''Coal mining is dirty, it's tiring, it's dangerous,'' said burly Yin Wuzhi. ''But thanks to mechanization and better wage and welfare policies, our work conditions are much better than when I first went down into the mines 30 years ago. No one on my team has trouble finding a wife any more.''
Mr. Yin leads 20 men working at the coal face, traditionally the most difficult, dangerous, and exhausting job in mining. He started out with shovel and pick, in a small mine near here. Today he works at Guandi mine, which will produce 3.6 million tons of coal this year.
The seams are generally thick, the gradient nearly level. Mechanical coal cutters work back and forth across the seam day and night. Mr. Yin needs only eight to nine men per shift - a third of the work force at each coal face in the early days of the mine.
Guandi, which sits in a narrow, dusty valley about 12 miles from the center of Taiyuan City, is one of China's most productive mines, said director Li Meitong. The coal is just 150 to 200 yards below the surface, in six layers. The thickest seams are 141/2 feet thick, the thinnest one, 21/2 feet. The mine requires just one entrance sloping down toward the coal layers. We walked toward the mine entrance across a jumble of railroad tracks to see the flickering headlamps of miners coming off the afternoon shift.
Mechanization, Mr. Li said, has reduced the fatality rate from accidents to about 1.4 persons per million tons mined, whereas it was four to five persons per million tons before. The mine was opened in 1960 and began mechanizing in stages during the 1970s.
''Cutting is almost fully mechanized now, but transport is still a problem,'' Mr. Li said.
Mr. Li and his chief engineer, Zhu Qiyun, represent the new type of mine leader the Ministry of Coal is trying to encourage. Both are still in their 40s. Both are trained engineers with degrees from technological institutes. Coal mining, one of China's key industries, is still very much under centralized planning and control. But under Peking's economic reform policies, Mr. Li has more freedom than his predecessors to spend money on bonuses or to invest in new machinery.
''The price of coal is set by the state,'' Mr. Li said. ''Our customers are also allocated to us by the state. We cannot sell to whomever we want. Therefore , the only way I can make this mine more efficient is to cut production costs by reducing waste and increasing mechanization. Today we have 9,000 workers and staff here, and productivity is 1.9 tons per person per shift. My goal is to get production up to 4 million tons while reducing the work force to 4,000.''
Shanxi Province, of which Taiyuan is the capital, accounts for nearly one-quarter of China's coal production. Last year China produced 666 million metric tons of coal, of which Shanxi produced 144 million. Shanxi's potential is huge, holding one-third of China's coal reserves.
Coal, much more than oil, is China's principal fossil fuel, and the national goal is to reach 1.2 billion tons annual production by the year 2000. Infrastructure problems are daunting, however. The current five-year plan gives highest priority to railway and port projects designed to improve coal handling and transport.