 to 300 cash a day, must here content themselves with wages of 100 cash. Yet the owners of mines are poor people. There have evidently been better times in this region, as one is justified in concluding from the great number of houses built with luxury, and richly adorned with fine work of sculpture.
with foreign trade is another cause of the decadence of the
wealth of [this province]. If we commence with the trifling article of
needles, their manufacture in Shansi has almost been annihilated, by
the importation of the much better and cheaper foreign article. The
same will be true, before long, in regards to guns and steel ware; and
there can be no doubt that the injurious effects of foreign competition
have been seriously felt by the iron trade of Shansi in general. Being
the only noteworthy article of export from that province, the
diminished sales and reduced prices contribute to impoverish the
By 1898 the production of iron in Shanxi had fallen to ca.
50,000 tons per year. It increased slightly during World War I, to
70,000 t/yr in 1916, but in 1950 it had fallen to less than 20,000 t/yr.
In 1870 Richthofen gave great praise to the iron produced
here, and in fact wrote that it was superior to European iron, but most
later witnesses reported that Shanxi iron was quite inferior,
containing far too much sulphur. Two samples analysed in 1911 showed
0.13 and 0.61 percent sulphur; even the lower of these values is higher
than a smith would want, and it would for example be very difficult to
make needles of this iron. In 1958, in connection with the Great Leap Forward, the process was
considered unusable, and it was largely abandoned.
It is interesting that the crucible smelting technique was
adopted in 1908 in Höganäs, Sweden, where it has the special
advantage that it can use poor-quality Swedish coal, which cannot be
used in a blast furnace. It seems quite certain that the ‘invention’ of
the Höganäs process was directly inspired by the Shanxi
process through the Swedish engineer Erik T. Nyström, who taught
chemistry and geology at Shanxi Imperial University in Taiyuan for many
years from 1902.
Experiments with the Höganäs process showed that the
sulphur content of the iron produced could be held down to 0.01–0.03
percent by the addition of a small amount of limestone (CaCO3)
temperature control around
1200°C. It seems to be a reasonable assumption that the iron
producers had earlier used limestone in iron smelting, and had stopped
in order to reduce expenses. Perhaps we see here another example of a
technical step backward as a response to competition with cheap foreign
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