Empires of Coal

9780804792844: Hardback
Release Date: 22nd April 2015

9781503610101: Paperback
Release Date: 5th March 2019

Dimensions: 152 x 229

Number of Pages: 280

Edition: 1st Edition

Series Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University

Stanford University Press

Empires of Coal

Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860-1920

Underground Empires examines how Chinese views of strategic mineral resources developed in the last decades of the Qing dynasty.
Hardback / £73.00
Paperback / £20.99

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.

Contents and Abstracts
1Fueling Industrialization in the Age of Coal
chapter abstract

In order to understand how and why a momentous change of the Chinese worldview occurred in the late nineteenth century, chapter 1 begins with a discussion of pre-modern forms of geological knowledge in China

2Ferdinand von Richthofen and the Geology of Imperialism
chapter abstract

Chapter Two examines Richthofen's contributions to Chinese views of its own mineral resources. Richthofen's career spanned the zenith of European colonial expansion in the nineteenth century, concomitant with the golden age of the railroads and steamers. His academic work on China connected the geography of the eastern seaboard to the Central Asian landmass. Yet his enduring legacy in China remains his observations of Chinese mines and estimates of Chinese mineral potential.

3Lost and Found in Translation: Geology, Mining, and the Search for Wealth and Power
chapter abstract

Chapter Three discusses missionary translations of geology works in the nineteenth century. In the act of translation, geology became further entangled with the role of science in imperialism and the wealth and power of the West. Nineteenth century missionary translations of science in the treaty ports tell only a small part of the story. Focusing on the deficiencies of these translations would only miss the greater accomplishment of these foreign and Chinese translators of Western science texts as cultural intermediaries. These late nineteenth century translations introduced the field of geology to the Chinese public, but in the tumultuous political and economic environment of the late Qing period it was mining and control over mining rights that added urgency to the adoption of modern geology.

4Engineers as the Agents of Science and Empire, 1886-1914
chapter abstract

Chapter Four examines the large-scale modern enterprises opened in the interior by the Chinese themselves, including influential government figures such as Li Hongzhang and Zhang Zhidong. This chapter focuses on the people who made possible the expansion of the first modern Chinese industries while also promoting European influence on China's future development—engineers who carried their skills from technical schools and mining academies in Europe to the far reaches of empire. The German engineers who began working for Chinese industries transitioned easily when Germany acquired a leasehold in Shandong province in 1898.

5Nations, Empires, and Mining Rights (1895-1911)
chapter abstract

Chapter Five examines the late Qing reform of mining laws and the nation-wide movement to reclaim mining rights. In particular, this chapter uses as a case study the example of two German mining companies in Shandong during the colonial period (1898-1914), and the Chinese response to the foreign scramble for mining concessions. Like the geological surveys taking place across the globe during nineteenth and twentieth centuries, mining regulations became a point of tension between colonizers and the colonized. The Chinese promulgation of mining regulations, based on Japanese and European precedents, demonstrate that by the last years of the Qing dynasty, they had joined the ranks of nations that viewed mineral resources as the key to wealth and power.

6Geology in the Age of Imperialism
chapter abstract

Chapter Six examines continuities and changes in Chinese views on mining from the imperial period through the Republican era. During the late Qing period, control over natural resources became a symbol of sovereignty against foreign encroachment. The study of geology became a means of resistance against imperialism. In the Chinese discourse the positivist views of Western geology in this period transformed into a matter of anti-imperialist struggle with strong social Darwinian undertones. Republican era geologists actively tried to construct a history of geology motivated by Han nationalism, with the efforts of the late-Qing period largely erased from their revision.

chapter abstract

This chapter discusses the implications of the book and its significance for the literature on Chinese industrialization and modern Chinese history.

Shellen Xiao Wu is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

"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."

Micah Muscolino
Oxford University

"Wu's study...places China's nineteenth-century development in a global context and adds comparative value to its historical experience."

Joanna Waley-Cohen
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."

Carla Nappi
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."

Joanna Waley-Cohen
NYU Shanghai

"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"

J. Roger