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…