China is rich in mineral resources. In fact, all known minerals can be found within its borders. Mineral resources are generally classified into three categories depending on the application and properties of the mineral: energy-producing fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas; metal ores, which can be further divided into two types—ferrous (with significant iron component) and non-ferrous (with no or little iron) used for tools, utensils, weapons, etc.; and non-metallic minerals such as salt utilized in food, clays to create ceramics and jade to make ornamental or ritual objects. In Ancient China attention was early devoted to developing and utilizing mineral resources as a specialized endeavor, the “mining industry.”
Mineral deposits are widely distributed in China. Almost all parts of the country have mineral resources. In terms of energy-producing fuels, in general, most of the coal reserves are in northern China, with sixty-four percent concentrated in Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Ningxia, Gansu, and Henan. Most of China’s oil is distributed in the western and eastern regions. Oil reserves in Heilongjiang , Shandong, and Hebei account for seventy percent of these. Natural gas is mostly in southwestern regions including Sichuan and Guizhou provinces along with some eastern areas . With regard to metals, iron ore in North China (including Hebei, Shanxi, and the middle part of Inner Monglia) and the Northeast (Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning provinces) account for almost half of the country’s entire deposits. More than half of China’s copper is distributed in East China (including Anhui, Fujian, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Shandong, and Zhejiang provinces) and the Southwest. Gejiu, acounty-level city in Yunnan province in the southwest is known as the “tin capital” with the largest concentration of tin mines in China. Nandan in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in south central China is also an important tin producer. Mercury mines are concentrated in the southwest and southern provinces of Guizhou, Hunan, Sichuan, and also the southern part of the northern province of Shaanxi. A little more than half of China’s zinc is distributed in two major areas: south central and southwestern regions . Major gold resources and production are distributed in eastern Shandong, western Henan, Hebei, and Heilongjiang as well as at the junction region of Shaanxi, Gansu, and Sichuan provinces. The largest reserves of gaoling tu, otherwise known as kaolin or china clay, a key ingredient in the production of porcelain are found in Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Hunan, Fujian, Yunnan, and other provinces. Jade is mainly produced in the far western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and in Yunnan province in the southwest.
Government oversight of the mining industry began early in China. But over the centuries as shown by an overview of history, the extent of such oversight varied. In the Zhou li (Rites of Zhou) a text likely dating to the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), the “Office of Earth” chapter mentions officials who “are in charge of the areas with gold, jade, and tinstone (cassiterite).” There is also evidence that an Iron Office staffed by the “iron officials” (tie guan) was set up in the Shandong-based Qi state during the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770–256 BCE) to manage the mining industry.
After the Qin state defeated Qi, the last of its six rivals in 221 BCE and unified the China under the Qin, an Iron Office was established within its bureaucracy in order to centralize and strengthen control of mining. During the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 140–87 BCE) of the succeeding Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), Salt and Iron Monopoly offices were set up in areas producing salt and iron throughout the realm. Officials were in charge of various matters including salt-cooking or processing, making ironware, and the buying and selling of these two materials. This system prevailed through the Han, but with that dynasty’s collapse and the consequent disorder of the next several centuries was not consistently upheld or utilized by succeeding governments.
During the Sui dynasty (581–618), which reunified China, mineral rights were nationalized, and under the management of a corvée system. In the following Tang dynasty (618–907), the court adopted private mining with the following stipulations: “In prefectures and superior prefectures where copper and iron are produced, people were allowed to engage in private mining, and official offices were authorized to collect [a portion] as taxes.” Restrictions were only applied to the western and northern prefectures.
During the Northern Song period (960–1127), mining was mostly a private enterprise. The court only collected taxes from mining. This changed during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) with its emphasis on government control, and the official Office of Copper Smelting headed by a Supervisorate-in-chief was established in various regions; mining regulation were also enacted to protect state-run mines and restore tax collection. Subsequently during both the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, mining was again primarily under private management although the government maintained some connection to the salt industry in varying degrees during this period.
The coal miners of ancient China had considerable scientific knowledge which enabled them to locate good sites for coal, even as they worked hard to fully exploit these mines under extremely difficult conditions. They had to always be alert to dangers inherent in this work including collapse, explosions and fires, flooding, and the spread of deadly gas. Preventative measures to ensure the safety of the workers, whether in an open pit or shaft mine and to preserve the integrity of the mine structure itself were undertaken, but this remained a dangerous occupation.
Every single mining instrument or tool utilized by the miners of ancient China was the crystallization of wisdom of fine craftsmen. Unfortunately, most of the outstanding participants in mining and metallurgy are not listed in historical works. Before the Qin dynasty, only a few quasi-historical metal smelting and casting figures such as Gan Jiang and Ou Yezi of the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE) are known from later sources. Metal craftsmen mentioned in historical works include Du Shi of the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220), Pu Yuan of the Three States period (220–280), Liu Jin of the Jin dynasty (265–420), Huang Wenqing of the Southern Dynasties (420–589) period, and Qimu Huaiwen of the Northern Dynasties (386–581) period.
A few Chinese literary works focus on mining, among them the “Da ye fu” (Rhapsody on the great smelting) by Hong Zikui (1176–1235/6) of the Song dynasty; Tiangong kaiwu (Exploitation of the works of nature) published in the Ming dynasty by Song Yingxing (1587–1661); and the “Yan jing tu shuo” (Illustration of the salt brine well) among other works. Other writings while not centered on mining contain useful information on the subject and its development in past times. These include Shanhai jing (Guideways through the mountains and seas) dating to the late Warring States period to the Han dynasty; “Yu gong” (Tribute of Yu) chapter in Shang shu (Classic of documents) likely dating to the Eastern Zhou dynasty; Guanzi (Writings of Master Guan) likely also dating to the Eastern Zhou dynasty, Baopuzi (Writings of the master who embraces simplicity) by Jin dynasty scholar Ge Hong (283–343), and Mengxi bitan (Dream pools essays) by Song dynasty scientist-statesman Shen Kuo (1031–1095).