Monster or Marvel: Technologies of Extraction in a Manchurian Mine

Victor Seow

University of Pennsylvania

Monday, February 10, 2020 - 3:30pm

University of Pennsylvania
Claudia Cohen Hall, Room 337
249 S 36th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

The open-pit mine at the Fushun colliery in southern Manchuria was a sight to behold. Excavated by Japanese technocrats in 1910s and expanded in the 1920s, this cavity was, by the early 1930s, so colossal that the amount of overburden dug out to get to the coal beneath was estimated to be three times that of the earth removed in the making of Panama Canal. The noted poet and social commentator Yosano Akiko would describe it as “a ghastly and grotesque form of a monster from the earth, opening its large maw towards the sky.” It was the biggest mine in Asia. In this talk, I examine the technologies of extraction that helped bring this pit into being and that underlay the broader workings of the mine. To the Japanese engineers at Fushun, the open-pit mine epitomized the mechanization that they sought to realize throughout this site of extraction. One main motivation for this pursuit was a desire to decrease their dependence on the mine’s tens of thousands of Chinese workers, whom they too often denounced as incompetent and unreliable and whose occasional turn to collective action would hamstring the workings of the enterprise. Mechanization would, however, fail to shrink the size of the workforce, which actually grew as production expanded. The result was calamitous: more and more miners ended up being subjected to the deepening dangers of an increasingly engineered environment.