THE exports of vegetable oil and of other products of seeds and nuts did not become substantial until the early years of the twentieth century, although the origins of the trade can be traced back for many decades. The products fell into two main groups, first, edible oils such as bean, groundnut, cotton-seed and sesamum oils, together with their byproducts, and, second, wood oil used in the manufacture of paint and varnish. In the world as a whole fats were becoming scarce at the beginning of the present century because of the fall in the supplies of whale oil and the rise in consumption in Europe and America. The foreign merchants in China, who constituted the link between the resources of that country and the demands of the outside world, were able to tap those resources and eventually to build up a large business. The decline in the older staple exports, tea and silk, was thus partly offset by the expansion of this new trade.
The development of vegetable oil exports did not depend solely upon the commercial contacts with the West, nor even upon the capacity of Western firms to introduce modern methods of expressing the oil. It required the simultaneous infusion of new techniques into several different branches of China's economy, especially into transport. Thus, new methods of storage and carriage by sea had to be introduced, and scientific methods ensuring the purity of the product (e.g. examination by spectroscope) had to be adapted to this purpose. Some of the chief sources of the supply of the materials, moreover, were made accessible only by the activities of Western shipping in Chinese waters and by the construction of railways in China itself. Indeed, in some branches of the trade, the original function performed by the Westerners was the provision of efficient transport for oil and oil products between different parts of the country. Foreign enterprise thus started by helping to expand an internal trade, and then, when overseas market conditions became favourable, it was well placed for taking advantage of them. The foreigners were confronted with many of the problems that they met with in other branches of Chinese trade. As with other products in a period of growing demand, adulteration was common and the difficulty