Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

"A Train that Runs Under Water" 水底行車

The opening of the Mersey Tunnel, a railway tunnel connecting Liverpool and Wirral is one of a number of events that found its way from Western news sources into the pages of newspapers like Shenbao, and then into visual representation in Dianshizhai huabao. Dianshizhai covered events like the Sino-French war early and often as a means of coming to terms with a shifting Sinosphere. Reportage on foreign feats of engineering was framed in the ambivalent language of China's semi-colonial encounter with the West, simultaneously marveling at and questioning the value of these achievements. Initial permission to build the railroad was secured in 1871, and various funding and engineering challenges significantly delayed its completion. The Dianshizhai commentary closes on an ambivalent note, questioning the significance of the achievement as an indicator of Britain's scientific and engineering prowess.

The text reads:

England has built a railway beneath the Mersey River for trains to pass through. This has already appeared in Western newspapers, and it has been reported in translation in Shenbao by this very press. All who learn of it gasp at the marvel. From beginning to end, this project took much time; and workers were many. The path is twenty six English feet wide, and twenty three feet tall. Though a train can pass through it in under four minute’s time as the road is not particularly long, to this date it has taken fifteen or sixteen years of work to complete, and the labor of over three thousand workers. Such a precipitous moving of heaven and earth is unprecedented. From conception to planning then groundbreaking and completion took undeniable innovation and determination; it was no easy task. Yet, if we take this to be the pinnacle of Westerner’s talents, there superiority may not be so certain.

Chinese text:

英國在沒爾河底凿成鐵路一條,行駛火車,已見之西國畫報, 即由該報譯登申報, 聞者莫不嘆為奇絕. 按此事自始以迄乎終, 有期也; 在工之人, 有數也. 路計英尺二丈六尺闊, 二丈三尺高. 以其開車經行不過四分鐘時計之, 此路當不甚長, 然為日則有十五六年之久, 做工則有三千人之多. 生吞活剝以闢天地間未有之奇, 由構思而創議而興作而成功, 則其堅忍不畏難之心確乎不可拔, 是為難能耳. 若以此事為極乎西人之靈敏而蓋其所長, 則恐未必然.

News of the Mersey Tunnel in its Chinese “localization” thus reveals an anxiety about the shifting position of the Sinosphere in a broadening geopolitical milieu. As with the Tianjin and Wusong Railroads when they appeared in Dianshizhai, the textual description of the Mersey Tunnel suggests the site on its own is not a significant transformation of geographic space—it is a node in a network, not the entire network. The title: “A Train that Runs Underwater,” and the dyptic: a cross section of boats confined to the surface of the river, and a cutaway of the tunnel seemingly split open to reveal the train penetrating the tunnel and moving into the foreground construct a sense of three-dimensional space: space could now be transcended horizontally and vertically. Geographer-cum-geologists like Ferdinand von Richtofen sought not only to map China's surface, but also to map its subterranean fossil fuel riches. Shellen Wu notes that “with the rise of geology in the nineteenth century, mapmaking extended from Earth's surface to the subterranean layers as geologists attempted to decipher the ground formations of regions around the world.” (50) The image suggests the dark subconscious of the train, of the subterranean caches of coal and iron that feed it.

As the article notes, a very similar report on the tunnel opening appeared in Shenbao on April 30, 1886. News pieces of this nature, and other items appearing in Dianshizhai continued to be reprinted—either textually, or in the form of the entire lithographic image—for decades after Dianshizhai ceased publication. The ambivalence of the text shifts here from highlighting the dangers of railroads to questioning the timeline and overall value of the project. This discourse echoed the notion of xixue dongyuan 西學東原 (the eastern origin of western knowledge), and the Yangwu 洋務 movement more broadly whose insistence on the superiority of Chinese civilization served as a balm for the adoption of western science.

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