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‘If Shanxi's Coal is Lost, then Shanxi is Lost!’: Shanxi's Coal and an Emerging National Movement in Provincial China, 1898–1908

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 September 2010

Western Washington University, Department of History, 516 High Street, Bellingham, Washington 98225-9061, USA Email:


The land-locked north China province of Shanxi, identified in 1870 by the geologist Baron Richthofen as ‘one of the most remarkable coal and iron regions in the world’, was the site of a provincially‑defined national movement far removed from the better‑studied treaty ports and their articulate and prolific nationalists. This late-Qing provincialism may be read as a mediating symbol of an emerging national consciousness.

Social tensions were exacerbated by external challenges brought by foreign agents, and their Chinese collaborators, of cultural and economic imperialism. Opposition to missionaries and Chinese Christians had begun as early as the 1860s. In 1898 the British Pekin Syndicate and its extra-provincial Chinese associates, with the backing of the central government, secured rights to Shanxi's rich coal and iron resources. These rights were ceded back ten years later after a successful ‘rights-recovery’ movement that possesses similarities to (but also significant differences from) the well-studied oppositional movements in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan, and Shandong in the period 1905–1911. The duration of Shanxi's struggle, along with its extra-bureaucratic elite activism, popular mobilization, and cooperation with Beijing, makes its rights-recovery movement distinctive. The rhetoric and practices of the movement, which began before the Boxer Uprising of 1900 and reflects the rhetorical influence of these earlier protests, contributed to a strong regional solidarity that was backed by central state authority. There were various patterns of protest, one indigenous and provincial, one extra-provincial and nationalist, that interacted in the period 1902–1908. Provincial activists, including merchants, peasants, students, degree-holders, and officials, insisted that Shanxi's coal was for the use of the community, the province, and the nation on terms established by and for the people of Shanxi. In their victory, localism, provincialism, and the national project, had come together.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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1 von Richthofen, Baron Ferdinand, Baron Richthofen's Letters, 1870–1872 (Shanghai, 1872), p. 43Google Scholar. Richthofen's investigations in Shanxi and elsewhere were done on behalf of the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce. Richthofen began his Shanxi survey in April 1870, beginning at the border between Shanxi and Henan at Zezhou Prefecture. Richthofen then travelled towards the Fen River at Pingyang, went upriver to the plain south of Taiyuan, and to the mountains east of Taiyuan by mid–May 1870. Richthofen published his detailed field notes in 1882. See von Richthofen, Baron Ferdinand, China: Ergebnisse Eigener Reisen und darauf Gergründeter Studien (China: The Results of My Travels and the Studies Based thereon), Vol. 2, Das Nördliche China (North China) (Berlin: Verlag von Dietrich Reimer, 1882), pp. 399453Google Scholar. In this 1882 volume Richthofen calculated that the coal in southern Shanxi alone could supply the world for 2,100 years. See Richthofen 1882, 439n1.

2 Richthofen's report on Shanxi, which also included notes on Henan, was published at least twice in 1870. See von Richthofen, Baron Ferdinand, Report by Baron von Richthofen on the Provinces of Honan and Shansi (Shanghai, 1870)Google Scholar; Reports on the Provinces of Hunan, Hupeh, Honan, and Shansi (Shanghai, 1870). The report on Henan and Shanxi was reprinted in 1875. See von Richthofen, Baron Ferdinand, Report by Baron von Richthofen on the Provinces of Honan and Shansi (Shanghai, 1875)Google Scholar.

3 Zhonggui, Hu, ed., Shanxi meitan gongye jianshi (A brief history of Shanxi's coal industry) (Taiyuan: Shanxi kexue jiaoyu chubanshe, 1988), p. 35Google Scholar. England's increasing reliance on coal had transformed its economy in the previous three centuries and by the 1860s several royal commissions had addressed the ‘coal question’. Would there be adequate supplies for future economic growth? England's transition from an advanced organic economy in which all energy flows were solar–based to a mineral–based energy economy, originally based on coal, was a precondition for its industrial revolution. See Wrigley, E. A., Continuity, Chance and Change: The Character of the Industrial Revolution in England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

