Research Project


Mining and Deep Drilling in Chinese and European History: An Interface between Prognostication, Fate and Knowledge

Prof. Dr. Hans Ulrich Vogel

In Late Imperial China, thousands of candidates took part in the examination system, being fully aware that the chances of success and social advancement were minimal. While the prospects of finding a profitable ore deposit in mining were somewhat higher, in both cases a plethora of religious and divinatory practices were supposed to minimize the risk. These practices stand in stark contrast to what Joel Mokyr calls useful and reliable knowledge, that is, knowledge about what happens in nature, why that happens, and how one can control it. It was then especially a new focus on ‘why’- knowledge (also called ‘theoretical turn) that, according to Karel Davids, allowed e.g. Italian and Dutch experts of river hydraulics to surpass their Chinese counterparts, despite of the latters’ possessing a similarly rich tradition of empirical knowledge in this field. This all links up with the literature on a question that has been hotly debated in recent years and is best summarized by the key term of ‘Great Divergence’ – that is, why did Europe overtake China in terms of economic development, given the fact that until the end of the eighteenth century many benchmarks, especially economic ones, appear to show that Chinese society was at least equal to the European ones?

Research on the area of mining provides important case studies as it allows us to assess the nature of Chinese knowledge about this industrial and commercial activity, and compare it to the state of the field in the West. While certainly containing some useful and reliable knowledge as well, the observation is that most of the Chinese literature on mining from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries concentrates on the administrative side and not the technical aspects of the endeavor. What information there is appears less systematic and less developed when put next to Western works on mining techniques, such as Agricola’s De Re Metallica of the mid-sixteenth century. There is, however, substantial information on religious and divinatory practices connected to mining, and in many cases success or failure was attributed to fate and the incalculable risks inherent in the enterprise. The same holds true for Chinese texts on salt production, especially such dealing with tapping underground brine by deep-drilling. Moreover, in both cases Chinese scholar-officials writing reports and authoring local gazetteers kept themselves physically distant from the places where salt production or mining took place.

A preliminary conclusion is that in China there was no decline in the belief in supernatural phenomena, no cognitive leap, nor was there a professionalization or theoretical turn of relevant knowledge, while in Europe these developments fostered a ‘period of gestation’ that ‘laid the foundation’ for the industrial revolution. Both Mokyr and Davids attribute the European success to a unique interaction between practitioners and scholars, which enabled Europeans to incorporate ideas from different fields into new theories of why things worked as they did. The documentation investigated so far shows quite clearly that such interaction for creating and promoting novel knowledge in mineral production was rather rare in China. From the perspective of the Consortium, the question remains whether and under what circumstances divination, too, could be considered useful knowledge, but this would imply that one departs from the rather precise definition of useful and reliable knowledge, especially that for purposes of production, given in recent literature on the history of the knowledge economy.

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