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Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860-1920

Author(s):Wu, Shellen Xiao
Reviewer(s):Jia, Ruixue

Published by EH.Net (November 2015)

Shellen Xiao Wu, Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860-1920.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015. xii + 266 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8047-9284-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Ruixue Jia, School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California – San Diego.

China is the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world, and is also the largest user of coal-derived electricity. As of 2014, coal-fired power accounts for around 75 percent of China’s total power generation. It is no exaggeration to say that China’s growth in the past few decades has been fueled by coal. This sector also contributes to acute social problems in China including air pollution and workplace safety: China alone accounts for approximately 80 percent of the total deaths in coal mine accidents worldwide.

As an economist fascinated by this sector, I have studied the political economy of coal-fired power and coal mine accidents in China. However, I was ignorant of the history of this sector and find Shellen Xiao Wu’s book both enlightening and entertaining. It provides a vivid historical account of this sector as well as Chinese views of science and technology when the country was transformed from the late imperial to the modern era.
Focusing on the development of the coal sector, the book narrates the history of natural resource management in the late Qing dynasty and early republican period, during which China was forced to open to the West. On the one hand, many leading intellectuals and scholar-officials believed that China must learn from the West in technology for exploiting natural resources. On the other hand, foreign powers’ engagement in China’s natural resources also showed the Qing dynasty’s vulnerability and weakness to imperialism. Both facilitated the state management and legal regulation of natural resources in China. Wu concludes that China and the West had converged in the theory and exploitation of natural resources by the end of the nineteenth century. This has important implications for China’s entry into the modern world and its impact on the development paths of China might be underestimated without understanding the history of this period.

Roughly following a chronological order, the book documents different aspects on how the Chinese worldview changed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is particularly appealing that each chapter can be read independently. Chapters 1 through 3 include discussions on views of geology in historical China, Ferdinand von Richthofen’s contribution to Chinese perception of its mineral resources, and missionary translations of geology works. These chapters might be of interest to readers in the field of intellectual history.

I find that Chapters 4 through 6 are more interesting since they touched the economics and politics of natural resources management. In particular, Chapter 4 discusses the opening of modern enterprises in the self-strengthening movement lead by figures like Li Hongzhang and Zhang Zhidong. Chapters 5 and 6 speak to the politics of natural resources. In this period, China was often compared to “a poor man sitting unknowingly on great treasures while thieves attempted to snatch these away.” These two chapters demonstrate how control over natural resources became a symbol of sovereignty in the era of colonialism, which led to the convergence in natural resources management between China and the West.

The strength of this book is that it offers rich historical details and interesting stories such as the career of Ferdinand von Richthofen and other German engineers. However, this level of detail may preclude it from speaking to a broader audience. For instance, those – like me – interested in the economics side of the economic history may find it unsatisfying in answering important questions of interest: why was the self-strengthening movement unsuccessful? How to think about the influence of foreign engineers on domestic human capital in the late Qing period? Are there any implication of the historical events on the spatial distribution of natural resources over time in China? Naturally, answering these questions goes beyond the scope of the book.

In summary, Wu’s book examines different facets of China’s transformation in natural resource management. Historians and scholars interested in the history of science and modernization of China will find the book useful and entertaining. Of course, everyone fascinated by coal will find it is worthwhile reading.

Ruixue Jia studies the development, political economy and economic history of China.  Her publications include “Elite Recruitment and Political Stability: The Impact of the Abolition of China’s Civil Service Exam” (with Ying Bai) Econometrica (forthcoming); “Decentralization, Collusion and Coalmine Deaths” (with Huihua Nie) Review of Economics and Statistics (forthcoming); “Weather Shocks, Sweet Potatoes and Peasant Revolts in Historical China,” Economic Journal (2014), and “The Legacies of Forced Freedom: China’s Treaty Ports” Review of Economics and Statistics, 2014.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII