Theses Doctoral

Mobilizing Microbes: The Path to China’s First Renewable Energy Industry, 1892-1946

Revells, Tristan Edward

China is a leading producer of alternative energy in the present day, while much of its economic rise under the CCP in the late 20th century was driven by the successful development of domestic coal and gas resources in the 1960s and 70s. But the drive to secure autonomous sources of energy to propel economic development and protect national security well predates China’s transition to socialism at midcentury. This dissertation explores the emergence of technocratic state rule in 20th century China by investigating the development of a biofuel industry designed to ensure energy security during war with imperial Japan. During the early to mid-1930s, Chiang Kai-Shek’s KMT government began supporting scientific research on ethanol-based biofuel production as a means of preserving fuel supplies should Japanese forces successfully blockade supply routes into the country during wartime. As exactly this scenario came to pass in the late 1930s, a network of more than 100 private and state-run ethanol plants were constructed along new roadways spanning the country’s southwestern interior. By 1945, millions of gallons a year of ethanol-based “dongli jiujing” fueled the logistical chains of both Chinese and US troops stationed throughout the China theater.

The fusion of statecraft and science manifested in the dongli jiujing program both points forward to state-led energy and heavy industrial development in the 1950s and 1960s under Mao’s CCP, and represents one of the top accomplishments of KMT agencies like the National Resources Commission, a powerful technocratic agency which held up the wartime biofuel industry as a paradigmatic example of successful state-led economic development. While scholarship on heavy industry in China often focuses on the latter half of the 20th century, this dissertation demonstrates that by the mid 1930s, the development of the biofuel industry welded political visions for a sovereign, industrially powerful China with the technical expertise of chemists and microbiologists at the National Bureau of Industrial Research (NBIR), a state funded institution for applied science research oriented at developing heavy industries. And it points out that many of the scientists involved in the dongli jiujing program would continue development work in fields like agricultural chemistry and the biochemical industry under the CCP.
Engaging with and contributing to recent scholarship on the history of science and technology in Asia, “Mobilizing Microbes” also traces the global circulation of fermentation-related knowledge that informed NBIR attempts to harness microbial life for the industrial production of alcohol. And finally, it explores connections that brought together in unexpected ways the craft knowledge and practices of China’s domestic brewing industry with modernizing visions for a powerful, fully sovereign China propounded by scientists and statesmen as the midpoint of the 20th century drew near.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Zelin, Madeleine H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 23, 2021