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

Click on any image to see it enlarged.

The traditional iron industry in Dabieshan

There is much more on the region in my Dabieshan: Traditional Chinese iron-production techniques practised in southern Henan in the twentieth century, London & Malmö 1985.

Dabieshan is a rugged isolated region, about the size of Denmark, comprising parts of the provinces of Henan, Hubei, and Anhui. It was a region of extreme poverty; before the 1960’s there was hardly a road, and all transport was by horse or foot. A consequence of poverty and isolation was that the local iron industry, using very small (‘dwarf’) blast furnaces, could survive long after the traditional ironworks in most other parts of China had fallen to foreign competition.

Extraction of
Extraction of ironsand from river sand in Xinyang, Henan, ca. 1917. (F. R. Tegengren, The iron ores and iron industry of China, bd. 2, Peking 1924, pl. 16).

The ore used here was ironsand, which can be extracted from sand in rivers flowing out of granite mountains. The river sand was washed in a sluice, as can be seen here. Iron oxide is much denser than quartz, so the white quartz sand is washed away, leaving a black or dark red sand with up to 90 percent iron oxides. (Analysis of one ore sample indicated 20% Fe2O3 and 70% Fe3O4.)

Small blast furnace, 1916Small blast
                        furnace, 1916
Blast furnaces in Xinyang county, Henan, photographed ca. 1916 by the Swedish engineer E. T. Nyström. (F. R. Tegengren, The iron ores and iron industry of China, bd. 2, Peking 1924, pl. 34).
                                højovn, 1958
                                højovn, 1958
Blast furnace in Jinzhai county, Anhui, photographed 1958. (All China makes iron and steel, Peking 1959). Blast furnace in Macheng county, Hubei, 1958, together with the most important accessories. (Yejin bao, 1959, nr. 1).
Lille højovn,
Iron production in a traditional blast furnace, woodblock print by Lei Shikang, ca. 1958. (Yejin bao, 1959, nr. 1).

Cast iron was smelted from this extremely rich ore in small blast furnaces like the two shown here on the right. A technical description was published by Guo Yujing in 1932. The fuel was charcoal, and a flux was not necessary. The blast came from a large windbox driven by two workers, and iron and slag were tapped out by tilting the entire furnace, as in Guangdong. The horizontal beams and a chain which can be seen in some of the photographs served to limit the tilt. The photograph below shows the finished plates of cast iron.

(See also Technical description of blast furnace operation.)

Pig iron
A wagonload of pig iron in Anhui, 1958. (Photo Rewi Alley; archives of the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge).

Friskningsherd, 1916
A pair of fining hearths in Dabieshan, drawn by E. T. Nyström, ca. 1916. In the background a traditional Chinese ‘windbox’ (fengxiang, double-action piston bellows), in the foreground a plate of cast iron and a bar of wrought iron. Fining hearths were often built in pairs and operated in shifts because the hearth suffered less damage from the heat if it was allowed to cool between uses. (Reproduced with the kind permission of Tom Nyström and the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm).
Friskningsherd, 1958
Fining of cast iron to wrought iron in Shanxi, 1958. (Rewi Alley, China’s hinterland—in the leap forward, Peking 1961).

This cast iron could be used directly by an iron foundry, or it could be fined to wrought iron. Two fining hearths in Dabieshan are shown in the drawing above, and the process was described in a guide from 1958. I have not found a photograph of the process in Dabieshan, but here on the right can be seen a similar process in Shanxi. The product was small bars of wrought iron like those in the photograph below.

Wrought-iron bars produced by traditional methods in Hunan, 1958. (All China makes iron and steel, Peking 1959).

The region’s isolation meant that the traditional iron industry did not come into competition with foreign iron. In fact in the 19th century it seems to have grown, perhaps because of the decline of the Guangdong iron industry.

The First World War, 1914–18, brought a dramatic increase in the price of imported iron in China, and this brought new opportunities to the Dabieshan iron industry. In eastern China the large traditional ironworks were long gone, their technology forgotten. Dabieshan became a major supplier of iron. Iron was carried by coolies on their backs out of the mountains to a large part of southern Henan – a strange development for eyes accustomed to the modern steel industry.

In the 1950’s, with peace, reconstruction, and isolation from world markets, came a new boom for the traditional iron industries in several parts of China. The technologies of these industries were investigated and documented as part of the preparations for the Great Leap Forward, 1958–60, and Dabieshan was one of the focus regions in this effort. The attempt to spread the traditional technologies to other regions was a fiasco, but the documentation which resulted is today an invaluable source for historians of technology.

Click on any image to see it enlarged.