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The Han state monopoly of the iron industry and its archaeology

Donald B. Wagner

The reign of the Emperor Wu-di, 140?87 BC, saw a number of new policies which can loosely be called 'interventions in the economy'. Considering the profound effect that these measures must have had on daily life throughout the empire, it is surprising how little we know about them.

More is known about the monopoly of the iron industry than about any of the other measures. The written sources include the Shi ji, the Han shu, and the Yan tie lun, as well as some minor material in essays and the like. The archaeological material includes inscriptions on cast-iron implements, the microstructures of these implements, and excavations of thirty ironworks from the monopoly period.

For the period before the monopoly was established in 117 BC we have no excavations of smelters (ironworks which produced iron from ore), but written evidence suggests that there were both very large-scale ironworks with hundreds of workers and very small family ironworks. It appears likely that the small works used what are called bloomery furnaces, while the large works used blast furnaces.

Studies of artefact microstructures indicate that most weapons were made of wrought iron or steel, while most implements were made of cast iron. The brittleness of the cast iron was ameliorated by heat treatment, making what is called in English 'malleable cast iron' (German Temperguss, modern Chinese renxing zhutie).

A curious fact about excavations of Han ironworks from the monopoly period is that they are nearly all very close to Han city sites. This is not what we should expect: The large blast furnaces at these sites used enormous amounts of charcoal, in competition with the population of the city, and they surely created a nuisance with fire and smoke, and with the slag which had to be got rid of.

The Yan tie lun gives several reasons why the monopoly was established, and why it was opposed. The archaeological material suggests further issues not mentioned there, especially such environmental issues as deforestation and the inconvenience of locating blast furnaces near cities.

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