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On railways and history and the railroading of history

The building of railways in China has had a tortured history. Early attempts were foiled by residents who feared the building of tracks would disturb grave sites and upset an area’s natural harmony.  Laborers who made their living driving cart mules or pulling barges naturally felt threatened by competition.  Despite the best efforts of reform-minded officials like Li Hongzhang, by the end of 1896 the vast expanse of the Qing Empire had only 370 miles of track compared to 2,300 miles in Japan, 21,000 miles in the UK, and 182,000 miles in the US.  Shady deals to finance the building of railways were part of a parcel of factors which led to the demise of the Qing, and even shadier deals with foreign banks (and the governments behind them) over who would control those railroads would continue to plague a succession of Chinese governments into the 20th century.

China has come a long way since then.  As of 2006, the PRC could boast of nearly 50,000 miles of track with plans to increase that number to 120,000  by 2010.  I recently rode the new Beijing-Tianjin high speed rail line and came away very impressed. In fact, getting from our house to Beijing’s new “South Station,” seemingly halfway to Hebei and currently not well connected to the public transportation network, took longer than the train ride itself.

But in an incident whose imagery suggests an irony not usually associated with the Ministry of Railways, the plans to expand one of the crown jewels of China’s progress, a gleaming symbol of the country’s transportation modernity, has apparently become stuck in the middle of China’s past.

From The Telegraph:

It was not so much a case of the wrong kind of leaves on the track as the wrong kind of pottery under it for the world’s newest high-speed train.

The builders of the railway, which will allow trains to travel at 236 miles a hour, discovered shards of pottery and bones in the Yuhuatai district of Nanjing last October, during an initial site survey.

A subsequent survey found a 250,000 sq ft area filled with “countless relics dating back to the Shang (16th to 11th century BC) and Zhou (11th to second century BC) dynasties.” Nanjing has been the capital of China on several occasions in the past.

Yang Qinghua, the vice-director of the Cultural Heritage Bureau, asked for the route of the train to be changed. But the Beijing-Shanghai Express Railway company, which is in charge of the project, refused, citing its “national importance”.

The city therefore instructed the company to pay five million yuan (£410,000) to excavate the site fully before beginning work.

“These precious cultural relics absolutely must be excavated before construction continues,” said Mr Yang. “The site contains eight levels of cultural relics dating back through Chinese history. You can’t just ignore them.”

As the reader might imagine, attempts to unstick the project didn’t end particularly well:

The company never replied and simply proceeded with the construction, destroying around 20,000 sq ft of the site in the process.

Municipal authorities have now halted the work and are likely to fine the building company up to 500,000 yuan for the damage. Mr Yang said the area had been “severely damaged”.

A spokesman at the Ministry of Railways said the mistake “should not have occurred”.

Rather than spend an hour working out the appropriate cliche regarding the complex relationship among progress, modernity, tradition, history, and the preservation of the past, I will instead finish preparing today’s lecture and encourage readers to put on their best Max Weber or Mary Wright hats and do some justice…

7 Comments on On railways and history and the railroading of history

  1. I have just been reading about the history of trains in China. The first rail line here connected Shanghai and Wusong. The foreign merchants in the concessions wanted it because they had to unload at Wusong since the Huangpu was getting too silted up for their ships to enter fully loaded.

    There was a lot of hemming and hawing before the British could even get it built, and after it operated for just one year, the Qing gov’t bought it back and demolished it. Li Hongzhang was a supporter of that one, too, but it was opposed by Lin Zexu’s son in law. The book is by 薛理勇,it’s full of gems like that.

    Keep up your blog, it’s wonderful.

  2. anonymous reader // September 4, 2008 at 10:43 pm //

    I like that you mentioned Li Hongzhang. He’s really such an interesting figure. I think he’d be worthy of an interesting biography in English, but then again would more than a hundred people buy it. Do you know of any interesting biographies in Chinese on him?

  3. The advantage – or inequality depending on perspective – from the British historical experience was that the railways could be laid down almost at will during the course of the mid-nineteenth century, not least because parliament, dominated by the landed interest, could bulldoze through its intentions.

    Here there was not much concern over heritage, which, I believe, is a relatively recent phenomenon, and in which context China could also be placed.

    I would be interested to know, though, how selective the Chinese heritage industry are about the kind of history or artifacts it deems worthy of protection and which are worth more – at least temporarily – than the economic benefits investments such as railways can bring.

  4. You’ve been so quiet– I hope all is well… on this topic of trains, I’m interested in reading the book out this year on the train to Tibet. I’m pretty sure it was in a blurb from that book, but I remember reading **somewhere** that the current government in China is composed of a relatively large number of engineers– is that true? When I went back to try and confirm this, for the life of me I couldn’t find any figures. I had never much thought of it before, but I wonder if most countries’ leadership is composed of businessmen and/or career politicians… it’s a subject I’d like to learn more about….

  5. If you mean Abrahm Lustgarten’s book on the Tibet railway — it’s not great, but it’s OK. Quick read, broad but superficial coverage, annoying typos. One of those padded “topical” books that would be better off as a magazine article.

    Of the current 9-member Politburo standing committee (2007-2012), 8 are engineers or geologists, and 1 is an economist who also has a law degree. Of these, three are graduates of Tsinghua, which is China’s equivalent of MIT. This is down from the last (2002-2007) PSC, where all 9 members were engineers.

    You can look up vital statistics for the Chinese leadership at — the school and department are listed under the Career section. Particularly interesting is the position of the legal non-Communist parties, which you hardly ever read about in the media. There are several in the Politburo, but none on the standing committee. When one of them makes it into the PSC, then that would indicate political loosening is on the way.

    Jeremiah, have you ever dug up Sun Yatsen’s planned railway map of China? That’d be a topical post.

  6. Scratch that last paragraph. Politburo is, after all, shorthand for the Political Bureau of the Communist Party. All members of the Politburo are therefore Communists by definition.

    I should have said the Central Committee of the National People’s Congress. That’s as high as a non-Communist is permitted in the government. In fact, they can go as high as to become one of the Vice-Chairs of the Central Committee, but the Chair is always a Communist.

  7. Thanks Tom. I think it’s interesting and I wonder if there is a correlation in any other country? I just assume the norm is business leader or career politician in most places. Also, thanks for the heads up on the book. It’s been sitting in my amazon basket for months

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