The British energy model was transforming the world. In the United States, for example, it was seized upon by William Palmer, who had studied Britain's collieries and coal–consuming industries in 1855 before he explored the Colorado Territory in America's West in the summer of 1867. Palmer realized that importing the British model to Colorado was the key to the region's economic development. Like Shanxi, Colorado was a coal–rich, high–altitude, dry region without access to inexpensive water transport. Colorado's transformation from an organic–energy economy into a mineral–intensive economy began in the 1870s. See Andrews, Thomas G., Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008)Google Scholar. The British model came to China in general, and Shanxi in particular, about the same time. See Wright, Tim, Coal Mining in China's Economy and Society, 1895–1937 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 36Google Scholar. China, however, remained an advanced organic economy for decades to come, but by 1990 its coal production was the largest in the world. See Smil, Vaclav, Energy in World History (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994), p. 186Google Scholar. Richthofen's vision of extracting Shanxi's mineral wealth was finally realized, but the coal would stay in China, where a third of all coal consumed worldwide is being used in an increasingly mineral–based energy economy in the twenty–first century. See Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The Future of Coal: Options for a Carbon–Constrained World (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007), pp. 6364Google Scholar. For a popular account of the domestic realities, including a firsthand look at Shanxi, and the global implications of the post–1949 transformation of China's energy economy, see Freese, Barbara, Coal: A Human History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Publishing, 2003), pp. 199231Google Scholar.

4 Cressey, George Babcock, China's Geographic Foundations: A Survey of the Land and Its People (New York: McGraw–Hill, 1934), p. 113Google Scholar. Cressey suggested that north China's coal reserves (along with America's Appalachian region and the lower Rhine River valley in Europe) were among the top three. More recent estimates put 80 per cent of the world's most extensive reserves in Russia, the United States and China. A 1930s geological survey of China's known reserves estimated that 50 per cent were in Shanxi. See Smil, p. 218; Wright, p. 80. Smil suggests that the ‘world's coal resources could last for almost 500 years at the 1990 rate of extraction.’ See Smil, p. 218.

5 Edwards, E. W., British Diplomacy and Finance in China, 1895–1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), pp. 3233Google Scholar; Zhonggui, Hu, ed., Shanxi meitan gongye jianshi (A brief history of Shanxi's coal industry) (Taiyuan: Shanxi kexue jiaoyu chubanshe, 1988), p. 36Google Scholar; for a text of the agreement see MacMurray, John V. A., comp. and ed., Treaties and Agreements with and concerning China, 1894–1919, vol. 1 (Manchu Period (1894–1911) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1921), pp. 700702Google Scholar.

6 This knowledge about Shanxi became commonplace by the turn of the century. Lord Beresford, in his 1899 comments about the British Pekin Syndicate, reported that Shanxi coal and iron fields could well be the largest in the world. See Beresford, Lord Charles William, The Break–up of China; with an account of its present commerce, currency, waterways, armies, railways, politics, and future prospects (New York: Harper, 1899), p. 313Google Scholar. A few years later Brooks Adams, brother of Henry Adams and a friend of US Secretary of State, John Hay, mentioned Richthofen's assessment that southern Shanxi had the ‘richest beds of coal and iron now known to exist, and undeveloped, in the world’. See Adams, Brooks, The New Empire (New York: Macmillan, 1903), p. 189Google Scholar. Adams went on to declare: ‘The greatest prize of modern times is northern China’ (p. 190). For another precise reference to Richthofen's estimate see Edwards, E. H., Fire and Sword in Shansi: The Story of the Martyrdom of Foreigners and Chinese Christians (New York: Revell, 1903), p. 38Google Scholar. Edwards opens his book: ‘Long before the eventful year 1900 the province of Shansi had attracted the attention of travellers, scientists, and capitalists by its abounding mineral wealth, first brought to the knowledge of the world by the explorations of Baron von Richthofen’ (p. 33).

7 Hobsbawm, E. J., Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Program, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 79Google Scholar.

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14 Li's 1963 book included a chapter on the pre–1905 period. See Enhan, Li, Wan–Qing de shouhui kuangquan yundong (The movement to recover mining rights in the late Qing) (Taibei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan jindaishi yanjiusuo, 1963), pp. 201221Google Scholar.

15 For an exploration of Shanxi's wealth and influence prior to the devastating famine of 1876–1879 see Edgerton–Tarpley, Kathryn, Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth–century China (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2008)Google Scholar. Additional detail on events between 1840 and 1908 can be found in Shanxi dashi ji (1840–1985) (A chronology of important events in Shanxi, 1840–1985), edited by Shanxi sheng difangzhi bianzuan weiyuanhui (Taiyuan: Shanxi renmin chubanshe, 1987), pp. 1–83.

16 Thompson, Roger R., ‘Twilight of the Gods in the Chinese Countryside: Christians, Confucians, and the Modernizing State, 1861–1911’, in Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, edited by Bays, Daniel H. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 5372Google Scholar.

