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



The start of a journey

On September 5, 1868, the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833–1905) arrived in Shanghai on board the steamship Costarica. Beyond that port city, the whole of China stretched before him, and for a moment the normally stolid Prussian aristocrat’s courage quailed before his ambitious undertaking. In the introduction to the first volume of his work on China, Richthofen described his misgivings:

I had not had the opportunity to acquaint myself with the literature on China, and it was not without anxiety that I stood at the gates of the immense empire, the exploration of which by one individual seemed a foolhardy undertaking. The land is enormous, stretching up to the endless unknown West, and when I thought how all the countries of Europe, with the exception of Russia, would fit into China; how difficult it is, when one did not possess the geographic literature on it, in a few years, even with the help of the railroad, to produce a picture of its ground formation. . . . so I believed that I had set my goal too high.1

Based on materials and observations he collected over the next four years and seven expeditions, Richthofen coined the term Seidenstrasse (Silk Road); correctly hypothesized the origin of loess, the yellow silt-like material covering much of North China; connected the East Asian landmass to Central Asia; and described to the outside world the vast deposits of coal in the Chinese interior.2 Celebrated in the West as a pioneer of scientific exploration in China and vilified in China for opening the floodgates of imperialism, Richthofen leaves a legacy that remains contested to this day. In 1868, however, the accolades and diatribes lay far beyond the flat Shanghai horizons, and Richthofen conveyed not only the visceral doubt and trepidation of an explorer at the start of a challenging new endeavor but also a sense of wide-open vistas, lands unexplored, and immense possibilities. With these words, Richthofen commenced the 1877 work that would fulfill the potential he had first sensed in the 1860s and cement his reputation as a leading European expert on China well into the twentieth century.

Another image mirrors Richthofen’s arrival in Shanghai from the Chinese perspective. A grainy photograph from the late 1890s shows the Qing official and reformer Zhang Zhidong (1837–1909) standing, with his back turned to the viewer, on a hillside above the sprawling grounds of Hanyang Iron Foundries. Zhang had first conceived the project in the early 1880s, and for a time the entire enterprise appeared in jeopardy because he could not find a suitable source of coal in the vicinity of the foundry. What must have crossed Zhang’s mind as he gazed on the result of decades of his efforts? Did the smoke stacks and fumes elicit in him the joy and pride of accomplishment? Or did he, too, like Richthofen, feel quivers of unease at the immensity of the project he faced—the industrialization of China? Richthofen and Zhang both lived across a span of years chiefly in the nineteenth century, and there the similarities might have ended, the former a European gentleman explorer who based his academic reputation on his travels in China, the latter a Confucian scholar official in the higher echelons of the Qing bureaucracy, a small and select group of men with their own distinctive esprit de corps.3 Yet the rest of this work will show that, beyond these differences of background and cultural milieu, both men shared a remarkably similar vision for the future of a modern China defined by technological and industrial development. A global web of ideas about science, technology, and economic development connected the two men. And coal played a key role in fueling both men’s visions of industrialization. This book is about how Chinese views of natural resource management changed irrevocably as a result of the late Qing engagement with imperialism and science.

From the twentieth-first-century vantage point we cannot peer directly into the mind of Richthofen or Zhang, but we live in the world that they and others like them created in the nineteenth century, a world powered by fossil fuels and still reeling from the effects of industrialization. At the heart of this book is the narrative of how China joined this world. This outcome was not predetermined but rather the result of a series of decisions and contingencies. This work begins in the 1860s, when Qing forces led by Han Chinese loyalists had narrowly defeated the Taiping rebels and begun a period of reform led by capable provincial leaders. Central state control loosened enough for foreign diplomats, advisors, and adventurers to first venture from their enclaves in Beijing and the treaty ports. A Prussian nobleman educated in the leading university system in the world at the time, Richthofen possessed a unique combination of scientific authority and impeccable timing. In large part because of Richthofen’s reports, from the mid-nineteenth century China’s mineral wealth became its chief attraction to foreign industries and the expansionary ambitions of European powers.

At the same time, the development of nascent Chinese industries, including Hanyang Iron Foundries, hinged on their access to coal. In search of the technology and know-how to successfully industrialize, Qing officials turned to Richthofen and foreign mining engineers to maneuver the process. What happened between a Prussian aristocrat scientist and a Confucian scholar official situates an important historical juncture in China, when coal ceased to be a familiar mineral and became the fuel of a “new” imperialism. This crucial turning point locates China in a global context. Industrialization and its cultural and economic consequences took place not in a vacuum but across a spectrum of nations around the world that now included China. Countries struggled, in their rush to industrialize, to survey and manage their natural resources and, in the process, created a shared global discourse of energy. In joining the European and American powers to establish control over mineral resources around the world, China today is not an example of subversion or triumph over imperialism and the old world order but rather the unequivocal embrace of its underlying values.

