Ferdinand von Richthofen’s description of iron production in Dayang, Shanxi, 1870

The text has no illustrations, but the photograph reproduced below can clarify the description.

Meeting innumerable animals and coolies on the pack road carrying anthracite, one expects to find a large-scale mine; but both coal mining and iron manufacture in this region have the character of all Chinese industry: rough, exceptionally diminutive, and nevertheless of an extraordinary perfection. One is astounded, arriving at these much-discussed places, to see merely hundreds of small establishments among which the work is distributed. One finds nothing which even remotely resembles a European blast furnace.

Crucible smelting of iron in Gaoping county, Shanxi, 1898. (Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, 1904, 34, fig. 1, opposite p. 854).

The iron smelter is situated on a slightly inclined floor, 2½ m long and 1½ m wide. On the two long sides are walls, 1¼ m high; the third side, towards which the floor ascends, is open; and on the fourth is a small and primitive hut for the bellows and two people who work it. The floor is covered with small pieces of anthracite, the size of a fist. On this are placed about 150 crucibles of refractory clay, [15] inches high [38 cm]  and 6 inches wide [15 cm], which are filled with a mixture of small pieces of anthracite and crushed iron ore. All the spaces between crucibles are carefully filled out with anthracite, and a layer of the fuel is spread on top. Sometimes a second layer of 150 crucibles is laid over the first. Over this is laid more anthracite and on top a layer of shards of old crucibles. The whole heap is ignited, and air is blown in. When everything is burning and the heat is great, the blowing is stopped, since natural draught is sufficient to maintain the heat.

If the intention is to make cast iron [Roheisen], the crucibles are taken out after a certain period of time and the contents cast as flat plates; the result appears to be a clean white steelmaking pig iron. If wrought iron is desired, the heap is allowed to burn out and cool off over a period of four days. The crucibles are then taken out and broken. In this case the iron is in the form of a hemisphere.

These two types of iron serve as the raw material for a wide variety of manufactures. Their further treatment of one sort or another for particular purposes is kept secret by the individual factories, and some of these have acquired a great reputation for the preparation of kettles, ploughs, or other equipment.

A third type of raw iron is also prepared by casting the molten metal in water to form drops. This type is added in various quantities to the other types in order to suit various purposes.

The best product is the wrought iron, which is far superior to that of Europe and possesses great malleability. The Chinese also excel in the casting of very thin objects, such as the iron pans [woks] used for cooking; this is an art which they understand everywhere, but Shanxi is its home.

It is of great interest to go around to the different establishments and see everywhere these simple methods used which have served since ancient times. It is clear that this great perfection must be ascribed not only to experience but also to the quality of the raw materials. Everything they need is supplied by the strata of productive coal formations which are only a few hundred feet thick. Of the very widespread iron ores only the purest and most easily smelted are used. Clay and refractory material are also found in great quantities. But the most important material is anthracite.