17 Shanxi dashi ji, p. 70.

18 Shanxi dashi ji, pp. 73–74. For a discussion of the programmes and students at Shanxi University see Soothill, William E., Timothy Richard of China: Seer, statesman, missionary and the most disinterested adviser the Chinese ever had (London: Seeley, Service, 1924), pp. 253270Google Scholar.

19 In the autumn of 1904 Governor Zhang Zengyang sent 50 students to Japan. See Shanxi dashi ji, p. 75. In the spring of 1907 25 graduates from Shanxi University were sent to England for a five–year course of study. See Shanxi dashi ji, p. 82; The Times, 3 June, 1907, p. 5; Soothill, p. 266.

20 Shanxi dashi ji, p. 74.

21 Harrison, Henrietta, ‘Newspapers and Nationalism in Rural China, 1890–1929,’ Past and Present 166 (2000): 181204CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Shanxi dashi ji, pp. 58–59.

23 Rucheng, Mi, ed., Zhongguo jindai tielu shi ziliao, 1863–1911 (Source materials on the history of railways in modern China, 1863–1911) (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1963), vol. 2, p. 411Google Scholar.

24 Shanxi dashi ji, p. 59.

25 Hu, 36; King, Frank H. H., The Hongkong Bank in the Period of Imperialism and War: Wayfoong, the Focus of Wealth, Vol. 2 of The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 302Google Scholar.

26 For the text see Mi, vol. 2, pp. 406–407. The Zongli yamen summarized the controversy in a memorial rescripted on 17 May, 1898. See Mi, vol. 2, pp. 412–414.

27 Mi, vol. 2, p. 407.

28 Shanxi dashi ji, p. 60.

29 Mi, vol. 2, pp. 409, 414.

30 MacMurray, vol. 1, pp. 700–702; Hu, p. 36.

31 Shanxi dashi ji, pp. 60–61.

32 For subscription information see King, vol. 2, 302, and Kent, Percy Horace, Railway Enterprise in China: An Account of its Origin and Development (London: Edward Arnold, 1907), p. 123Google Scholar. See also Shanxi dashi ji, p. 60.

33 Morse, Hosea Ballou, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire (London: Longmans, Green, 1910–1918), vol. 3, p. 97Google Scholar. For a text of the agreement see MacMurray, vol. 1, pp. 367–369.

34 Kent, pp. 124–125.

35 Kent, p. 170.

36 See Kent, pp. 124–125. A French engineer was sent in 1897 by the Russo–Chinese Bank and the Comptoire d'Escompte to survey the mineral resources of Shanxi and plan a rail route. See Lin, Cheng, The Chinese Railways: A Historical Survey (Shanghai: China United Press, 1935), p. 70Google Scholar.

37 He Shu memorial GX25/11/18. See Mi Rucheng, vol. 2, pp. 417–418.

38 Saunders’ 18 August, 1900 letter, written while he was in the Yangzi River treaty port of Hankou, was published in The Times on 29 September, 1900. The first word of this incident was reported from Hankou on 15 August, 1900 by the missionary Griffith John. His interviews with Shanxi missionaries who had fled the province were published in the North China Herald. He wrote the following about a refugee party's experience in Zezhou Prefecture: ‘Had the gentlemen been members of the Peking [sic] Syndicate their sufferings would have been worse. At Tsechou [Zezhou] one of the missionaries was taken for a member of the Syndicate. The mob laid hold of him, and would have murdered him then and there had he not been able to convince them that he was another person’. See North China Herald, 29 August, 1900, p. 450.

39 The Times, 3 June, 1907, p. 5; King, vol. 2, pp. 302–303.

40 Yuxian memorial GX26/4/20. See Mi, vol. 2, pp. 418–419.

41 Rescript GX26/5/3 to Yuxian memorial GX26/4/20. See Mi, vol. 2, p. 419.

42 Yihetuan dang'an shiliao xubian (Continuation of archival materials on the Boxers), edited by Zhongguo diyi lishi dang'an guan bianji bu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1990), vol. 1, pp. 593–596.

43 Thompson, Roger R., ‘Military Dimensions of the “Boxer Uprising” in Shanxi, 1898–1901’, in van de Ven, Hans, ed., Warfare in Chinese History (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2000), pp. 288320Google Scholar.

44 See Thompson, ‘Military Dimensions’. For a discussion of Yuxian and the Western representation of his actions in Shanxi see Thompson, Roger R., ‘Reporting the Taiyuan Massacre: Culture and Politics in the China War of 1900’, in Bickers, Robert and Tiedemann, R. G., eds., The Boxers, China, and the World (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), pp. 6592Google Scholar.

