WEAI Author Q&A: Shellen Wu’s “Empires of Coal”

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We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860-1920published by Stanford University Press. The book’s author is Shellen Xiao Wu, an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. In this study about the international battle over control of China’s coal reserves, Professor 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.

We thank Professor Wu for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

What first drew you to the topic of Western interests in China’s coal reserves?

I first read the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen’s writings years ago and found them fascinating. Here’s a Prussian aristocrat traveling extensively in China right after the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s with his Indian tea (he didn’t like Chinese tea, thought it too weak) and American whiskey and writing down all his impressions, as well as long reports on mineral deposits in the interior to send to the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce. His expeditions took place at a time when very few Westerners went beyond the legation quarters of Beijing. Richthofen eventually coined the term “silk road” and correctly hypothesized the origin of loess in the North China Plains, the two things for which he is most known for today.  He also wrote a lot about coal in China.

I made the connection between Richthofen and the turning point in Western interest in Chinese coal, and realized that he was pivotal to a changing perception of China by the late nineteenth century. We know the expression “not for all the tea in China.” Richthofen and his writings led many in the West to see China not just as a source of luxury goods like tea and silks, but also as a place with vast reserves of coal. This shift in view in turn led to a Great Race between European and American companies and Chinese interests to be the first to develop these mineral reserves and reap the profits.

What kinds of sources and archives did you consult in researching this study? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this topic?

I used a number of archives and published documents, including the Number One Historical Archives in Beijing, the Hubei Provincial Archives, eight volumes of Qing documents related to mining published by Academia Sinica in Taiwan, and the German Foreign Ministry Archives. It turns out that the Germans kept extensive documentation of expats in China and records of German engineers who worked at one of the earliest iron foundries and modern coalmines established in China. Everyone, the Germans, the British, and Qing officials, were keenly aware of the importance of coal to the process of industrialization.

Doing these kinds of new global histories requires language skills and a lot of travel. Research for the book took me to three continents, Europe, the US, and Asia, and turned up massive amounts of materials. The very abundance of archival and published document sources turned into the main challenge. Mining engineers’ reports don’t make for the most exciting reading. It was a very unwieldy process to weed through all this material and distill it into a 200 -page monograph.

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During your research, did any of your findings surprise you or change the way you thought about the history of China—or about the history of the West–during this era?

We take for granted now that we live in an age of globalization, but it’s quite surprising how much ground people covered in the nineteenth century. Europeans and Americans traveled extensively in China before the railroads were built; at a slightly later period, Chinese students and Qing officials traveled abroad to Europe and North America. Far from one sided, everyone was observing and studying everyone else and people were open minded in a way that I don’t think many of us are even today.

How are the global trends detailed in your book relevant for our contemporary times? 

I detail in my book the process of industrialization and the creation of a new mindset necessary for China’s switch to a coal based economy at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. It was apparent to officials, intellectuals, and writers then that if they didn’t seize control of Chinese mineral resources, they might lose it to the acquisitive expansion of Western imperialism. Today we are living with the consequences of that transition. The intensive exploitation of coal and other natural resources to fuel the Chinese economy has resulted in extensive environmental damage. Even studies conducted by the Chinese government show that up to 20% of the farmland in the country to be dangerously polluted, much of it from heavy metals and the run-off from ecologically damaging mining practices. The global trends begun during the period covered in book are extremely important to understanding these contemporary problems.

How would you like your book to affect people’s understanding about China’s history?

I’ve always found China to be similar to the US in that it’s a very big country and a place where it’s very easy to focus exclusively on local and, at a stretch, national concerns. My book is part of a growing movement taking place in Sinology. More and more of us are examining the various connections both within and beyond China’s borders, as part of particular global turns in history. I would like my book to help open up the horizons of people’s understanding of Chinese history and to see China in the context of global changes in the way we use and exploit natural resources to produce the energy that makes modern life possible.

May 1 Event: “Thailand Update Conference: ” Photos and Audio

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Photographs and audio are now available from the May 1, 2015 conference “Thailand Update: One Year After the May 2014 Coup: Where is Thailand Heading?” Organized by Duncan McCargo, Senior Research Affiliate at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and Professor of Political Science at the University of Leeds, the all-day conference featured presentations by a number of prominent panelists: Tyrell Haberkorn, Fellow in Political and Social Change, Australian National University; Napat Jatusripitak, Ph.D. Student, University of Minnesota; Pinkaew Laungaramsri, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Chiang Mai University; Joseph Liow, Senior Fellow, Center for East Asia Policy Studies; Lee Kuan Yew, Chair in Southeast Asia Studies, Brookings Institution; Frank Munger, Professor of Law; Co-Chair, Law and Society Program, New York Law School; Sudarat Musikawong, Associate Professor of Sociology, Siena College; Pitch Pongsawat, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University; and Kriangsak Teerakowitkajorn, Ph.D. Student and Teaching Assistant, Syracuse University.

The panelists discussed the prospects for Thailand after the coup, and what the future may hold for the Southeast Asian nation.

For audio of the event (split into four sections) on iTunes, please click here.

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May 1 Event: “Collecting and Presenting Tibetan Material Culture in the West:” Photos and Audio

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Photographs and audio are now available from the May 1, 2015 event “Collecting and Presenting Tibetan Material Culture in the West.”  The final event of WEAI’s 2014-2015 “Museums and Material Culture: East Asia” series, the presentation featured lectures by Melissa Kerin of Washington and Lee University and Dominique Townsend of the Rubin Museum of Art.  Their talk was moderated by Gray Tuttle, Leila Hadley Luce Associate Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.

 

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April 22 Event: “Human Rights Under Xi Jinping: Is There Room for Optimism?” Photos and Audio

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Photographs and audio are now available from the April 22, 2015 event “Human Rights Under Xi Jinping: Is There Room for Optimism?” The event featured a lecture by Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch.  Her talk was moderated by Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University.

During the event Dr. Richardson talked about the current situation of human rights in China and possible future outcomes resulting from the present Chinese leadership. Professor Nathan and she also discussed careers in the field of human rights.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.

 

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April 1 Event: “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy:” Photos and Audio

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Photographs and audio are now available from the April 1, 2015 event “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy.” The event featured a lecture by Michael Pillsbury, Director of the Center on Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute.  His talk was moderated by Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University.

During the event, Dr. Pillsbury, who earned his Ph.D. from Columbia, talked about his new book The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, published by Henry Holt. He also discussed his background as an adviser about China to several presidential administrations, from the Nixon presidency to the Obama presidency.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.

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March 26 Event: “Constructing Godzilla in Mid-Twentieth Century Japan and America:” Photos and Audio

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Photographs and audio are now available from the March 26, 2015 event “Constructing Godzilla in Mid-Twentieth Century Japan and America.” The event featured a lecture by Yoshiko Ikeda, Associate Professor, College of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University and Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, and was moderated by Gregory Pflugfelder, Associate Professor of Japanese History, Columbia University.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.

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March 24 Event: “Subsidizing Tibet: Fiscal Estimates and Socio-Economic Consequences:” Photos and Audio

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Photographs and audio are now available from the March 24, 2015 event “Subsidizing Tibet: Fiscal Estimates and Socio-Economic Consequences.” The event featured a lecture by Andrew Fischer, Associate Professor of Development Studies, International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Erasmus University Rotterdam, and was moderated by Gray Tuttle, Leila Hadley Luce Associate Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.

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