Saturday, September 20, 2008

China Today…It’s All About Selenium, or the lack of it


Stuck on planes all weekend getting back to Shanghai from Australia I tried to pass the time and educate myself a bit reading a magazine about commodities (which was actually not that relaxing). However, I was fascinated to read that China’s imports of selenium were growing by 38% year-on-year. Selenium, a chemical that is used a lot in fertiliser, wasn’t even officially discovered until the early 1800s but its role in China is pivotal to the country’s history. Indeed if China’s soil had had deposits of selenium we would all be in a very different country. Why?

Simple actually, as Chinese soil largely lacks deposits of selenium it is virtually impossible to breed horses – you can now of course add it to the soil or import horses. However, this meant China could never build an effective horse-based cavalry and when the Mongol tribes swept down from the selenium-rich Mongol grasslands they routed the Chinese. This of course meant the Chinese had to import horses and they pretty much had to buy them from the Mongolians which meant that the Mongols could control the number of horses the Chinese had, their quality and the price as well as knowing that, being unable to successfully breed them, the Chinese would have to come back for more. It also meant that a small army of horseback cavalry could overwhelm a much larger foot-based Chinese force and so we got the Yuan Dynasty and Kublai Khan (above - who was grossly overweight and sent more than one knackered horse to an early retirement) who had the horses and so got the dynasty

In his excellent new book City of Heavenly Tranquillity: Beijing in the History of China, Jasper Becker makes the point that, ‘It was as if, during the twentieth century, one side always had a monopoly of tanks.

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