Shellen Wu‘s new book is a fascinating and timely contribution to the histories of China, science, technology, and the modern world. Empires of Coal:...

Shellen Wu‘s new book is a fascinating and timely contribution to the histories of China, science, technology, and the modern world. Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860-1920 (Stanford University Press, 2015) brings readers into the nineteenth century industrialization of China, when coal became the “fuel of a ‘new’ imperialism.” Wu’s book asks how China came to matter in a new modern world order of the nineteenth century that was built on a perception that coal was a measure of a country’s standing in the world. In answering that question, Empires of Coal looks carefully at the importance of mining (including state management and legal regulation thereof) to the political economy of late imperial China. As geology developed into an independent discipline separate from geography, it help colonizers cement their power by aiding efforts to extract valuable mineral deposits from the colonies. Wu traces the archive produced in this context as coal became crucial not just to foreign interest in China, but also to China’s interest in mineral resources, exploring a wide range of maps, translations, letters, essays, journals, textbooks, and other materials. The book also situates this story within a history of mineral sciences, scientists, and engineers in China. It will be required reading for anyone interested in the entanglement of science, technology, and modernity in global history.

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