From 1868–1872, German geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen went on an expedition to China. His reports on what he found there would transform Western interest in China from the land of porcelain and tea to a repository of immense coal reserves. By the 1890s, European and American powers and the Qing state and local elites battled for control over the rights to these valuable mineral deposits. As coal went from a useful commodity to the essential fuel of industrialization, this vast natural resource would prove integral to the struggle for political control of China.
Geology served both as the handmaiden to European imperialism and the rallying point of Chinese resistance to Western encroachment. In the late nineteenth century both foreign powers and the Chinese viewed control over mineral resources as the key to modernization and industrialization. When the first China Geological Survey began work in the 1910s, conceptions of natural resources had already shifted, and the Qing state expanded its control over mining rights, setting the precedent for the subsequent Republican and People's Republic of China regimes.
In Empires of Coal, Shellen Xiao Wu argues that the changes specific to the late Qing were part of global trends in the nineteenth century, when the rise of science and industrialization destabilized global systems and caused widespread unrest and the toppling of ruling regimes around the world.
"This book narrates how, from the 1860s to the 1910s, China entered into a modern, industrializing world driven by fossil fuels. The topic could not carry greater contemporary relevance for China and the world, and only a few other historians have written on it in the past."
"Wu's study...places China's nineteenth-century development in a global context and adds comparative value to its historical experience."
The English Historical Review
"Shellen Wu's new book is a fascinating and timely contribution to the histories of China . . . Empires of Coal looks carefully at the importance of mining [...] to the political economy of late imperial China . . . It will be required reading for anyone interested in the entanglement of science, technology, and modernity in global history."
New Books in East Asian Studies
"Refreshing and subtle, this book's engagement with issues of imperialism, China's relationship to European science, and environmental history provides a fascinating reminder of the tight linkages between them all."
"Historian Wu has written a brilliant and original cultural history of industrialization in late Qing China . . . Thoroughly grounded in the archives and research in both Chinese and German sources (no mean feat), the book examines the powerful interactions of Chinese and Western entrepreneurs and Qing and Western officials in creating an industrial China . . . Highly recommended"