45 Kuangwu dang (Archive of mining affairs), compiled by Zhongyang yanjiuyuan jindaishi yanjiusuo (Taibei: 1960), pp. 1522–1525 (Li Qingfang petition).

46 See Hui–min, Lo, ed., The Correspondence of G. E. Morrison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), vol. 1, pp. 375, 392–393Google Scholar.

47 Shanxi dashi ji, pp. 74–75.

48 von Richthofen, Baron Ferdinand, Baron Richthofen's Letters, 1870–1872, 2d. edn, (Shanghai, 1903)Google Scholar.

49 Li, p. 231.

50 Yi, Xue, Yingguo Fu Gongsi zai Zhongguo (England's Pekin Syndicate in China) (Wuhan: Wuhan daxue chubanshe, 1992), p. 75Google Scholar.

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52 Li, pp. 231, 252; Hu, p. 40.

53 Li, pp. 232–233.

54 Kuangwu dang, pp. 1493–1505.

55 Li, p. 233.

56 Li, pp. 235–236.

57 Li, p. 247.

58 Hu, p. 40.

59 Kuangwu dang, pp. 1493–1505.

60 Kuangwu dang, pp. 1500–1502.

61 Shanxi dashi ji, p. 70.

62 Li, pp. 245–246.

63 Kuangwu dang, p. 1487.

64 Li, pp. 247–248.

65 Kuangwu dang, p. 1488.

66 Kwangwu dang, p. 1488. Richthofen's influence can also be seen in a petition submitted by 407 students to the Chinese Foreign Office (Waiwu bu), which states that Shanxi's coal reserves are number 1 in the world and quote Western newspapers that say Shanxi's coal could supply the world for over a thousand years. See Kwangwu dang, p. 1492; Li, pp. 248–249.

67 Kuangwu dang, p. 1501.

68 Xue, p. 72; Hu, p. 41.

69 Kuangwu dang, pp. 1522–1525.

70 Shanxi dashi ji, p. 77.

71 Shanxi dashi ji, p. 78.

72 For a discussion of how the provincial affinities of metropolitan officials affected policy–making in Beijing see Belsky, Richard, Localities at the Center: Native Place, Space, and Power in Late Imperial Beijing (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 Li, p. 257; Kuangwu dang, pp. 1585–1587.

74 Xue, pp. 72–75; Hu, p. 42.

75 The Times, 3 June, 1907, p. 5. See also Lee, p. 70.

76 The Times, 3 June, 1907, p. 5.

77 Li, p. 256.

78 Li, p. 257.

79 Shanxi dashi ji, p. 81; Hu, pp. 43–46; Xue, p. 75.

80 A Judicial Commissioner, responsible for reviewing legal matters, was the third-ranking official in the provincial administration.

81 Li, pp. 256–260; Soothill, p. 266; Zhiqiang, Qiao, ‘Diguo zhuyi banli Shanxi ‘jiaoan’ de ezha zuixing’ (Imperialism's criminal extortion in its handling of Shanxi's ‘missionary cases’), Shanxi wenshi ziliao 2 (1962): 14Google Scholar.

82 MacMurray, vol. 1, p. 698.

83 Hu, pp. 43–45; Xue, p. 77; Lee, p. 70. For a text of the agreement between the Pekin Syndicate and the Shanxi Commercial Affairs Bureau see MacMurray, vol. 1, pp. 698–700.

84 Kuangwu dang, pp. 1584–1587.

85 This language was used by gentrymen in Taiyuan and elsewhere in a decision made in 1907. See Li, p. 257.

86 Thompson, ‘Twilight of the Gods,’ p. 65.

87 See court letter of GX26/6/10 in Yihetuan dang'an shiliao, edited by Gugong bowuyuan Ming–Qing dang'an bu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959), vol. 1, p. 249.

88 For Yuxian's discussion of this policy see Yuxian memorial GX26/6/20 (rescript date), attachment A, Yihetuan dang'an shiliao, vol. 1, pp. 319–320. For a facsimile of a ‘certificate of protection’ given to a Christian in Yangqu County see E. H. Edwards, p. 110.

89 For the period 1911–1949 see Gillin, Donald G., Warlord: Yen Hsi–shan in Shansi Province, 1911–1949 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967)Google Scholar; Wright. For the post–1949 period see Thomson, Elspeth, The Chinese Coal Industry: An Economic History (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003)Google Scholar; Hu (coverage to 1979).