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.

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