Coal and East Asian Industrial Development, 1900-1957


A review of Carbon Technocracy: East Asian Energy Regimes and the Industrial Modern, 1900-1957, by Victor Kian Giap Seow.

In Carbon Technocracy, Victor Seow “invites us to rethink the broader history of East Asia” by making a case for the centrality of coal-based carbon energy to the unfolding of global industrial modernity in China and Japan and to the concomitant rise of “transwar East Asian technocratic regimes” (p. 1). Seow’s brief allows him to range across empires, colonies, and nation-states, and to consider geographies that transcend conventional boundaries. The product of wide-ranging research in at least 17 different libraries and archives strewn across four countries, the dissertation retains a tight focus on the activities of the Fushun Colliery. Situated in the eponymous town in Northeastern China, the Colliery grew to become East Asia’s largest coal mine during the first half of the twentieth century, and, as Seow demonstrates, fired the developmental imaginaries of empires and nation-states alike.

Seow is most directly in dialogue with three fields of scholarship: the history of energy, the history of the East Asian developmental state, and the history of industrial modernity. Methodologically, his debt is principally two-fold: to Science and Technology Studies (STS) and to the work of Timothy Mitchell. From STS, in particular the work of scholars such as Sheila Jasanoff, he borrows the conceptual framework of co-production of natural and social orders (p. 2). Seow’s debt to Mitchell is perhaps even more transparent since, as he explains, the title of the dissertation and much of his approach are inspired by Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy (pp. 7-8). The methodology that results is particularly attentive to the contingent nature of technological solutions, their political and social contexts, and the agency that the materiality of coal itself generates. Full of numerous insights and rich archival detail, the dissertation’s key theses are that a variety of contingent factors led to surprising similarities in technocratic vision across what were otherwise three very different regimes and that coal was central to these technocratic visions (pp. 5, 13). As Seow notes, “it was in attempts to manage the coal industry that the technocratic hand of the state became markedly visible” (p. 9).

In a richly detailed and engagingly written dissertation, Seow skillfully and seamlessly takes us from the corridors of power where national and imperial imaginaries took shape to the subterranean corridors where multitudes of men labored under the constant menace of firedamp, collapsing roofs, and ever rising production targets. Seven substantive chapters are bookended by an introduction and a brief epilogue. There is a general temporal progression through the chapters, taking us from the late Qing into the early years of the People’s Republic. Chapters 1 to 4 provide a Fushun-centric perspective, focusing on the operations at the Colliery itself and take us through to 1931. The final three substantive chapters operate at a slightly higher altitude and provide a more holistic analysis of the importance of Fushun and coal to the three successive states that oversaw its operations starting in 1931: Japan/Manchukuo, the Nationalists, and the Communists. The central thread running through these three chapters is of technocratic continuities in spite of vastly different ideological positions and political formations.

In Chapter 1, “Grounds of Contention,” Seow provides the historical context surrounding the opening of the Fushun coal mines. Set against the broader industrial transformation of the late Qing (1644-1911), Seow methodically takes us through the discovery and use of coal in Fushun about 1,000 years ago to its eventual status as a semi-colonial concession. Along the way, we learn about late Qing attempts at establishing a mining industry, the crucial role of the railways, growing geopolitical rivalries with the Russians and the Japanese, and the dual roles of military power and international law-making. Seow also discusses the survey work carried out to assess the quality of Fushun’s coal and introduces to us the most important institutional actor in the story: the South Manchuria Railway Company (Mantetsu), a massive joint-stock corporation that took over Fushun’s coal mines in 1907 (p. 43). Fushun’s experience was itself part of a larger pattern across Manchuria wherein coal mines were “established in the late Qing, drew in Russian capital, and [were eventually] taken over by Japanese troops during the war” (p. 45).

In Chapter 2, Seow shifts focus to unpack the “historically contingent and socially determined nature of technological adoption and adaptation” in Fushun (p. 64). We are thus introduced not just to the Room and Pillar Method, the Hydraulic Stowing Method, and Open-Pit Mining, but also to the very materiality of coal and to institutions, people (including American experts), and personalities—contingencies all—which influenced decisions about investment, technology, and technical training. While Open-Pit Mining, first introduced in Fushun in 1914, was to go on to “drastically change Fushun’s landscape,” Seow successfully disavows a linear, technologically deterministic narrative of the process (p. 94). Particularly persuasive in this connection is Seow’s analysis of the dispute over methods between a Mr. Onuma (the superintendent at Fushun) and the American consultant engineer L.D. Davenport. A final section highlights the role of Fushun as an important training ground for Japan’s engineers, many of whom would go on to work back in the home islands or in other parts of the growing Japanese empire.

The question of labor, first introduced to us briefly during Seow’s discussion of the Davenport-Onuma dispute, is the subject of Chapter 3. Over much of the period under study, overwhelmingly male migrant Chinese labor dominated its Japanese counterpart by as much as 9 to 1, and it is to them that Seow devotes the greatest attention (pp. 101-102, 103). Starting with a discussion of the difficulties of daily life, Seow proceeds to describe the nature of daily work and the dangers to which miners were regularly exposed. The presence of Japanese employees and their preferential treatment in terms of jobs and wages was a source of much disaffection among the Chinese. Though striking was a common and frequently effective strategy (Seow identifies a critical mass of 500 participants), the Chinese Communist Party struggled to establish a foothold in Fushun. In the final part of the chapter, Seow demonstrates the ways in which Mantetsu wrought changes in the workplace by instituting a contracting system and increased mechanization.

