Chinese Geology & German Imperialism


A review of Underground Empires: German Imperialism and the Introduction of Geology in China, 1860-1919, by Shellen Xiao Wu.

After the German geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term “die Seidenstrasse” (The Silk Road) in 1877, explorers forayed into Central Asia to uncover hidden treasures of ancient oases kingdoms, and scholars have studied the flow of goods and ideas across the Eurasian continent. Richthofen’s proclamation of China’s vast mineral deposits in 1882 has received relatively less scholarly attention, however. Shellen Wu examines how Richthofen’s geological reports “set off a chain of events that brought China in line with the rest of the industrialized world in the use and exploitation of its mineral wealth” (p. 82).

This dissertation looks at the development of modern geology and mining under German influence between the 1860s and 1910s. The German presence began with Richthofen’s four-year journey in China between 1868 and 1872. German engineers later served as military and technical advisors to Chinese mines and railroads, and subsequently transformed into managers of the German colony in Shandong after 1898. After German withdrawal following World War I, Chinese intellectuals understood geology as the key to unlocking China’s vast resources. Wu argues that “the building of the German empire in East Asia and Chinese modernization boiled down to discussions of mining technology and land/mining rights” (p. 5). The sources include the writings of Richthofen, archival sources in China and Germany, as well as collected writings of Chinese officials and intellectuals. Wu goes beyond challenging the standard historical account, which states that modern Chinese geology began when the China Geological Institute was founded in 1916. She identifies the fifty-year period before 1916 as a crucial turning point, following which China’s global standing depended on its coal, iron, and other mineral resources.

Wu situates her project “at the intersection of multiple historiographies” in the first chapter. She engages with scholarship on the history of geology, comparative economic history, and most importantly, challenges the failure narrative prevalent in studies about the Self-Strengthening Movement and late-Qing industrialization (pp. 24-32). The conception of Richthofen’s China travels as the “gold spike” event emerged from Martin Rudwick’s magisterial two-volume work Bursting the Limits of Time. By comparing history of geology in the West and China, Wu shows that the central concerns of Chinese geology revolved around resource limitation, scarcity, and the struggle for survival (pp. 25-26) Rejecting failure narratives put forth in the works of John King Fairbank and Mary Wright, Wu cautions historians not to dismiss German colonial ventures, nor the mines and factories sponsored by the Qing government, as fiascoes, but rather to recognize key contributions that German engineers made towards China’s industrialization and modernization.

Wu examines geology as a product of global travel and cross-cultural exchange during the age of European imperialism in the nineteenth century. In chapter 2, Wu provides a biographical sketch of Richthofen. In the United States, the German geologist saw how the gold craze motivated global migration, received encouragement from American geologist Josiah Whitney, and obtained funding for his China expedition from the Bank of California (p. 57). How did Richthofen’s work differ from other geological studies in China during the nineteenth century? In chapter 3, Wu focuses on the the translation into Chinese of Charles Lyell’s Elements of Geology and James Dwight Dana’s Manual of Mineralogy, carried out jointly by American missionary doctor Daniel Macgowan and Hua Hengfang. She argues that these translated text were limited to the confines of the translation department, and played minor roles in the rise of geology (p. 86). By focusing instead on the link between geology and industry, Wu identifies the geological maps of China by Richthofen as “the first steps toward bringing China into a global community of nations—for whom the resources under the surface provided a means to industrialization and wealth and power” (p. 67). Richthofen articulated his vision of a German colony in Shandong that would bring economic progress to the colonizers and colonized.

By reconstructing the careers of several German railroad and mining engineers sent to China between 1886 and 1914, Wu studies how “German involvement in China evolved from the funding of a secret program to plant German engineers in Chinese service to the outright seizure of a colony in 1898” in Chapter 4 (p. 139). Peter Scheidtweiler’s career in China best illustrates the intricacies of the “underground empire.” He went to China in 1887 under the guise of a translation intern for the German embassy and learned Chinese well. He later served Zhang Zhidong as a railroad engineer at the Hanyang Iron Foundry, and ordered vast amounts of German locomotives and tools (pp. 140, 147-149). Wu presents a different mode of technological transfer, and shows that foreign technical experts on the ground decided which pieces of equipment to purchase, while Chinese officials heading the industries had little control.

Exploring China’s transition from empire to republic in the final two chapters, Wu shows how geology and mining rights shaped ideas about sovereignty and national survival. Faced with demands for mining concessions from foreign powers, the Qing established the Board of Railway and Mines in 1898 and issued new mining regulations in 1902 (p. 194). Wu argues that the new laws signified a shift from imperial control to national ownership of mineral resources, which is most evident from the adoption of the term Zhongguo (China) in place of Daqing (Great Qing Empire) (pp. 197-199). After the Qing collapsed, Republican-era geologists reshaped geology as a nationalist effort by tracing its roots to the ancient past, but continued to build on the foundation of previous decades (Chapter 6).

Wu’s dissertation addresses many important questions about China’s transition to industrial modernity. It reminds historians to recognize China as an integral part in the global exchange of ideas. Examining the transmission of science and technology from the perspectives of agents of science and local officials can open up fruitful paths of enquiry. The concept of the “underground empire” invites future scholarship to look beyond standard narratives and obvious sources to uncover hidden but important historical processes.

Ying Jia Tan
Program in the History of Science and Medicine
Yale University

Primary Sources

Ferdinand von Richthofen, China: Ergebnisse eigener Reisenund darauf gegründeter Studien (China: The Results of My Travels and the Studies Based Thereon)
Das Bundesarchiv, BerlinLichterfelde (The Federal Archives, Berlin)
Kuangwu dang (Archives Relating to Mining Affairs compiled by Academia Sinica)

Dissertation Information

Princeton University. 2010. 295 pp. Primary Advisor: Benjamin Elman.


Image: Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905). Wikimedia Commons.

1 comment
  1. As I recall Richthofen did not write of a Silk Road (Seidenstrasse) but referred to silk roads (Seidenstrassen). There is a difference!

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