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

Aestheticizing Smoke and Motion

This segment of the module draws together all of the images from the module to examine them in terms of their visual repertoire and their place in a global circulation of mass produced, visual culture. I explore how smoke became a visual signal for the presence of the steam engine, and a shorthand for the motion of the train; how news circulated globally and real science could gradually morph into science fiction; how the language of Dianshizhai huabao's commentaries on trains contrasts with the language of scientific treatises like John Fryer's missionary publication Gezhi huibian 格致彙編 (The Chinese scientific magazine) and how late Qing anxieties about trains as a threat fit in with a broader discourse of trains as a danger to mental and physical health.

One technique that artists like Wu Youru employed to make steam technology visually salient was the inclusion of smoke emerging from their smokestacks. Notice how in every image of a train appearing in this module, billowing clouds of smoke trailing behind the locomotives produce a sense of motion through space. In “Visualizing the Anthropocene” (2014), Nicholas Mirzoeff argues that “the aesthetics of the Anthropocene emerged as an unintended supplement to imperial aesthetics—it comes to seem natural, right, then beautiful—and thereby anaesthetized the perception of modern industrial pollution.” While late 19th century China was almost certainly not so polluted as to alter the quality of light in major cities, I would argue that Mirzoeff’s first two conditions apply—almost every image of a technological marvel appearing in the pictorial features plumes of coal smoke, and these technologies dominate the visual frame.

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