In Chapter 4, Seow shifts his lens somewhat to consider the idea of a “fuel problem,” which he argues emerged in Japan in the years following the First World War and became a pressing concern during the 1930s and 1940s. Seow traces these concerns about fuel scarcity to the desire of the army and navy for fuel self-sufficiency. These military and security-driven concerns intersected with commercial interests, generating a specter of energy scarcity that soon transcended their particular origins to become universally accepted across Japanese society. (pp. 128, 134) Seow also throws into the mix other factors contributing to the “problem,” such as the faith in science that drove ideas of industrial modernity and concerns about Japan’s geopolitical status as a first-world nation. He then proceeds to investigate the various solutions that were considered by a host of actors and uses the case of shale oil extraction in Fushun to highlight both cooperation and conflict between military and commercial interests. His key point is to insist that the eventual route taken—war and expansion—was but one among a range of options and was driven not by desires for imperial expansion per se, but rather by a search for energy sufficiency that also promoted trans-national collaboration and the development of resources in Japan’s existing colonies.

In spite of their differences, the actors Seow introduces in Chapter 4 were all united in their concern about the lack of governmental involvement in the energy industry. These concerns anticipated to some extent the state’s greater role after 1931 and the last three chapters use the chronology of individual political regimes to illustrate a far more interventionist state. In Chapter 5, on the Manchukuo years (1931-1945), Seow uses the example of the Fushun coal “dumping” affair during the Great Depression to highlight increasing conflicts between metropolitan actors. To mitigate such conflicts, and inspired by faith in science and technology and the desire for a control economy, planners began to advocate greater state intervention. Notable among their proposals was the principle: “one industry, one company” (pp. 165-166). Accordingly, in 1934, the government in collaboration with Mantetsu set up the Manchurian Coal Company (Mantan). But the state’s hopes for centralized control were thwarted by Mantetsu officials themselves, who successfully resisted Mantan oversight and maintained the Fushun Colliery’s independence until 1945. Seow also traces the implications of these tussles at the level of the individual household: coal prices were kept low to spur industrial growth but also led to its increased adoption as household fuel, thereby contributing to shortages. In a final section Seow considers the implications at a more conceptual level, explaining that the Japanese increasingly came to see Manchuria and its energy industry as a constitutive element of a much larger empire of energy.

Chapter 6 takes as its subject the Nationalist State’s relationship to the Chinese coal industry during the Nanjing decade (1927-1937) and afterward. For much of this period, Fushun remained outside the state’s direct control. Yet, as Seow demonstrates, its coal production dominated the coal market in China’s industrial center of Shanghai, demanding action and oversight from the Nationalist Government. At the same time, by epitomizing industrial modernity, the Fushun Colliery fired the imaginations of Nationalist planners at the National Resource Commission, who envisaged its incorporation into a rejuvenated postwar Chinese economy. Seow explores these attempts at direct administration in the years after 1945 when control of the mines was returned to the Republic of China.

In the final substantive chapter, Seow takes us across the 1949 divide and locates technocratic continuities under state socialism as well. In 1948, Fushun played host to none other than Mao Zedong himself, and by 1952 had recovered substantially from wartime disruptions. Even though by 1957 it had ceded its mantle as China’s largest mine to Taiyuan, Seow argues that Fushun highlights the centrality of energy to the “socioeconomic transformation of 1950s China” (pp. 230, 234). Among the continuities that he locates are equipment and materials left behind by the Japanese and the Nationalists and the numerous Japanese technicians and experts who remained to assist in the Colliery’s recovery (p. 239). These continuities do not indicate the absence of revolutionary changes, and Seow locates these in ideas about industrial development as well as in new forms of labor mobilization such as mass campaigns and production competitions. In a short epilogue Seow summarizes some of the dissertation’s main themes and brings the story of Fushun into the 21st century: in December 2011, China, now the world’s leading producer and consumer of coal, commemorated that remarkable history by opening the Fushun Coal Mining Museum.

Coal has been and remains central to global industrial modernity and to the history of energy. Within the discipline, however, its relevance to modern East Asian history has a recent and somewhat more provocative origin. As Seow rightly notes in his introduction, the publication of Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence had highlighted the need to better understand the role of coal and energy in modern East Asian history. There is evidence that this need is now being met. Shellen Xiao Wu’s Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860-1920 is slated for release in April 2015 and Ian Miller’s current research on the electrification of Tokyo seeks to re-conceptualize the history of the world’s largest city as a history of energy. By situating coal-based energy and the technocracy it inspired at the very heart of East Asian industrial modernity, Seow’s work is an important and field-shaping addition. In book form, its transnational reach and methodological sophistication should set the stage for much fruitful dialogue as we attempt to better understand our recent past and devise better solutions for the future.

Arunabh Ghosh
History Department/Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies
Harvard University

Primary Sources

As noted, Seow visited at least 17 archives and libraries in four countries. Only a few are listed here:
PRC: Fushun Municipal Archives
Taiwan: Academia Sinica Institute of Modern History Archives
Japan: National Diet Library; Research Center for Coal Mining Materials at Kyushu University
USA: Library of Congress

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2014. 288 pp. Primary Advisor: Mark C. Elliott.

Image: View of Coal Mining in the Open Air, Fushun. Author’s collection.

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