Producing any account of the rise of the modern Chinese coal industry is a challenge, as the process it involved was complicated—industrialization, modernization, imperialism, nationalism, colonialism, and the mechanism of development were all interwoven in the commercial, political, and even cultural arenas. Instead of covering all the possible elements, Shellen Xiao Wu’s treatment is selective, choosing to focus on its noneconomic side. Empires of Coal is about the changes that arose in natural resource management as a result of late Qing engagement with imperialism and science, and the heart of the narrative is “when, where, and how China comes into this modern world order” (8). Such an angle has never previously been taken.

The book begins with the story of a German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833–1905), in China—his travels, the publication of his volumes on China and their Western...

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