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Environments, people and mining in the Far Southwest of China since 1500: Cross-disciplinary explorations

Cooperation partners

Potato fields in Zhaotong, Northeastern Yunnan, at 1800-2000 m
Potato fields in Zhaotong, Northeastern Yunnan, at 1800-2000 m (© Nanny Kim)

What this project is about

The mountain zone in the Far Southwest of China is known for its biodiversity and its rich cultural traditions. The lower crunch zone of the Himalayas with mountain ranges between 4000 and 2000 m includes Yunnan province and adjoining areas of Sichuan and Guizhou province as well as of Burma (Myanmar), Vietnam and Laos. Through most of the historical period, the region used to be sparsely populated by many different peoples who mostly remained relatively independent from the major states, with only small pockets of relatively level land controlled by the Chinese empire and settled by Han Chinese and sinicized peoples. Today, it has become a focus of tourist development. Romantic visions picture lush forests, lofty mountains and village life in harmony with nature. In fact, many landscapes look worse than the potato fields in the photo above.

The region is also geologically active and rich in metal deposits. Mining goes back to the prehistoric period, but seemingly played no role in the Chinese expansion into the Southwest. For reasons that are discussed here, mining decreased in historical visibility through the late imperial period, while exploitation by Chinese and for the Chinese market expanded. The first goal was silver, followed by copper, tin, and zinc. Iron mining developed similarly but went virtually unrecorded. In the High Qing, copper and zinc became important for the imperial mints that cast cash coins in great quantities. For this reason, we have records on copper mines from the early 18th century onwards. We have a window on copper and zinc, but many blank spots remain.

There are major open questions:

  • Mining and smelting are known to have massive environmental impacts. Has historic mining left the denuded landscapes that we see today?
  • How could large mines “appear” in the borderlands when imperial subjects were prohibited from entering them?
  • Why would local lords tolerate the dirt and mess of mines in their territories that were not protected by the Chinese empire?
  • How could mining towns with populations above 10,000 persons wax and wane without anyone noticing and without causing conflict?
  • Intensive mining was a Chinese enterprise. But the late imperial increase of Han and Muslim Chinese populations has been presented as in-migration of military colonists or peasant settlers. Were miners recruited from the landless poor or from runaway soldiers? Why would people become landless and impoverished when land was available and why would soldiers prefer becoming miners?

Possibilities of pursuing these questions by traditional historical methods are limited because written materials are scarce. However, many issues involve questions of locality. A combination of spatial analysis with traditional and less traditional history therefore could be a useful approach:

  • If we know the actual site of a mine, chart remains and slag heaps, we can gain an idea of its scale even in the absence of records.
  • If we reconstruct networks of settlements, communications and land uses, we can chart influences on local societies and environments.
  • Networks of roads and trade give access to investigating economic and cultural integration as a locally specific process.
  • Vegetation models that reconstruct processes of change on the basis of fuel consumption, access and time offer the possibility of mapping historical landscape change directly caused by mining.

All these exercises have the methodological attraction of being specific and falsifiable.

Yang Yuda has collected historic and modern information on silver mines over many years, identifying and assessing the large mines, several of which were unknown before. (Read more: Silver mines, Fieldwork reports)

Nanny Kim has reconstructed transport systems and used spatial analysis to demonstrate that miners were no paupers but recruited workers and specialists attracted by high incomes in the borderlands (paper in publication).

Yang Yuda and Nanny Kim have undertaken fieldwork to identify sites and reconstruct technologies in 2011, 2014 and 2015. (Read more...)

This project focuses on historic vegetation models to spatially assess the landscape changes caused by mining.


At their southeastern end, the Himalayas form a much folded mountain zone that separates China from Indochina, descending from the top of the world to tropical jungles. The Far Southwest of China is the highland part of this zone and roughly congruent with modern Yunnan province. The area, which is about the size of France, contains plateaus that have been centres of human cultures since prehistoric times and rugged hinterlands that into the twentieth century were little influenced by human activities. For its cultural richness as well as its biodiversity, the region is predestined for research on interactions of human societies with their environments. Factors creating different dynamics and transformations include natural and cultural barriers, a variety of land use systems, compartmentalized diversification, far-flung commercial networks, and migration and economic penetration that was often driven by the exploitation of mineral resources.

