Donald B. Wagner, Background to the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel

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China, 1600–2010

On the history of the period see especially Jonathan Spence, The search for modern China, London: Hutchinson, 1990. One of many useful on-line sources is the Library of Congress Country Study: China.

China in the 17th century suffered from peasant revolts and nomad invasions, resulting finally in the fall of the reigning Ming dynasty. History books give 1644 as the beginning of the new Qing dynasty, but in fact its consolidation took many years.

The 18th century was a period of peace and economic advance. Especially the improvement of canals and roads led to a great increase in inter-regional commerce and regional specialization. But then things started going wrong. Traditional Chinese historical writing stresses a ‘dynastic cycle’, in which a reigning dynasty starts well and gradually degenerates, so that after two or three centuries it falls and is replaced by the next. This idea makes a certain amount of sense – consider some of the developments that can accompany peace under a strong central power: luxury, corruption, population increase, increased commerce, and the rise of local economic power centres in uncontrollable hands. But in the 19th century a great deal of the dynasty’s problems came from outside – from the West.

Spanish and Portuguese traders began showing up around 1600, followed by Dutch and English somewhat later. The English East India Company developed a major trade with China in the latter half of the 18th century.

The most important commodity in this trade was tea from China, though there was also a considerable demand in Europe for silk and porcelain. In the early years of the trade there was very little demand in China for Western products, so the Chinese products were bought with silver. Here lay the beginning of the Qing dynasty’s problems: mines in the Spanish colonies in America brought a flood of silver to Europe; great quantities came to China in exchange for tea; all this silver caused inflation in China, and the country’s economy became unbalanced. Chinese investors put their capital into tea production and other activities related to foreign trade, to the detriment of other industries.

The ship Prins Carl: Pehr Osbeck, Dagbok öfver en ostindisk rese åren 1750, 1751, 1752: Med anmärkningar uti naturkunnigheten, främmande folks språk, seder, hushållning, m.m., Stockholm: Grefing, 1757; repr. Stockholm: Rediviva, 1969, p. 4.
The ship Citizen: William C. Hunter, The ‘fan kwae’ at Canton before treaty days, 1825–1844, 2nd edn Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1911 (orig. 1882), repr. 1965, 1970, p. 2.
C. F. Liljevalch, Chinas handel, industri og statsförfattning, jemte underrättelser om chinesernes folkbildning, seder och bruk . . . , Stockholm: Joh. Beckman, 1848, p. 117.

Numerous foreign ships came to China with Mexican silver dollars as their only cargo, and sailed home with a cargo of tea. If it was possible to find some Western products that the Chinese would buy, the ships’ capacity would be better utilized and the profit much greater. A number of commodities were tried, among them lead, mercury, and iron. Two random examples: in 1750 the Swedish ship Prins Carl sailed from Gothenburg with a cargo of lead and some textiles, and in 1824 the American ship Citizen sailed from New York with a cargo of ‘350,000 Spanish dollars in kegs . . . , furs, lead, bar and scrap iron, and quicksilver’.

In 1847 the Swedish commercial attaché C. F. Liljevalch reported that cheap imports had so depressed the price of mercury in China that domestic production had completely stopped. In the following we shall see a similar effect on the Chinese iron industry.

Figur 1
Map of eastern China, with all place-names mentioned on the web-site.

The final solution to the Western merchants’ problem turned out to be opium. A triangular trade developed: textiles and other industrial products from England to the English colonies in India, opium from India to China, and tea from China to England. There was a similar American trade with Turkish opium to China.

Foreign and Chinese merchants used the same effective sales techniques as modern narcotics pushers, and before long opium addiction had become a serious social problem in China. With the drug abuse came new economic problems, for now silver flowed in the opposite direction, out of the country. Corrupt officials made the prohibition of opium difficult to enforce, and an honest official’s attempt to enforce it led to the infamous Opium War with England, 1840–42. This was the start of a serious decline for the Chinese state, for it soon became apparent that the Chinese military did not have a chance against modern military powers.

Successive Chinese governments in the next hundred years made great efforts to acquire modern technologies from the West – telegraphy, railroads, steamships, artillery, and much more – but were constantly under pressure from internal unrest and external aggression. The Qing dynasty lost much of its freedom of action with the ‘Unequal Treaties’ which it was forced to accept.

The Qing dynasty fell in 1912. The Republic of China, established by Sun Yat-sen, was not strong enough to hold the country together, and local warlords took power in large parts of China. Japan had de facto occupied Manchuria from about 1905, and invaded North China in 1937. After the end of World War II the civil war continued, and ended in Communist victory in 1949.

The strong central government established by the Communists brought peace, reconstruction, and modernization, and China has had many successes in the latter half of the 20th century. But the same strong power has made possible some ideologically based dispositions which were highly counter-productive. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966–76, now called ‘the ten lost years’, is the best known example. Less well known is the ‘Great Leap Forward’, 1958–60, which included forced collectivization and was followed by what has been called ‘the worst famine in the history of mankind’, in which millions of people died of starvation.

China today appears to be in a period of rising prosperity which can lead to a restoration of the national greatness of former times. Time will tell whether the dynastic cycle continues to operate.

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