This page was created by Nathaniel Isaacson.  The last update was by David Ambaras.

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

Conclusion: Mediating Technology in the Late Qing and Beyond

Dianshizhai huabao helped to contextualize technological and social change through a visual and verbal repertoire familiar to its Chinese readership. The images appearing in the pictorial imagined trains and railroads foreign and domestic as examples of a Sinosphere in flux—a hybridized landscape transformed by the presence of western technologies and epistemologies. These images anticipate transformations in the landscape decades in the offing. In the moment of their publication, their visions of hybridized spaces speak more to global shifts than they do to a transformation of the local landscape. The railroad running through the landscape symbolizes an era of change in the Sinosphere from the imperial center of a pax sinica, to one state among many. They further speak to an altered social landscape, reflecting the uneven distribution of power in semi-colonial China and the class divisions between those who drove the trains, those who were aboard, and those who could merely witness it. These images also speak to the global circulation of print media whereby they were recirculated and localized for presentation to a Chinese audience.

These images long outlived their initial role as supplements to Shenbao and their initial print run. The pictorial was available separately (Reed, “Re/collecting” 11-12). Take, for example this page from the Tianjin shangbao huakan, appearing in 1935. The page features reprints of two images from Dianshizhai, but interestingly it attributes the image analyzed in this module's section on “China's first railroads” to the Feiyingge huabao 飛影閣畫報, a pictorial started by Wu Youru upon leaving Dianshizhaiin 1890.

There are important contrasts between the late Qing and the ensuing development of railroads in China, and it is important not to see the moments chronicled in Dianshizhai as the beginning of a historical teleology. As in the late Qing, railways during the Republican period were often isolated, single lines, subject to local administrative idiosyncracies, not yet constituting a national rail system. However, trains and the rail system would go on to become a prominent symbol of China's national, collective commitment to modernization. The woodcut image below appeared in October of 1958, during China's Great Leap Forward—a failed attempt to jump-start national industrialization and reorganize society through the construction of people's communes that led to millions of deaths. The image, depicts three workers clad in thick jackets and gloves with welding goggles pulled up onto their foreheads inserting a long rod into a steel furnace. The caption reading “no difference between day and night on the steel [production] front,” repeats a Maoist slogan celebrating the tireless work of the proletariat. The article immediately to the right of the image encourages advances in the speed of the postal service, and the article tucked in next to that covers advances in metallurgy.

Moving rapidly onward to the twenty-first century, China now features the most extensive, and most intensively used high-speed rail system in the world. The development of the rail system is a prominent component in propaganda posters promoting Xi Jinping's “China Dream,” of national revitalization and China's emergence as a contemporary world power. The train protruding into the foreground with Shanghai's Oriental Pearl Tower silhouetted in the background is the most prominent contemporary, technologically advanced symbol among a number of other symbols of Chinese power. These include imperial monuments and statuary like the huabiao 華表 column near the center of the left-hand side of the poster and the imperial gate at Tian'anmen square—a symbol of imperial power now repurposed in memory of Mao Zedong and the PRC as a modern nation-state. Also alongside the train sit symbols of modern political power like the starred ceiling of the Great Hall of the People, the hammer and sickle representing communism as a global force, the five stars of the PRC Flag, and the PRC flag waving above them.

The One Belt, One Road project, promises investments in land and sea shipping infrastructure in 65 countries connecting the People's Republic of China to Africa and Europe by rail. Coined in the late 19th century by Ferdinand von Richtofen, the notion of a “silk road” was itself an imaginative geography, giving conceptual cohesion to a disparate set of way-stations used by individual travelling merchants as a means of buttressing the network and territorial rationality of a railway from Europe to China for shipping coal. Its 21st-century counterpart re-works these territorial imaginations in order to construct China as a historically contiguous political entity with an even stronger role at the center of a pax Sinica. As you can see in this image, which features the words “New Silk Road” looming over rolling mountains and desert dunes, the train is imagined as a replacement for the Orientalist image of camel caravans, recapitulating the railroad as a network of imperial cohesion.

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