The core of the proposed project is the analysis of the environmental history of three mining areas through the last five centuries. Contributions to research on the history of technology and the environment consist in advancing knowledge on an under-researched regional history that is of comparative interest as a non-European case of preindustrial mining on a large scale. A methodological contribution will be realized in the development of applied methods for researching environmental history under conditions of data scarcity that are expected to permit calibrated comparative analyses of developments in different periods and world regions.

The project applies an inter-disciplinary approach that combines historical and geographic methods. The applicant has developed and tested the approach in collaborative projects with Hans-Joachim Rosner (geography, Tübingen University) and Yang Yuda (historical geography, Fudan University, Shanghai) during the DFG research group Monies, Markets and Finance in China and East Asia, which Hans Ulrich Vogel directed from 2005 to 2011. It overcomes limitations due to the scarcity and one-sidedness of predominantly Chinese materials and widens the basis of sources beyond traditional written sources to data from dendrochronology and stratigraphy, as well as from fieldwork and oral histories. By localizing data sets, it employs a new tool of data cross-checking, correcting, confirming and falsifying. In this process, specific questions can be addressed by targeted search for decisive evidence and interpretations tested in models of landscape change.

The project aims at attaining specific and falsifiable results in environmental history and ultimately at identifying factors that tip the balance between sustainable, unsustainable yet relatively stable, and degrading systems. It thus expects to achieve a reassessment of cultural preferences, system trends and technological options historical environmental change and hopes to contribute to ongoing environmental issues.








The team

杨煜达 Yang Yuda (复旦大学中国历史地理研究院 Institute of the Historical Geography of China, Fudan University)

Yang Yuda has pursued silver and copper mining in the Southwest of China and in the borderlands beyond for many years.

Cooperation on borderland silver mines since 2009, with intensive exchange on related issues of social, cultural, economic and environmental history.

Hans-Joachim Rosner and Andy Braun (Institute of Geography, Tübingen University)

Hans-Joachim Rosner and Andy Braun use GIS to analyse landscape change through time.

Cooperation with Hans-Joachim Rosner on copper mines in northeastern Yunnan during the Qing period, 2006-2011 and continuing exchange with Hans-Joachim and Andy on everything concerning landscapes and GIS.

Partners (alphabetically)

Name Affiliation Expertise Area of cooperation
Bello, David Washington and Lee University Environmental history of China Environments, cultural and political representations
Bermann, Lex Harvard University Historical geography, GIS, databases WebGIS, technical issues and hosting
Chen, Hailian (陈海连) Tübingen University History of mining and metallurgy in Qing China Zinc and copper mines
Giersch, Pat Wellesley College Commerce in Western Yunnan, Bai minority Trade networks, mobility and Bai culture
Giraldez, Arturo University of the Pacific Global silver flows Global silver flows, silver mines in Latin America
Janku, Andrea SOAS, London Attitudes towards the environment, disasters and hazards Environments, disasters, and cultures
Kaske, Elisabeth Carnegie Mellon University Economic history, financial systems economic and cultural trends, history of the Qing period
Lan, Yong (蓝勇) Southwestern University, Chongqing Historical geography of Southwestern China Environmental transformations, trade networks
Li, Xiaocen (李晓岑) Technological University Beijing Metallurgy and archaeology Smelting technologies, joint fieldwork
Ma, Jianxiong (马健雄) Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Ethnology Caravan transport in Western Yunnan, oral history
Popplow, Marcus Technological University Berlin History of technology Technological and environmental transformations, esp. in agriculture
Vogel, Hans Ulrich Tübingen University Social history, history of mining Mining in China
Zhou, Qiong (周琼) Yunnan University, Kunming Environmental history Historical environments in Yunnan
Last edited by: SV
Latest Revision: 2024-02-29
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