The larger argument of this work centers on how the needs of industrialization in the nineteenth century forced China to converge with the theory and practices of European powers and the United States in the management of mineral resources. In the last decades of the Qing–Republican transition, industrialization transformed coal from a useful mineral resource to the essential fuel of the Chinese drive to wealth and power. People have mined coal and other minerals and metals in China since antiquity; what changed in the nineteenth century was due not just to the importation of new technologies but also to the underlying reconceptualization of mineral resources and their significance for China’s place in the world. Each chapter addresses a different facet of this change in worldview and as a whole connects European science and technology (geology and mining in particular), imperialism, and the economic exploitation of natural resources. Ferdinand von Richthofen’s travels coincided with the establishment of late Qing industrial enterprises, including iron foundries, arsenals, and the first railroads in China, which all required coal for fuel. For officials, merchants, and advocates of reform, Richthofen’s work provided the answer to their energy shortage problem at the same time that it challenged the Chinese themselves to explore and exploit the hidden abundance of their own natural resources. The newly independent scientific discipline of geology in the West appeared to hold the solution to the needs of Chinese industrialization.

The age of coal: An overview

The underground elicits a visceral reaction. It evokes darkness, secretiveness, and the hidden. Referring to regions beneath the surface, the underground is the realm of miners and unfathomed mysteries. Radicals and revolutionaries populate the secret cells of underground organizations. Whether a narrow mining shaft or a covert organization, a sense of danger lurks about the underground. The multiple meanings and possible interpretations of the “underground” run as a theme throughout this work. Since the Chinese Communist Party has emerged from its own underground past, it has contended that 1949 marked the beginning of a new China. Elizabeth Perry’s recent book, Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition, carries the narratives of this volume into the twentieth century and the Communist era and examines the way successive waves of the Communist Party leadership reshaped the history of labor organization at Anyuan Coal Mines from the 1920s.4 Before these early days of Communist organization, however, Anyuan had a previous life as Pingxiang Coal Mines, part of Zhang Zhidong’s inland industrial empire. This book argues that modern Chinese views of strategic mineral reserves and natural resources developed in the last decades of the Qing dynasty from another kind of underground, where the possibility of boundless coal supplies pointed the way to China’s future. The names may have changed, and different reasons drew German mining engineers to Pingxiang in the 1890s than drew Li Lisan, Liu Shaoqi, and Mao Zedong to Anyuan in the 1920s, but across the decades of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries people recognized the importance of the underground and its products for China’s economic development.

This future was recognized by German geographer and geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen in the late 1860s, when he envisaged China’s geological potential. The first chapter lays out the multiple historiographies that intersect at the focus of this work. To understand how and why a momentous change of the Chinese worldview occurred in the late nineteenth century, I begin with a discussion of premodern forms of geological knowledge in China. Chapter 2 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.

From there, Chapter 3 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 misses 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.

Chapter 4 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 various empires. The German engineers who began working for Chinese industries transitioned easily when Germany acquired a leasehold in Shandong province in 1898. For these men, the expanding European empires of the nineteenth century provided opportunities for adventure, career advancement, and higher incomes. Their career trajectory displays the porous boundaries between academic science and industry in the nineteenth century. Yet the new possibilities opened up by European empires and multinational corporations also carried considerable risks. The stories of these engineers illustrate a crucial aspect of industrialization—whether in China or elsewhere, the considerable capital requirements of industrialization necessitated state intervention and subsidies. Under private auspices, the sale of machinery and expertise was far more profitable than the outright ownership of industries. This insight tempers the earlier conclusions of Chinese economic historians, like Albert Feuerwerker, for example, who concluded that late Qing enterprises failed largely because of a culture of corruption.

Chapter 5 examines the late Qing reform of mining laws and the nationwide 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 the 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, demonstrates that, by the last years of the Qing dynasty, they had joined the ranks of nations that viewed mineral resources as the key to their standing in the world. Moreover, after 1905, student protests and provincial attempts to buy back mining concessions effectively countered foreign demands.

Finally, Chapter 6 examines continuities and changes in Chinese views on mining from the late-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.

The chapters follow a roughly chronological order. A change in worldview is difficult to pin down; some Chinese mining enterprises successfully navigated the transition to modern mining technology whereas others foundered under imperialist encroachment and the instability of the global commodities market.5 As each chapter will show, China did not merely adopt and adapt geology and the mining sciences but experienced the emergence of a new worldview regarding the use and exploitation of natural resources. With the power of hindsight we can see many portents in the second half of the nineteenth century of events in subsequent years. Those living during the years of early industrialization and the introduction of modern science in China, however, could not foresee the wars and political turmoil to come. Richthofen’s writings, particularly his travel journals, open a window to the years when Germany was the economic miracle of the century and the German Empire was the culmination of decades of political struggle rather than the precursor to authoritarianism. Similarly, the China of his writings, for all its biased tropes, contained under its soils the resources for its future development and economic rise to parity with Europe and the Americas. With the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s, the possibilities of reform and renewal shone on the horizons.


1. My translation. With the exception of his letters to the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, written originally in English, Richthofen’s major works have never been translated into English. Ferdinand von Richthofen, China, volume I, xii.

2. See a discussion of a history of the term Silk Road, of particular interest to art historians and early China specialists, in Valerie Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History, 6–8.

3. This is explored in detail in William Rowe, Saving the World: Chen Hongmou and Elite Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century China. Chen often used the term we to indicate fellow governors and officials.

4. Elizabeth J. Perry, Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition, 21–22.

5. For example, Chinese tin miners more than held their own against British mining enterprises in Malaya until the 1930s; see Daniel R. Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850–1940, 260–268.